Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 19 June 2021 / 9 Tamuz 5781

Three Benefactors

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
Library Library Library

In one chapter, we learn of the death of Miriam and Aharon. This chapter is preceded by the great Parah Adumah chapter (Red Heifer), which teaches the Jewish concepts of immortality and of moral freedom which transcend the physical forces of our nature. The section of parah adumah is an important introduction to these deaths, for it declares that what made Miriam into Miriam and what made Aharon into Aharon did not die when Miriam and Aharon died. Just as their work and legacy live on forever in the Jewish People, their true essence is eternal, and their souls will return to G-d.

Our Sages teach that the juxtaposition of these two chapters teach that the just as the sin-offering character of the parah adumah effects atonement, so too does the death of the righteous. Perhaps this means that the truth of immortality and moral freedom — the teachings expressed in the parah adumah — are also taught by the death of the righteous. The death of the righteous offers convincing proof of immortality. Only one who is spiritually blind would identify the tzaddik with his inert corpse. When a corpse only a short time before had employed thought and will with spiritual strength and moral power, it is all too clear that the corpse is merely the garment of a soul who departed.

When the three great leaders of that generation, Miriam, Aharon, and Moshe, die, their loss was manifest in external phenomena. Immediately after the death of Miriam, the text records that there was no water. From this, our Sages learn that the well of water that accompanied the people in the desert dried up when Miriam passed away. The text records that the people “saw” that Aharon had perished — which leads the Sages to conclude that the loss was “visible” because the cloud, that until then had protected and guided them in the wilderness, departed. The resultant state of defenselessness left the people vulnerable to the subsequent attack by the Canaanite king, Arad. When Moshe departed, the Heavenly manna food stopped falling. Thus, the three leaders were responsible for three critical benefits that sustained and protected the people during the years in the desert: the well, the cloud, and the manna.

The prophet Michah refers to these three great leaders in his exhortation that moral strength alone, and no other act or circumstance, is the condition for national existence. (Michah 6:4) Their personalities attested to the task whose accomplishment was crucial to the future of the nation. Michah then describes the three-part task of the Jew: What does the L-rd demand of you? But to do justice, to love loving-kindness, and to walk modestly with your G-d.

Rav Hirsch suggests that these three elements of our moral mission characterize the work of the three great leaders.

Mishpat, the norm of justice, shapes one’s whole life in accordance with G-d’s will. This was primarily the mission of Moshe, and is represented in the manna, the bread of existence

Ahavat Chesed, the love of loving-kindness — the heart’s inclination to joyfully relinquish what one is rightfully entitled to, the attribute of compassion — are the traits of Aharon, which spread a cloud of protection from the clear penetrative rays of justice.

Hatzenea Lechet, walking unpretentiously and modestly with G-d, is the fundamental character of Jewish womanhood, and was fostered under Miriam’s influence — the quiet, hidden “spring” from whose depths all holiness flows. Thus, the physical gifts that these benefactors provided the people with, in turn, represent the more enduring gifts that would provide for the nation’s spiritual well-being long after their departure.

  • Sources: Commentary, Bamidbar 20:29

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