Daniel J.H. Greenwood

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Parashat Hukat (Numbers 19) II:
The Death of Miriam and The Sin of Moses.

Miriam dies at Kadesh, today the largest oasis in Sinai, and is buried there. The text tells us no more. The midrash adds that with her death the well that had been following the people through the desert dried up. We are going to hear more about that well; remember it and its association with Miriam, for it hints at a deeper secret of the text, a secret suppression of a different Miriam with a different relationship to Moses, different than the one we have received.

The remainder of the parasha describes another in a long series of incidents where the people complain to Moses that they have no food or no water -- remember, Miriam's well dried up on her death -- Moses relays the complaint to God, and God, with varying degrees of anger, supplies food and drink. This is at least the fourth time of at least five (I didn't do an exhaustive search) times where some variant of this basic story appears.

The astonishing thing about this version, however, is that God supplies the requested water but then turns around and punishes Moses and Aaron -- not the people -- saying

Because you did not believe in me, to sanctify me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this congregation in to the land which I have given them.

That is -- Moses and Aaron are condemned to die in the desert because of their behavior at Meriva.

But what did they do that was so terrible? This is another great mystery, more difficult, in some sense, than understanding the "double, double toil and trouble, Fire burn and cauldron bubble" of the Red Heifer.

Read the story:

And there was no water for the congregation. And they gathered themselves together against Moshe and against Aaron. And the people quarrelled with Moshe, and spoke, saying: "Would that we had died when our brethren died before Adoshem! Why have you brought up the congregation of Adoshem into this wilderness? So that we and our cattle should die there? Why have you made us come up out of Mitzrayim to bring us to this evil place, not a place of seed, or of figs, or of vines, or of pomegranates; and there is no water to drink.(Numbers 20:2-14)

Notice the people's complaint -- it's quite different from the complaint at Tavera, a few chapters earlier. At Tavera, they complained:

Who will give us meat to eat? We remember the fish that we ate in Mizrayim freely, the cucumbers, and the melons and the leeks and the onions and the garlic

-- even then the Jews knew the really good foods: smoked fish with onions, garlic bagels, a nice pickle... --

but now our soul is dried away: there is nothing but this manna before our eyes. (Numbers 11:4)

Now that was a complaint you can imagine causing some distress on High: Here God had led the Jews out of slavery into freedom, even provided them with food -- really for free, manna from the sky, that tasted like coriander seed and looked like bdellium, whatever that is. Nehama Leibowitz says that the description is meant to show that the manna was pleasing both to the taste and the eyes; the midrash goes further, saying that the manna tasted to each Israelite like his or her favorite food. And still they are complaining. And not only complaining about the food, but even boasting about the size of the portions they had as slaves, when they ate the fish 'freely' (not a very good restaurant; they made you build pyramids before you could eat, but oh, the portions were so generous).

Of course, you might complain too if you had to eat coriander seed three meals a day (or even your single favorite food) and never got a decent bit of lox with onion. So I wouldn't push the theory of the Jews' ungratefulness too far. The freedom to eat coriander seed 24 meals a week is not exactly what they were promised when they left Egypt; God's displeasure at their request for a little variety does remind one a bit of the orphanage master's reaction to Oliver Twist:

Child as he was, he was desperate with hunger, and reckless with misery. He rose from the table; and advancing to the master, basin and spoon in hand, said, somewhat alarmed at his own temerity:

"Please sir, I want some more." The master was a fat, healthy man; but he turned very pale. He gazed in stupefied astonishment on the small rebel for some seconds and then clung for support to the copper. The assistants were paralysed with wonder; the boys with fear.

"What!" said the master at length, in a faint voice.

"Please, sir," replied Oliver, "I want some more."

The master aimed a blow at Oliver's head with the ladle; pinioned him in his arms; and shrieked aloud for the beadle. (Chapter II, end)

God, of course, doesn't bother with ladles. At Tavera, he gives the people the seconds on quail they ask for:

Not one day will you eat, nor two days, nor five days, nor ten days, nor twenty days; but a whole month, until it comes out at your nostrils, and is loathsome to you. (Numbers 11:19)

Then he sends a great plague to kill them while the meat is still in their mouths.

But our parasha is different. At Tavera (which means lusting), they demanded more when they had some, asked for the luxuries of Egypt -- onions, leeks and garlic, smoked fish and cream cheese, remembering and celebrating the foods of peasants and the poor -- when they were rolling in manna, demanded the meat of the decadent rich when they had plenty of the bread of the upright and free. They rejected the stringencies of the desert, the difficult virtues of freedom in favor of the complacency of slavery: at least under Pharaoh, there was no unemployment.

(Just as an aside, note the confusion of wealth and freedom, poverty and slavery-- not an uncommon idea either in the Bible or among the contemporary Greeks. Contrary to the suggestion of the people, our text is quite clear than free men are neither rich nor slaves. Indeed, the rich, who depend on slaves for their wealth, are in many ways closer to their slaves than to the manna eating freeman. Perhaps this is why the Israelites travelled

stripped of their finery from Mt. Horeb on. (Ex. 33:6))

Now though, at Kadesh (meaning holy, sanctified), at the well of Merivah (not lusting, but struggle, or quarrel), after the death of Miriam, things are quite different.

Miriam's well has dried up with her death; there is no water. They need not luxuries but necessities. After all, Torah may be life, but Torat Hayim He: "it is a Torah of life." Without bread, or water, we die. The people's demand at Merivah is reasonable; their struggle is just; the quarrel they are picking with God is fair. They were promised a land of milk and honey; instead, they are dying of thirst in the desert. This time, their souls really are, as they had claimed at Tavera, "dried away". They are not bored, as they were at Tavera, but parched.

And note: they again complain about the food, but now it is not the food of Egypt they are missing. No more leeks and onions, cucumbers and garlics, bagels and smoked fish. Instead, this "evil place" is

not a place of seed, or of figs, or of vines, or of pomegranates.

Those are the fruits of the Land of Israel, not of Egypt.

They are complaining not that they were freed from Egypt, but that they haven't been brought to Israel. They are not rejecting God's proposal or Moses' leadership, as perhaps they did at Tavera, but demanding that they keep their promise -- it was the Land of Israel they were promised, not Kadesh in upper Sinai.

What is Moses' reaction to this perfectly reasonable complaint? Here too, we need to start with his earlier reactions.

At Mara, Exodus 15:20, three days after the crossing of the Red Sea and Miriam's song of victory, the people had demanded water because the well was bitter (mar). Moses cried out to the Lord on their behalf, and was told to throw a piece of wood into the water to make it sweet.

At Tzin, on the fifteenth day of the second month, they complained that they were starving, and without Moses saying anything (so far as is reported), Adoshem told Moses that he would give them bread (manna) and meat (quail). Moses, reporting this to the people, made sure to add that he -- Moses -- took no responsibility for providing them food; that, he says is the Lord's part.

Your grumbling is not against us, but against the Lord (Ex. 16:8)

Next they went to Rephidim or Masseh and Merivah, where, again, their Guide omitted to provide any water to drink. Moses's reaction is typical: he first denies any personal responsibility:

Why do you try the Lord (Ex. 17:2);

and then complains to God:

What shall I do with this people? Before long they will stone me! (Ex. 17:4)

-- not representing them in their suffering but merely whining on his own behalf. In Moses' account to God, the issue is Moses's authority, not the people's thirst. This, however, is no sin, on either Moses' part or the people's. God simply tells him to take his staff -- the one he has used for several miracles already -- and hit a certain rock in the sight of the elders. He does and everyone drinks.

At Sinai, as you remember, Aaron helped them build the Golden Calf, and was not punished for it; Moses, though angry, did plead for the people and convince God not to destroy all of them, killing only the guilty instead (Ex. 32:11-35).

Three days distance from the mountain of the Lord was Tavera, which we described before. The people complained about the garlic and lox they missed, and Moses "was very distressed". As at Masseh and Merivah, Moses pleads with God only on his own behalf, not for the people.

Why do You -- he said to God -- make it so bad for me, your servant ... ? Did I carry this whole people in my womb? Did I give birth to it? That you should say to me, Carry it in your breast as a nurse carries an infant ...

and so on. The responsibility is not his, it is God's. We know already that Moses denies that he has led anyone anywhere; he was just following orders.

Still, it is a strange speech. Why does Moses compare himself to a mother? Perhaps because a comparison to a father might have suggested a different response to his rhetorical question: no, you didn't give birth to them, but you did make this people in some meaningful sense. You planted the seeds of discontent, and if God bore the burden of the pregnancy, still you were part of the process.

Or perhaps because the speech, in some earlier version, wasn't his: that is the hint to Miriam in an earlier version I suggested. Maybe in some earlier stage of the development of the tradition, Miriam -- who the midrash credits with solving this continuing water problem -- had a larger role in the story than we now see. In our text Miriam sings the Song of Victory at the Red Sea, is punished for an unspecified criticism of Moses at Tavera, is credited with the well that saves the people, and her death triggers the problems at Merivah. Perhaps Miriam's punishment at Tavera is parallel to her brothers' punishment after her death: first she, then they, need to be established as human beings, not the mother of the people or a god but just a leader like others, human, failable and especially mortal.


When God answers that He will provide food for all, Moses (who, after all has already seen the first miracle of the quails) explicitly doubts his ability to do so:

The people number 600,000 men and yet You say "I will give them enough meat to eat for a whole month?!"

Truly lese majesty here, and under the old rule even worse because it appears to be true: as far as we are told, God never does fulfill this promise, unless killing the people can be understood as a way of feeding them all the meat they will ever need.


Back then to our Parasha. What does Moses do that is so different from the other times that it warrants denying him entrance into the Land of Israel, forcing him to die in the desert without ever reaching freedom?

First of all, he doesn't complain about the people bothering him. At Kadesh/Merivah -- unlike Taverah, unlike Rephidim/Masseh and Merivah, unlike Mara -- Moses doesn't cry out to the Lord. He and Aaron simply fall on their faces near the entrance to the Tent of Meeting.

But he hasn't stood up for the people when they were right in the past -- for instance, when there was no water at Rephidim/Massah v' Merivah -- so it seems unlikely that his sin is failure to fulfill his role as the people's representative before God. And he didn't say anything at Tzin in the quail incident either, so it seems unlikely that his failure to whine about his loss of authority is the problem.

Second, although the text says he is punished for "not trusting" in God, mere doubt surely is not the problem. After all, at Taverah Moses explicitly stated that he didn't think God had it in Him to provide "all the fishes in the sea" to feed 600,000 people meat for a month until it ran out of their nostrils.

Similarly, talking back to God -- complaining when God is doing wrong -- is no sin. The people do it here, and we are told that the place is named the Waters of Merivah (meaning struggle or conflict) because the people quarreled with God and He was sanctified in them or by means of them. Standing up to God when it is right to do so, as Abraham did at Sodom, as Jacob did wrestling the Angel, as Moses did after the Golden Calf is a meritorious act, not a sinful one.

What's left? One traditional answer is that he didn't follow orders: while at Mara he had been told to throw a stick in the water, and at Rephidim/Masah v'Merivah he was told to hit the rock with his staff, here he was told to bring his staff, but nothing was said about hitting the rock. Instead, and in the presence of all the people, he hit it -- and worse yet, he hit it twice.

Surely an understandable mistake -- after all, he had been using his staff for miracles for years already, including in situations just like this. So why was it so terrible? Some authorities say, because of the importance of the lesson God meant to teach -- that God, not magic rods, makes the miracle. He was supposed to bring the rod and not use it, so that the whole people would see that no magic was involved.

The Parasha started with the supreme magic of the Red Heifer and its cooties removal program -- it ends denouncing magic and affirming that only God's direct intervention matters.

But I find this still somewhat unsatisfying. After all, if the problem was just that Moses screwed up the miracle, making it less dramatic than it might have been, why not arrange another more dramatic miracle? And anyway, isn't it clear by now -- after the plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, the various water, manna and meat miracles, and the giving of the Law, the presence of the cloud leading the camp, the great plagues and Korah being swallowed alive -- that miracles don't convince anyone who isn't already convinced? If hitting the rock doesn't convince you that God is involved, why would speaking to it?

I'd like to end by suggesting a different possibility: his sin -- this sin worse than not defending the people, worse than bad-mouthing them, worse than not having faith in God's powers, worse than leading the people to an evil place, worse than complaining about the job God had given him -- was not listening to the silence. Moses sinned by not hearing the still small voice in the wilderness. (I Kings 19:11-12)

Moses sinned by overgeneralizing -- by assuming without thought that orders he was given once applied to all time. He assumed that because he was supposed to hit the rock at Rephidim/Masah v'Merivah, he should hit it at Kadesh/Merivah too.

The lesson is, then, when God says to do X in circumstance Y, we are never entitled to assume that he means do X all the time. And especially when X is the sort of thing we are usually barred from doing, like the magic of the staff -- or the Parah Aduma.

Thus, when God told Moses to kill Amalek, or Joshua to massacre the Canaanites, those were not meant as precedents for today -- massacres in Hebron are, like hitting the rock at Kadesh, unauthorized exceptions to explicit prohibitions. Or, to take another example which has caused much controversy lately, when He said it was an abomination for a man to lie with a man in the manner of lyings with women, we are not entitled to conclude that it is an abomination, for example, for a man to lie with a man in the manner of lyings with men.

The sin of Moses is the sin of false interpretation, of using the exceptions to God's general rules -- no magic, no killings, no intolerance -- as precedents for additional and unauthorized exceptions.

We, who live in exile, unclean, barred from approaching the Temple do not hear the voice of God directly, not even the kol dmama daka, the still small voice.

So, unlike Moses, we must constantly think about the effects of our actions on others, avoiding -- even when we think we are doing God's work -- magic, killing, injury to others, even in circumstances which might look like the ones where God once authorized exceptions to the general principles of decency.

After all, when God acts indecently, we are here to protest -- but when we do wrong, who will complain?