Miriam in the Wilderness

From: Maria

Dear Rabbi,

Thank you for answering my question about who Miriam was and the meaning of her name. I found your answer to be fascinating, and if you don’t mind I’d like to know more. Could you please tell me about her life and her role in the Torah?

This is a continuation of:

Miriam’s Name

Miriam in Egypt

Dear Maria,

In Miriam in Egypt we explored the early period of Miriam’s life. In this installment we’ll explore the events of her later life in the Wilderness.

The Talmudic and Midrashic sources presented earlier indicate that Miriam was imbued with prophetic inspiration even as a young child. However, it is at the famous “Song of the Sea” sung by the Jews after their miraculous salvation at the Sea of Reeds that the Torah explicitly refers to her as a prophet: “Miriam, the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women came out after her with timbrels and with dances. And Miriam called out to them, ‘Sing to the Lord, for very exalted is He; a horse and its rider He cast into the sea’” (Ex. 15:20,21).

The Talmud (Sota 30b) explains that this entire song of exultation to G‑d (Ex. 15:1-19) was sung prophetically by Moses and repeated in refrain by the men, verse by verse. This is based on the repetition in the verse, “Then Moses and the children of Israel sang this song to the Lord, and they spoke, saying, ‘I will sing to the Lord, for very exalted is He; a horse and its rider He cast into the sea’” (Ex. 15:1). Rashi, (v.21, based on Mechilta, b’Shalach, end of 10) comments that Moses sang to the men and they repeated after him, and adds that Miriam sang to the women. This implies that Miriam prophetically sang the entire Song of the Sea in refrain to the women as Moses did to the men.

A famous, yet widely misunderstood event involving Miriam was her criticism regarding Moses’ “Cushite” wife. The Torah states (Nu. 12:1), “Miriam…spoke against Moses regarding the Cushite woman he had married, for he had married a Cushite woman”. Since Cush refers to Ethiopia, an erroneous reading of the text might suggest that Miriam objected to her skin color. But the very next verse (v.2) presents the basis of her and Aaron’s objection: “Has the Lord spoken only to Moses? Hasn’t He spoken to us too?” This claim has nothing to do with complexion. Furthermore, in any case, Moses’ wife Tzipora was not from Cush, she was from Midian (Ex. 2:15-21).

The Midrash (Tanchuma, Tzav 13. See Rashi’s commentary on Nu. 12:1-15 throughout) explains the entire story as follows: It became known to Miriam and Aaron that Moses had separated from intimacy with Tzipora. They disapproved of this separation because they considered her to be outstandingly righteous, much as a dark-skinned person stands out among light-skinned people – hence the reference to Tzipora as a “Cushite”. This usage of the word Cushite is non-pejorative and is often used in Jewish sources as a term for someone unique and outstanding (see Moed Katan 16b). In fact, King Saul (Ps. 7:1) and even the Jewish People (Amos 9:7) are referred to by the term “Cushite”. Their complaint, therefore, was not about the union between Moses and Tzipora, but about their separation. The only justification they could find for Moses’ celibacy was in order to maintain his prophetic state. This explains their claim that G‑d spoke not only to Moses but also to them, yet that they had not separated from their spouses.

But G-d rebuked them by calling them all out “suddenly”, causing Miriam and Aaron a great burning sensation since they lacked immersion in a mikva after marital relations. G‑d thus demonstrated to them Moses’ unique level of prophecy for which he had to be prepared at all times, thereby justifying his separation from Tzipora.

In Miriam’s merit, a wondrous well of water miraculously accompanied the Jews during their wanderings to provide for them water in the Wilderness. This well is called “The Well of Miriam”. The Talmud (Ta’anit 9a) teaches, “Three great leaders led Israel: Moses, Aaron and Miriam. In their merit they received three great gifts: the Well [Miriam], the Clouds of Glory [Aaron] and the Manna [Moses]”. When Miriam died, the well was removed as is evidenced by the fact that immediately after the verse “And Miriam died” (Nu. 20:1), the Torah states, “The People had no water” (v.2). This is thus the significance in the verses following Miriam’s death (vs.8-13) of Moses searching for and eventually striking the rock in order to restore its waters which had terminated with Miriam’s death.

Rashi (Pesachim 54a) also explains that this well was the same rock from which Moses miraculously brought forth water after Miriam’s death, but adds that it was round as a sieve such that it would roll along with the Jews on their journeys through the desert. The Midrash (Tanchuma, Chukat 21) states that when they encamped, the leader of each Tribe took his staff to the well and drew a line in the sand toward his Tribe’s encampment. The waters of the well were drawn after the mark and thus supplied water for each of the Tribes. In this way, Miriam was a source of sustenance for all of Israel.

According to one opinion of the Sages (Yerushalmi, Ketuvot 67a; Lev. Raba 22:4), Miriam’s Well is in the Sea of Galilee (the Kinneret). Based on verses which suggest the travelling and coming to rest of the well (Nu. 21:18-20), they note: “One who ascends to the top of Mount Yeshimon [on the Golan Heights which overlooks wastelands (yeshimon) to the east] will see [looking west] a kind of small sieve in the Sea of Tiberius. This is the Well of Miriam.” According to another opinion of the Sages (Shabbat 35a), the Well of Miriam came to rest in the Mediterranean Sea and can be seen from the heights of Mount Carmel on the coast of Haifa.

Regarding the death of Miriam, the Torah states (Nu. 20:1), “The entire congregation of the children of Israel arrived at the desert of Tzin in the first month, and the people settled in Kadesh. Miriam died there and was buried there”. By identifying Miriam’s death as occurring in the “first month” the Torah reveals that she died in the Hebrew month of Nisan. And Talmudic sources (Megillat Ta’anit, fast days; Targum Yonaton, Nu. 20:1) indicate that the day of her passing (yahrtzeit) was the tenth of that month.

The Torah’s description of her burial place as Kadesh in the Wilderness of Tzin would locate it somewhere in the desert region southwest of the Dead Sea. According to the Torah (ibid 20:25-29), the burial place of her brother Aaron in Mount Hor (Hor HaHar) is not far away. Interestingly, Josephus (Antiq. 4.4.6) describes Aaron’s burial place (and by implication, Miriam’s) as being near Petra, which is on the other (Eastern) side of the African-Syrian Rift, southeast of the Dead Sea. This is the basis for the tradition that Aaron’s tomb is on the top of Jebel Harun (Arabic for Mount Aaron) in current-day Jordan, a site which some visit till today. Similarly, there seems to be some record of pilgrimages to the supposed burial place of Miriam in the area of Petra until the 4th century CE, after which time the location and tradition were forgotten and lost.

However, it is not likely that either Miriam or Aaron is buried in the area of Petra. For one, the Torah (Nu. 20) records the death and burial of Miriam in Kadesh as occurring before Edom’s refusal to allow Israel to pass through their territory en route from the southwest directly north into Israel. It was on account of this that they afterward encircled Edom to the southeast into what is current-day Jordan, later to enter Israel by crossing the Jordan River from the East. And even the death of Aaron and his burial in Hor HaHar, which is recorded after the encounter with Edom, is nevertheless described by the Torah (Nu. 21:4; see also Nu. 33:36-41) as occurring before encircling Edom to the southeast into the region of Petra. Rather it seems more likely that they are both buried southwest of the Dead Sea in the area of what was then the western boundary of Edom.

The Sages taught (Moed Katan 28a) that the Torah’s account of Miriam’s death follows immediately after the laws of purification through the red heifer in order to teach that just as sacrifices bring atonement, so the death of the righteous secures atonement. Miriam’s great level of purity and righteousness is indicated by the fact that G‑d chose her as the holy person through which to express this teaching. The Talmud (ibid) also notes that as did Aaron (Nu. 33:38) and Moses (Deut. 34:5), Miriam also died through the painless “kiss of death”, whereby the Divine Presence is revealed to the departing soul as G‑d lovingly draws it back within Himself.

Other parts in this series are:

Miriam’s Name

Miriam in Egypt

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