“A Tribute to Miriam, Our Sister”
(updated and revised from Chukat 5764-2004)

by, Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parshat Chukat, sadly informs us of the death of Miriam. Numbers 20:1, reads: וַיָּבֹאוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל כָּל הָעֵדָה מִדְבַּר צִן, בַּחֹדֶשׁ הָרִאשׁוֹן, וַיֵּשֶׁב הָעָם בְּקָדֵשׁ, וַתָּמָת שָׁם מִרְיָם, וַתִּקָּבֵר שָׁם, The Children of Israel, the entire assembly, arrived in the Wilderness of Zin, in the first month, and the people settled in Kadesh. Miriam died there and was buried there.

The following eulogy for Miriam might have been delivered on the 10th of Nissan, in the Hebrew year 2487, (1274 BCE).

Precious Israelites, we are gathered here today to pay our final respects to a great historic personality and a great woman. Miriam, daughter of Yocheved and Amram of the tribe of Levi, sister of Moses and Aaron, has been taken from us and is now with the Creator.

While she was yet a child, she had the courage of an elder. As an elder, she possessed the pure faith of a child. The 126 years that she lived were years of total and selfless devotion to her family and especially to her extended family–the entire People of Israel.

When she was but 6 years old, she reproached her father Amram, who was at the time the leading figure of the People of Israel. Speaking firmly to him for separating from his wife after Pharaoh had decreed that all the newborn male children be cast into the river, she declared: “Father, you are worse than Pharaoh! Pharaoh’s decree is only against the male children, but by separating from your wife and encouraging all the Jewish men to do likewise, your decree will eliminate the girls as well! When Pharaoh ordered his victims to be cast into the water, he deprived them of life in this world. But, by preventing Jewish children from ever being born, you deprive them of a life in the “World to Come” as well. Pharaoh is a wicked man. His decrees are unlikely to be fulfilled. But you are righteous, so your resolutions will be upheld by G-d.” Upon hearing his daughter’s rebuke, Amram reunited with his wife, resulting in all the other Israelites returning to their wives as well. So, we see, dear Miriam, that were it not for you, there would be no Jewish people today!

As is stated in the biblical text (Exodus 1:15), Miriam, you were known as “Puah,” the midwife. You acquired this name because you would “coo” to the agitated newborn infants and calm them (Talmud, Sotah 11b).

Miriam, you were also the heroic young lady about whom the bible (Exodus 2:4), reports that you stationed yourself at a distance to keep watch over your little brother, Moses, whom your mother, Yocheved, had placed him in a little ark in the river to save his life. When the daughter of Pharaoh rescued the child, you were the one who courageously approached the princess to ask whether she would like you to summon a nurse for the child from the Hebrew women. Thus, it was you, Miriam, who, not only, insured that this child’s life would be saved, but that he would also be raised in his infancy by his biological Jewish mother, Yocheved.

And, Miriam, you were the one, when the children of Israel were rescued at the Red Sea that split, who led the women with drums in hand, in song and in dance (Exodus 15:20). You provided the example of exalted faith, and because you were so certain that the Jewish people were going to be rescued, you and the women of Israel brought along your musical instruments that you played after the rescue at the Sea. (The Israelite men, unfortunately, did not have that faith!)

It is you, about whom the Talmud in Taanit 9a, declares that there were three good leaders who arose for the people of Israel–Moses, Aaron and Miriam. You, Miriam, a woman, no less than the two men, played an essential role in the success of this great triumvirate.

And now that you’ve passed on, sister Miriam, there is suddenly a lack of water for our people to drink. Obviously, it was in your merit that a rock that housed a well followed the people throughout their journey in the wilderness for 38 years and supplied the people with plentiful fresh water.

Your departure, Miriam, leaves behind a great void. But you also leave behind a brilliant legacy. Together with your dynamic husband, Caleb, you raised a son, Chur, who confronted the worshipers of the Golden Calf and paid for it with his life (Talmud Sanhedrin 7a). Your grandson, Bezalel, is the marvelously gifted architect of the beautiful Tabernacle, which serves as the spiritual home of Israel. How proud you must be of him! Eventually, Miriam, it will be your offspring who will bring King David into this world, and will ultimately be the progenitors of the Messiah. You see, Miriam, you are not only a leader, you are a redeemer!

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes in his commentary (Numbers 20:1), regarding the death of Miriam:

She finished her earthly mission. She was buried at Kadesh to record for posterity that she didn’t leave the world until she had prepared the next generation for its promised future. Throughout the long journey in the Wilderness, the women of Israel were never partners in the rebellion against G-d, which were ultimately rooted in despair. With heartfelt joy they trusted in G-d and yearned for Him with total dedication. It was for this reason that the death sentence pronounced on the generation of the Wilderness did not impact on the women of Israel. Mothers and grandmothers were now poised to enter the Promised Land along with the new generation. Ensconced in their hearts was a live memory of the past in Egypt and the Divinely directed travels through the Wilderness granting them the ability to give the souls of their grandchildren and great-grandchildren to drink from the spiritual springs of their experiences with G-d. The Jewish women throughout the generations filled themselves with true Jewish spirit, allowing it to penetrate the depths of their souls. This is the spiritual heritage they received from Miriam, the prophetess, who lit up the path for all Jewish women and mothers.

We cry for you, beloved sister, Miriam. Not only for the physical loss of a wonderful woman, but also for the spiritual nourishment that you provided for us throughout your life. You were not only a sister to Moses and Aaron, you were truly a sister to all of us, to all the people of Israel. Bereft of you, we are now parched, withered and thirsty. We will have to search far and wide to find anyone with talents that are anything like yours. And, we are quite certain that no one will ever be found who will measure up to your incomparable accomplishments.

Go in peace, Miriam. And, from your heavenly abode, watch over your people, Israel.

May You Be Blessed.