Death And Rebuke For The Greatest Generation
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Shabbat Chukat

Death And Rebuke For The Greatest Generation

Freema Gottlieb is the author of “Lamp of God: A Jewish Book of Light.”

There has never been a generation like that of Moses, Miriam and Aaron, says the Zohar. Their combined presence, awesome as it was for the “wilderness generation,” made the idea of their deaths that much more traumatic. The depth of this loss is foreshadowed in Chukat, which begins with the mysterious ritual of the Red Heifer.

The Zohar explains that this rite, while providing a means of purification from contact with the dead, demonstrates the eternal principle that for the community to receive atonement the most precious souls must pay the price.

Of the three siblings, Miriam was the first to go. The Zohar connects her death to the Red Heifer: “Just as judgment was executed on this cow to purify the unclean, so was judgment passed on Miriam for the purification of the world.” Both Miriam and the heifer are held blameless, it is a judgment on the world in general. However, the link established between Miriam and the Red Heifer paves the way for her brothers’ deaths.

After Miriam dies, and the well that supplied Israel with water in her merit dries up, the people turn on her brothers. But instead of calling the Israelites to account and supporting Moses, as in the past, God does something unexpected: He appears to switch sides. A Midrash portrays Him rebuking the brothers: “My children are dying of thirst while you sit and mourn” for Miriam.

When Moses hits the rock with his staff instead of appealing to its better nature (from the people’s point of view), the result remains the same. Water gushes forth. The Israelites need no invitation to fall upon it and slake their thirst. But no time is given to Moses and Aaron to defend themselves before receiving their sentence. Both will die; they will not be the ones to lead the nation into the Promised Land.

When those who have always interceded for us are themselves called to account, we must ask: What does it mean that two of the greatest souls (Moses and Aaron) did not have enough faith? And if they failed, who can hope not to?

Moses no longer seems so remote, no longer a transcendental figure but as mortal and human as we are. However, where vision is reality, there can be no question of Moses’ faith in God.

If we look closely at the Hebrew with Ramban, we find that there has been a misreading: God says, “Because you have not made Me believable.” Who lacked faith here? The Jewish people, not their aging leaders. As individuals, the brothers never faltered in their belief in God, but their faith did not carry over to the people. What is the most important mission for leaders? To communicate their vision to their followers. Moses and Miriam were able to do this at the Red Sea, when all the people saw miracles and believed in God and His prophet. After Miriam’s death, however, Moses and Aaron found it difficult to maintain her enthusiasm.

“Because you did not believe in Me enough to sanctify Me in front of the Children of Israel” translates into “because you did not inspire them to believe in me.” For a leader, this means failure.

A Midrash asks why Moses and Miriam were able to lead Israel in song after the Red Sea whereas near the end of this week’s Torah reading, all of Israel spontaneously breaks out in song (“Rise up, O well!”), although there is no mention of their leaders joining in. The answer given is that Moses, fresh from his lapse over the water, had been shamed into silence.

But was it a lapse? How does Moses’ failure to communicate faith play out in this song? Miriam’s well of faith had never left them. According to Midrash, the well just went underground, where it swelled and destroyed future armies that attacked, just as at the Red Sea.

Meanwhile, at the Red Sea, as Israel passed over the dry land, they never quite knew what was going on. When they saw the water rising with the enemy’s body parts, they realized that whether the miracles were hidden or revealed they were under God’s protection all the time. But their song was necessary to bring this truth out. In every generation, Israel has it within themselves to accomplish this. The spring would not flow until the nation spoke the words of this song, but in reality it was always at our disposal. It was this level of faith that the forebears of the Jewish people yearned for when they originally staked out this water source.

So, Moses had succeeded in communicating his faith to the people, after all. Then they were able to hold the tune independently.

Moses had to die, but as Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi tells us, not before the gap would close between the people and their teacher. A piece of Moses is interiorized and his presence felt in the soul of every Jew. Over time, our relationship to our beloved teacher only grows closer. n   

Freema Gottlieb is a writer and lecturer living in New York City. Her book “Lamp of God: A Jewish Book of Light” has recently been released in an Amazon Kindle edition.

Candlelighting, Readings:

Shabbat Candles: 8:12 p.m.

Torah: Numbers 19:1-22:1

Haftarah: Judges 11:1-33

Havdalah: 9:13 p.m.

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