Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Why Did Miriam Die?

While doing shnaim mikrah v'echad targum this week, a question popped into my mind that I hadn't thought of before.

In this week's parsha of Chukas, we have the infamous incident of Moshe becoming angry and striking the rock instead of speaking to it as instructed by HaShem. For this action (or perhaps his anger) he and Aharon are denied the privilege of entering Eretz Canaan.

However, earlier in the parsha, Miriam dies for some unexplained reason. Rashi's first comment there is about the juxtaposition of her death to the Para Aduma - which is a hotly debated subject in its own right. The second, which other commentators echo, is related to the fact that she her actual death was due to receiving a kiss from HaShem. After checking the Mikraos Gedolos Hame'or, it seems that no mainstream commentator writes anything about this enigma.

Miriam, being female, should have been allowed to enter the land just like all the other women who weren't participants in the mass hysteria caused by listening to the spies' negative report.

So why did she die now, before she was able to enter Canaan?

My first theory is that since she was the oldest sibling, perhaps it was just her time - her death took place at the start of the 40th year of traveling in the desert after all.

Or, in an interesting twist - she died because Moshe and Aharon were going to die and not enter the land. There is some textual evidence, as well as further remarks in Shas/Midrashim that indicate she was a leader among the women akin to Moshe and Aharon's roles as leaders. If they weren't going to enter the land, it probably wouldn't be fair to Yehoshua to have a previous generation leader still around, perhaps #3 on the overall totem pole in terms of greatness and prophecy. She also probably didn't have the character type like Devorah did later on in Shoftim, who actively judged, led, and went into battle. The job of Moshe's successor was going to be a hectic and demanding one, and it may not have fit her personal strengths.

This second idea, unlike the first doesn't explain why she died BEFORE Moshe hit the rock and he and Aharon received their punishment.

I'm somewhat surprised that I've never heard anyone talk about this before in a shiur or dvar Torah. If the meforshim don't mention it, there must be something pretty simple that I'm missing...

Has anyone heard/learnt anything about Miriam's death?

UPDATE: 10:55 PM - after a bit of Googling, I found that Rav Zev Leff was asked this question. In short, he quotes a Zohar (which is further elaborated in the Netziv) that says since this was a transitional period for Bnei Yisrael, they had to stop relying on open miracles - here, her rock-well that provided water - and instead learn how to live a more "natural" existence of hidden miracles, which would include praying to HaShem for rain. Rav Leff further explains that Miriam died without the miracles that accompanied Moshe and Aharon's deaths (but didn't she get the kiss from HaShem?), which allowed her to become a bridge of sorts between these two periods. The people, by not eulogizing her, failed to get this point. Additionally, the Netziv adds that "speaking" to the rock instead of hitting it as before represented a process more akin to what they would do in Eretz Yisrael, as previously mentioned, by davening to receive rain.

With all due respect, while interesting, I find this explanation a bit unsatisfying. As I've learned more in Yeshiva in Israel and at YU (particularly in Rabbi Hayyim Angel's shiur), I want to find some sort of pshat based in the psukim to help clarify what was going on with Miriam's death... So please leave a comment if you've heard anything on this subject.

1 comment:

  1. I subsequently asked my shul Rabbi this question and received 2 answers.

    1) It indeed was Miriam's time to die. She was over 120 years old, and we see from Moshe that living so long was the exception rather than the rule.

    2) Bnei Yisrael didn't deserve to have her around anymore and failed to appreciate what they had when she was alive. This is evident from the fact that they did not take the time to eulogize and mourn for her as they did for Aharon and Moshe. Their lack of appreciation led them to lose the benefit of having Miriam and her prophetic/leadership skills available to help them when they needed her.

    I thought this was a very interesting and compelling answer.


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