The Yahrziet of Miriam, the Prophetess

This Dvar Torah was delivered at Adugas Israel in Hunterville for their Women of Valor Shabbat on June 30, 2023.

At that moment of freedom, immediately after Moses and the Children of Israel sang out in a song, “Miriam, the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went after her with timbrels and with dances and together sang their song of freedom.”

In a way, we could say that this Shabbat celebrates the Yahrzeit, the anniversary of the death, of Miriam, the great Biblical woman of strength and song. In this week’s Torah portion called Chukat, in one painfully and unfairly short verse, we learn of Miriam’s death.  It could be likened today to a one-line obituary.

The Torah informs us so briefly of Miriam’s death that we almost could miss it. The book of Numbers notes: “The Israelites arrived in a body at the wilderness of Zin on the first new moon and the people stayed at Kadesh. Miriam died there and was buried there.  The community was without water.”

On a modern day gravestone, where the work of a stonecutter is very expensive, we most often note the date of one’s birth and the date of one’s death. It is the dash between them that reflects the life that they lived.

We know at Agudas Israel that the dash matters. We celebrate the dash of all your members who have left this world. Right now, we note the dash and the days of Miriam haneviah – Miriam the prophetess who died in today’s portion and is not mourned in the same way that the Biblical men were. 

Now I’ve been a rabbi for 28 years. I’ve officiated at more funerals than I can count so I’ve written volumes about the dash that comprised people’s lives. You might think I’d get tired of it but I love hearing about and learning about a life well lived and a person fully loved.  With each funeral I try to bring one component of the person’s life into my own.

So for this women of valor service I wanted to reflect with you on the dash of Miriam’s life so that we can each choose to take something of value from her life into our own.

Additionally, there is a great injustice in today’s Torah portion that I strive to make right. At the end of this week’s Torah portion, we are told that Aaron dies and “all the house of Israel bewailed him for 30 days.”  At the end of the entire Torah, Moses died and again we are told that the all the house of Israel bewailed Moses for 30 days.” But not so with Miriam. She gets that one terse verse stating simply that she was buried. There is no mention of mourning. There is no mention of grief.

So here’s my eulogy for Miriam so that we can right a historic wrong.

Tonight in our Torah we mourn the death of Miriam, sister of Aaron and sister of Moses.

Miriam was independent. She was not known as someone’s wife or daughter. She was known as her own person.

Miriam was a prophet. She was the first of four women in the Bible to get that title (Deborah, Huldah, and Noadiah also earned that recognition).  God spoke through Miriam just like God spoke through Moses.

Miriam was a protector. When Moses, her brother was born, the Pharoah had commanded the midwives to cast baby boys into the River Nile, but Moses’ mom refused to let that decree be fulfilled. She hid her infant for three months and when that was no longer possible, she placed him in a basket and Miriam watched over him as he floated to the palace and was embraced by Pharaohs’ daughter. With courage, Miriam appeared on the scene and offered to find a wet nurse. Moses’ mom, Yocheved, who would care for her infant.

Miriam was a composer, a singer, a dancer and a drummer.

Shiru l’Adonai shir chadash – let us sing unto God a new song” we sang as we opened this Shabbat service. Miriam knew how to sing a new song to God.  After our liberation and the crossing through the see of reeds, Miriam picked up a hand-drum, and all the women went out after her in dance with hand-drums too. 

I imagine that before everyone hastily left Egypt, she reminded the women to grab not only their unrisen bread but their musical instruments so they could be ready for celebration.

Like all of us, Miriam was imperfect. Her sin of slandering Moses, as she gossiped with their brother, Aaron, is well-known. Though we question why she and not Aaron was punished. Sexism reigned strong in ancient times.

After Miriam dies we are told that the Israelites were without water causing anger and frustration to rise up in the community. The Israelites challenged Moses’ leadership.

Based on the juxtaposition of Miriams’s death and the drought, the sages teach that for forty years of traveling through the desert, the Israelites merited water on an account of Miriam.

Tradition teaches that Miriam’s Well was a spring that miraculously provided water and accompanied the Israelites through their wilderness wandering. The midrash describes the well as “a rolling stone, shaped like a beehive or sieve. When the tribes settled and set up camp, the rock would dig deep into the sand, and the princes would come and stand by it, saying: ‘Rise up, O well,’ and it would rise” (Numbers Raba 1:1).

Miriam was a sustainer of her people. On account of Miriam, the Israelites enjoy water wherever they went.

Miriam was well-known through the centuries. She is mentioned in more Biblical books than any other women.  Scholar Rita Burns notes, that “Six of the seven Biblical texts which mention her present her as a leader.”

Miriam led in a man’s world but she led in a woman’s way.

Today’s Torah portion tells us that when she died she was buried in Kadesh, a name that evokes holiness, kedushah.

Rashi, the medieval 11th century scholar teaches that Moses, Miriam and Aaron all died by a Divine kiss. That is a prayer I often offer when I stand by the bedside of person who is dying. I pray that God will take their soul with a kiss.

Miriam died in this portion but her songs and her teachings and her inspiration remain.

What can we take with us of Miriam’s life? Perhaps song, perhaps dance, perhaps leadership, perhaps being a wellspring to others.

Zichronah livrachah – may the memory of Miriam the prophetess, forever be a blessing. Amen.

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