“The Israelites arrived as an entire community at the wilderness of Zin on the first new moon, and the people stayed at Kadesh. Miriam died there and was buried there.”
“When Moses and Eleazar came down from the mountain, the whole community knew that Aaron had breathed his last. All the house of Israel bewailed Aaron thirty days.”
Moses, Aaron and Miriam form a three-legged stool of leadership of the Jewish people. The Talmud recognises the extraordinary nature of this family: “Three great leaders stood before Israel: Moses, Aaron and Miriam; and three gifts were conferred upon them: the well, the pillar of glory and the manna” (TB Ta’anit 9a). The well is the miraculous reservoir which the Talmudic sages believed accompanied the Israelites in the desert. The pillar of cloud symbolises God’s presence, and the manna is the food which appears in the barren desert each morning. Yet manna, water and shade are necessary but not sufficient; the Israelites also need the unique leadership capabilities which God assigned to Moses, Aaron and Miriam.
With the deaths of Aaron and Miriam in Parashat Hukkat it is appropriate to recall their legacies. Through Aaron’s priesthood the Israelites experience the daily manifestation of God’s presence. Whilst the priesthood was Aaron’s vocation the Jewish tradition also knows him as a peacemaker. Tradition recalls that Aaron would wander through the Israelite camp, quietly bringing warring neighbours together and encouraging unhappy couples towards forgiveness.
Miriam is the third leg of this formidable partnership. As one of the seven prophetesses of the Tanach, Miriam is deeply sensitive to God’s will. She predicts that her mother Yocheved will give birth to Moses, who will be the Israelites’ guide out of Egyptian slavery. The Sages portray Miriam as a heroine who protects the Israelites from genocide. When Pharaoh decrees that Israelite boys should be killed, Amram rules that couples abstain from marital relations. Miriam persuades her father against this ruling, ensuring that Israelite families will carry on. We read in the Song of the Sea that Moses leads the Israelite men in a song of thanksgiving, and simultaneously Miriam leads the women in a ritual of gratitude in dance and song.
Each of the siblings brings their own strengths to the union. Moses as legislator provides a hierarchical model of leadership, literally descending to the Israelites with God’s message and up again with the Israelites’ response. Aaron is a model of paternalistic leadership, caring for each individual and trying to create a harmonious, unified community. Whilst Moses and Aaron serve in formally defined leadership roles, Miriam exhibits outsider leadership. When Miriam persuades Amram against divorcing his wife and later acts insolently towards Pharaoh, she speaks truth to the power of her father and to the absolute ruler of the land. For the Israelites, Miriam is also a source of vitality; she expresses tenderness towards the people and provides them with sustenance. Upon her death, the people recognise Miriam’s leadership and honour her legacy by refusing to leave their encampment, thus establishing the tradition of mourning for seven days.
Each of the siblings displays a different leadership model, with each one exhibiting the exact strength at the right time needed for the life of the Israelite people. Their legacy attests to the worthiness of diversity of leadership within groups. The Sages so valued them that they teach that Aaron and Miriam did not die on account of sin; rather, they deserved the death of the righteous, neshikat shamayim, the kiss of God.
Rabbi Daniella Kolodny is the rabbinic consultant at Masorti Judaism.