Miriam’s Enduring Influence

“And Miriam died … (Numbers 20:1)”

At the end of the same chapter Aaron also dies, but we read of his death in greater detail because the Torah’s final editors were descendants of Aaron’s hereditary priestly line.

I would argue, though, that Miriam’s legacy is more significant.

Our enduring memory of Aaron is as the one who weakly capitulated to the Israelites demand to make the golden calf. (Exodus, 32)

But our picture of Miriam is one of strength. The Torah identifies her as a prophet (Exodus 15:20), and she is the only female the Torah does not identify as someone’s wife or mother.

Rabbi Hama bar Hanina taught: “The righteous are more powerful after their death than during their life. (B. Hullin 7b)”

That teaching underlies a rabbinic tradition that the deaths of righteous individuals can effect atonement for an individual’s sins.

Anna Urowitz-Freudenstein notes (The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, p. 932) that this is a troubling idea. To clarify she cites Rabbi Menachem Ben Solomon Meiri (13th c.) who taught: The deaths of righteous individuals “often move the living toward introspection and private acknowledgment of wrongdoing, which then result in personal prayer for repentance.”

Surely Miriam is a person whose righteousness inspires us.

  • She saved Moses from the waters of the Nile.
  • She led the rejoicing of our people at the waters of the sea
  • She inspired God to have a well of water accompany the Israelites in the desert. (Rashi, comment on Numbers 20:2)

Yes, Aaron receives a more grandiose burial, but Miriam’s legacy moves us to ask ourselves: How can we be more like her? Is our goal honor and glory today? Or will we care more that people remember our righteousness in years to come


Comment on Torah portion Chukat, (Numbers 19:1-22:1)

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