Chukat: Miriam, a Prophet of Deeds

on Friday, 29 June 2012. Posted in Rabbi Marshall's Sermons

Parshat Chukat

In this week’s parsha, one of our beloved prophets dies, who is it?

While Miriam is featured prominently in the Torah, the description of her pales in comparison to her brothers. Aaron was the Cohen Gadol, the High Priest, the link between b’nai Yisrael and the rituals needed to draw close to God. And Moses was God’s voice, transmitting all of the Eternal’s laws and lessons to the people.

Though we celebrate Miriam’s song after crossing the Sea; Moses’ song is far longer and overshadows it. The Torah only uses half a verse to describe her death and burial.

While our descriptions of Miriam are sparse, the ancient rabbis laud her qualities. Medieval commentator Rashi notices a strange reference in her death. We read, “Miriam died there and was buried there and the community was without water.” Rashi explains that “for 40 years the Israelites had a well because of the z’chut of Miriam, the merit of Miriam.

Miriam’s well enters midrash, stories about stories in the Torah, as a testament to her greatness. As b’nai Yisrael wanders through the wilderness, Miriam’s sagacity, loyalty, and life-giving powers were so strong that God merits her with the ability to provide a well of water, which moved with the people every place they traversed, until Miriam died. Without Miriam, they lacked this vital sustenance.

Her presence in our people’s history presents powerful paradigms as we navigate through life and Bamidbar, through our wilderness.

Our prophet Miriam was a prophet of deeds. She didn’t give fiery speeches, she didn’t adjudicate matters of law, and she wasn’t overly concerned with exact prescriptions for sacrificial offerings. Instead, she taught the Children of Israel the importance of voicing gratitude--to sing in moments of thanksgiving and rejoicing.

Miriam’s well nurtured the Israelites during times of fear, weakness, and loss of faith. It was her life-giving reservoir that sustained our vitality. Without her we would not have been able to listen to Moses, live the words of Torah, or make it to the Promised Land.

She was not in the forefront of the public eye. She wasn’t loud or showy. But she did know what her people needed and she provided that. And when she was unable to journey, b’nai Yisrael was immobile.

The Israelites leadership through the desert was a shared one, a trio. The three siblings, Moses, Miriam and Aaron, could not have led solo. It was their combined qualities, the ways they complimented each other, that enabled them to succeed. Aaron was Moses’ voice when he was unable. Both Miriam and Aaron stepped up when Moses was overburdened by his task. Miriam was never loud or outspoken, nor would we have wanted her to be. In fact, when she did speak out, she got into a lot of trouble!  

Our prophet Miriam teaches us about what it truly means to lead by supporting others. To provide the sustaining nourishment and foundation so that one’s people may develop and thrive.

This week we also mourn the death of a beloved screenwriter, producer, and director. Nora Ephron died of leukemia on Tuesday. Ephron was lauded for her advancement of women’s causes, women in Hollywood, and journalism. And like Miriam, she was not especially outspoken, but just by being true to herself, by knowing her own strengths, she paved the way. Ephron saw opportunities and took them. She didn’t feel constrained by women’s roles in Hollywood. She wrote about strong female characters and gave voice and representation to characters who weren’t always showcased. Ephron, like Miriam, embodies the ability we possess to maximize our unique potential each day. This quote from Tablet magazine captures her remarkable qualities. “To the women who loved her, she was both Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle. Expert teacher and eager student, she made us feel like us, in all our messy, capable, idiosyncratic, hilarious glory. She taught us how to be ourselves. In the process, she made us into her heroines.”[1]

Both Ephron and the prophet Miriam lead us to ask, how as leaders, friends, parents can we distinguish and sanctify who we truly are? “Do we honor those whose contribution is in support of others”[2] and not just self promotion? And how in our own deeds how do we personify Miriam voicing gratitude and enabling others to prosper? How do we act as a bolster and nourishment?

May Miriam’s well forever nurture us and inspire us to live up to her prophetic example.


[1] http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-arts-and-culture/104746/nora-ephrons-character

[2] Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, The Bedside Torah, (Contemporary Books: New York), 256.