The death of any human being, especially a righteous one, is worthy of great mourning, but when there is no closure, the sadness is much more profound.
This week’s Torah portion is Chukat (Numbers 19:1-22:1), and in it we read about the death of two out of three great leaders of Israel. Moses, Aaron and Miriam were certainly the three premier leaders of the Jewish people who emerged while the Jewish people were still slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and then leading and tending to their needs throughout the 40 years of wandering in the desert on the way to the Land of Israel. In this week’s reading, we say goodbye to Aaron and Miriam.
Describing Miriam’s death, the Torah says: “She died there and was buried there.” This verse is somewhat odd, as it is seemingly obvious and redundant. Nothing special is noted about the death of Miriam, as one would expect at the death of a VIP. What’s going on here?
It is explained that the Torah is trying to draw attention to the death of Miriam as being different from that of her two brothers. Later in our reading, when Aaron dies, Moses and Elazar ascended with Aaron to the place where he was going to die and be buried. After the ceremony of Aaron’s death (yes, there was a ceremony of sorts), Moses and Elazar the High Priest descended the mountain and rejoined the Jewish people. Only Moses and Elazar were privy to know how and when exactly Aaron died. The people were clueless…they were simply informed that they wouldn’t be seeing Aaron any more.
With regard to Moses, everyone knew that Moses was soon going to die. They were prepared for that. But Moses’ place of death and subsequent burial was kept secret. To this day, there is no tomb of Moses. All we know is that he is buried somewhere on Mount Nevo – a large mountain range in Jordan, opposite Jericho.
With Miriam, on the other hand, “she died THERE and was buried THERE”…only with Miriam do we know exactly when she died, where she died and where she was buried.
With Aaron’s death, we are told that “the entire House of Israel mourned him.” So, too, there is a report of the mourning that followed the death of Moses. (Point of interest: our sages teach us that Aaron was more beloved than Moses and that the mourning for him was much greater…a topic for another time!). But regarding Miriam, there is no report of mourning at all!
The death of Miriam is a lesson in human nature and psychology. It is explained that Moses, Aaron and Miriam all lived long lives. There is a tendency among people, when someone who has lived a long life dies, to lessen the mourning; the passing is not as saddening. I am not here to comment on the legitimacy of this approach, but let’s face it, when someone passes away at 90+, the event is not seen as a terrible tragedy, and the funeral is not overly emotional.
This idea is similar to the story of Miriam’s passing. The people were aware that she was going to die, they saw her die, and they saw her buried. The end of her life was full circle. There was emotional closure.
In contrast, Aaron’s death was a tremendous shock. He was “here today, gone tomorrow.” There was no preparation, there was no opportunity for last hugs and kisses. He went up the mountain with Moses and Elazar, and upon their return they simply informed the nation that Aaron was dead. There was no closure. There were no goodbyes. When someone, no matter how old, is taken away from us like that, it is a shock, and the mourning is more intense.
In the case of Moses, at least there were final goodbyes and blessings. But there was still some shock that his grave was kept a secret and that it would not be possible to visit his grave in the future and pay respects. This permanent void led to tears and mourning, regardless of Moses’ advanced age.
But with Miriam, she was old, she lived an illustrious life, the people knew she died, and the people knew where she was buried. The death of any human being, especially a righteous one, is worthy of great mourning, but for the average person, the death of a figure like Miriam, whose life and death came “full circle,” there was closure and, consequently, there was no great outpouring of emotion.
The Torah knows human nature very well!
For more insights by Rabbi Ari Enkin on this week’s Torah reading, click on the links below: