Parashat Chukkat tells us of the passings of Miriam and Aaron. Miriam, the sister of Moses, was a great prophetess and leader in her own right. It was due to her greatness that miraculously, the Jews were given a well of water that traveled along with them during their days in the desert. When she died, the well disappeared, and the Jews began to fully appreciate Miriam’s presence.
The Israelites were naturally very despondent when they did not have water. God instructed Moses to speak patiently to a rock, to draw out the water. Instead, he strikes it. Consequently, Moses is informed by God that he will never enter the Promised Land, as punishment for disobeying instructions.
The loss of Aaron was also deeply mourned by the people. The Torah makes a point of telling us that when Aaron died, the entire community wept for 30 days. This was because he considered it his personal mission to settle all quarrels within the congregation, and promote peace among all. He went out of his way to see that husbands and wives were reunited after they had a quarrel. When he heard that two people were involved in a misunderstanding, he would go to one of them and tell him that he had recently met his friend and had heard him say, “The quarrel was my fault, and I bitterly regret it.” Then, he would go to the second person, and tell him the same fabricated story. When the two met again, they would hug each other, and be friends once more. Thus, the entire nation wept when Aaron died, for they remembered the compassion and boundless love he had had for them.
So, what relevance does this have for us today? When we are blessed with the presence of a great personality, we should take advantage of it, not take it for granted while they are alive, and only appreciate them after his death. Unfortunately, the latter is all too often the case.
There is a famous Midrash known as the Two Ships.
Two ships were once seen near land. One of them was leaving the harbor, and the other was coming into it. Everyone was cheering the outgoing ship, giving it a hearty send-off. But the incoming ship was scarcely noticed.
A wise man standing nearby explained the people’s reaction. “Rejoice not”, he said, “over the ship that is setting out to sea, for you know not what destiny await it, what storms it may encounter, what dangers lurk before it. Rejoice rather over the ship that has reached port safely and brought back all its passengers in peace.”
It is the way of the world, that when a human being is born, all rejoice; but when one dies, all grieve. No one can tell what troubles await the developing child on its journey through life. But when a person has lived well and dies in peace, all should breathe with some sense of relief, for they have completed their journey successfully and departing from this world with the imperishable crown of a good name.
In the wake of a good person’s death, we are usually moved to re-examine our own lives.
Let’s think about Miriam. She was a loving sister. She was the one who followed her brother, Moses down the Nile River to make sure he’d be safe. She was brave, taking up her tambourine and leading the women across the sea. She also stood up for what she believed in, challenging Moses’s leadership of the people.
The community refused to move on without her when she was stricken with leprosy and welcomed her back into the camp.
When Miriam died, the well ceased to exist and all felt her loss. The well made her death known. When Aaron died, and the clouds of glory departed, all felt his loss. When Moses died, all felt it, for the manna made his death known by ceasing to fall
“Similarly, when a person dies all should rejoice and offer thanks that he departed from the world with a good name and in peace. Solomon taught in the Book of Ecclesiastes: A good name is better than precious ointment; and the day of death than the day of one’s birth.”
It’s natural, as human beings, to want to celebrate births and birthdays a lot more than we want to mourn a loss. But as Jews, we know that King Solomon was right. And when we remember somebody on the anniversary of death, it’s not really to mark what we have lost, but how much we gained by having them in our lives.
Unlike her brothers, Miriam had no successor to her position in the community. Moses passed his leadership onto Joshua; Aaron left to his sons the hereditary priesthood. Maybe what we learn from Miriam’s passing is that we're all expected to be her successors...and, hopefully find the strength to show some of the same compassion, courage and love that Miriam did.