In the Merit of the Righteous
Rabbi Reuven Mann
The book of Bamidbar contains many tragedies that had far-reaching consequences. The greatest setback of all was the sin of the spies and the inability of the Exodus generation to fulfill the Divine plan of conquering and inheriting the land.
In addition to this national catastrophe, there were other personal tragedies. This week’s parsha, Chukat, recounts the death of the three great leaders of the generation: Moshe, Aharon, and Miriam. Moshe’s death doesn’t actually occur in this sedra (Torah portion), but the sin that sealed his fate, not to enter the land, is recounted here. We do read of the death of Miriam and Aharon. According to the Rabbis, all of these most illustrious prophets died by what is known as “death by the kiss.” They reached the highest level of “love” for Hashem, and this experience was at its most intense as they approached death.
The Torah treats the deaths of Miriam and Aharon differently. Regarding the former, it merely says that the people dwelled in Kadesh, and “Miriam died there and was buried there.” The people’s reaction is not mentioned. Was there a period of national mourning, as would have been appropriate? Not a word about this is said. All we are told is that “there was not water there for the congregation, and they gathered to complain against Moshe and Aharon.” This incident led to Hashem’s command to Moshe to bring forth water from the rock. He failed to execute this correctly, thereby losing his right to enter the land.
The juxtaposition of Miriam’s death with the absence of water is not accidental. Rashi points out that, during all their years in the wilderness, they had a steady water supply, in the merit of Miriam. Now that she was gone, they lost the water.
I believe there is a very important lesson here. We lack a sense of gratitude and appreciation, especially for great tzadikim (righteous ones). There was no national mourning for Miriam, because she was not a public personality like Moshe and Aharon. She stayed in the background, and perhaps her great deeds were unknown. Without her, Moshe Rabbenu might not have been born. Her courage in staying near the basket where he had been placed, and her quick-thinking intervention with Pharaoh’s daughter enabled Moshe to be nursed by his mother, Yocheved. She and her mother were responsible for defying Pharaoh’s order to kill every male child at birth. Miriam was a great prophet and a “hidden” tzadeket. There are many people, in every generation, whose merit is not recognized because they are anonymous. Their reticence is no excuse for our failure to notice their righteousness.
We must develop a sensitivity to true greatness and acknowledge it, so it can become a source of inspiration to all. The removal of the water after Miriam’s death was a message that Divine benefit comes because of merit. Had the people recognized that, they might not have complained to Moshe about the water. They would, instead, have asked, How can we attain the merit to remain worthy of Hashem’s bounty?