Parshat Hukkat 5777 – 2017

by Rabbi Pam Frydman 

(in honor of the memory of her mother Perel bat Chayyim v’Geetscha

on the occasion of her third yahrzeit)    

It says in the Gemara (Megillah 14a)

תנו רבנן: ארבעים ושמונה נביאים ושבע נביאות נתנבאו להם לישראל

Our Rabbis taught: “Forty-eight prophets and seven prophetesses prophesied to Israel.”

     In the second aliyah of this week’s Parsha, Miriam dies and as we know, Miriam was a נְּבִיאָה (prophetess), and her prophetic ability was acknowledged not just in the Gemara, but right in the text of תורה דארייתא (the written Torah).

     Miriam is declared to be a prophetess at the sea, in Parshat Beshallach (Shemot 15:20) where it says,      

וַתִּקַּח מִרְיָם הַנְּבִיאָה אֲחוֹת אַהֲרֹן אֶת־הַתֹּף בְּיָדָהּ וַתֵּצֶאןָ כָל־הַנָּשִׁים אַחֲרֶיהָ בְּתֻפִּים וּבִמְחֹלֹת

“And Miriam the Prophetess, the sister of Aharon, took her drum in her hand, and all the women went out after here with drums and dancing.” To the best of my knowledge, Miriam is the first person — male or female — to actually be called a prophet, right in the text of the Torah. Now Miriam was not the first prophet; she is just the first one to be called a prophet right in the text (of תורה דארייתא).

     One of the things that is odd about how Miriam is called a prophetess is that it says מִרְיָם הַנְּבִיאָה אֲחוֹת אַהֲרֹן (Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aharon). Why doesn’t it say that she was also the sister of Moshe?

     In the Gemara (Sotah 12b), it says that Rav Amram said in the name of Rav, although according to others it was Rav Nahman who said in the name of Rav that the reason it says Miriam מִרְיָם הַנְּבִיאָה אֲחוֹת אַהֲרֹן (Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aharon) is to teach us that Miriam was already prophesying as a child before Moshe was even born.

     According to the sages, it was little Miriam who prophesied that her parents would give birth to a child who would grow up to save our people, and it was Miriam who convinced her parents to remarry after they had divorced; and they had divorced in order to avoid bringing a child into the world in the face Pharaoh’s decree.

        Now going back to this week’s parsha, it says in the second aliyah (Bamidbar 20:1),

וַיָּבֹאוּ בְנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל כָּל־הָעֵדָה מִדְבַּר־צִן בַּחֹדֶשׁ הָרִאשׁוֹן וַיֵּשֶׁב הָעָם בְּקָדֵשׁ וַתָּמָת שָׁם מִרְיָם וַתִּקָּבֵר שָׁם

‘The entire community of Israel arrived in the Wilderness of Tzin during the first month and they dwelled in Kadesh and Miriam died there and was buried there.” As we know, the first month is Nisan. According to the sages, Miriam died on the 10th of Nissan, which was exactly one year to the day prior to our people entering the land.

     According to Rashi, Miriam died ’עַל פִּי ה with a divine kiss.[1] Rashi also asks the rhetorical question why is Miriam’s death reported right after the parah adumah.[2] The answer that Rashi gives is that just as sacrifices bring atonement, so too, the death of a righteous person brings atonement.

     I believe that the only time Miriam’s name is mentioned in Nevi’im is by the Prophet Micah who said (Micah 6:4),

כִּי הֶעֱלִתִיךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם וּמִבֵּית עֲבָדִים פְּדִיתִיךָ וָאֶשְׁלַח לְפָנֶיךָ אֶת־משֶׁה אַהֲרֹן וּמִרְיָם

“Because I brought you up out of the land of Egypt and I redeemed from the house of bondage, and I sent before you Moshe and Aharon and Miriam.”

     None of them were perfect. Miriam was punished with tzaraat and she was not allowed to enter the land because she gossiped to Aharon about Moshe. Aharon was not allowed to enter the land because of the egel hazahav. Moshe was not allowed to enter the land because he hit the rock. There are many midrashim about how to understand these realities. I want to leave you with this hiddish in memory of mother. [3]

     My mother was always reminding people that she was human and not perfect, and she instilled in me a strong sense that none of us are perfect. Perhaps it is a blessing that our greatest leaders were also not perfect. Perhaps it is because of the imperfection of Moshe, Aharon and Miriam that even though we cannot achieve what they achieved and even though we cannot experience what they experienced, we can, nevertheless, strive to be like them and strive to learn from them precisely because they were not perfect.

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1. See also Moed Katan 28a.

2. See also Mode Katan 28a. According to the sages, Miriam died during the thirty-ninth year of the wandering in the desert. However, the Israelites received the instruction concerning the red heifer during the second year when they were still encamped at the foot of Mount Sinai.

3. This is the author’s understanding.