Miriam and Aaron both die in this week’s Torah portion, Chukkat (“Decree”). The portion opens in the first month of the fortieth and final year the Israelites must spend in the wilderness. Miriam’s death is described in a single sentence.
The Children of Israel, the whole community, came to the wilderness of Tzin in the first month, and the people stayed at Kadeish. And Miriam died there and she was buried there. (Numbers/Bemidbar 20:1)
kadeish (קָדֵשׁ) = being holy, being dedicated to God; a Canaanite male temple prostitute; one of two places named before the Israelites took Canaan, presumably sacred spots for non-Israelites (Kadeish in the wilderness of Paran in the southern Negev, or Kadeish in the wilderness of Tzin on the border of Edom).
The Torah says nothing further about Miriam’s death. All the Israelites observe 30-day mourning periods after the deaths of Aaron and Moses. But no official mourning period is set for Miriam.
Aaron dies later in this week’s Torah portion, after the Israelites have begun circling around Edom and Moab. (At the end of this week’s Torah portion they camp on the east bank of the Jordan River, across from Jericho.)
The Torah describes Aaron’s death in detail.
And they pulled out from Kadeish and the Children of Israel, the whole community, came to hor hahar. And God spoke to Moses and Aaron at hor hahar, on the border of the land of Edom, saying: Let Aaron be gathered to his people … Take Aaron and his son Elazar and bring them up to hor hahar. And strip off Aaron’s garments, and clothe his son Elazar. Then Aaron will be gathered, and die there. And Moses did as God commanded, and they headed up hor hahar before the eyes of the whole community. Moses stripped off Aaron’s garments, and he clothed his son Elazar. And Aaron died there, on the head of hahar. And Moses went down, and Elazar, from hor hahar. Then the whole community saw that Aaron had expired, and the whole house of Israel mourned for Aaron 30 days. (Numbers 20:22-29)
Hor hahar (הֹר הָהָר) = mountain of the mountain, hill on the hill, Hor Mountain. (Rashi—11th-century rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki—spoke for the majority of commentators when he wrote that Hor Hahar looked like a small mound on top of a large mound.)
Miriam and Aaron both die near the border of Edom. The Torah calls them both prophets, and ranks them both as leaders of the Israelites along with Moses. So why is Miriam’s death described in a single verse, while Aaron’s death takes eight verses?
The books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers are full of Aaron, since much of the material concerns the establishment of rituals conducted by male priests and Levites. But the Torah gives Miriam only three scenes.
In her first scene, Miriam comes forward after the pharaoh’s daughter rescues the infant Moses from the Nile. In one sentence (Shall I go and summon a nursing woman from the Hebrews, that she may suckle the child for you?) she gives the pharaoh’s daughter both the idea of adopting the baby, and the idea of hiring a Hebrew woman to nurse him. Then Miriam arranges for her own mother—and Moses’—to be the wet nurse.
Miriam’s second scene comes after the Israelites cross the Reed Sea safely and God drowns the Egyptian army. Then Miriam has another brilliant idea. It was customary, when soldiers came home from a victory, for women to greet them with dancing, drumming, and chanting. Miriam picks up her timbrel and gets the women to do the same thing to celebrate God’s victory.
The Torah calls Miriam a prophetess at this point, and confirms her status as a prophet again in her third scene. Here she speaks out against Moses regarding his wife, and gets Aaron to agree with her. God responds by saying Moses’s level of prophecy trumps Miriam and Aaron’s, and gives her a seven-day skin disease. The people wait for her to recover and rejoin them before they journey on.
Miriam’s role in the Torah is to be a prophet, not a priest. She receives divine inspiration, and inspires other people through her words and actions. I think she dies at a place that was already named holy (Kadeish) because she is intrinsically holy (kadosh). She is dedicated not only to serving God, but also to making things right for human beings.
Hor Hahar, the place where Aaron dies, has neither a holy name, like Miriam’s gravesite, nor a view of the “promised land” of Canaan, like Moses’. It is merely a mountain with an unusual shape.
Aaron is called a prophet, along with Miriam, because he does occasionally hear God’s voice giving instructions. But he lacks inspiration. He fails God and succumbs to the will of the mob when he makes the Golden Calf. He becomes the high priest only when Moses dresses him in the high priest’s garments and anoints him. After that Aaron spends his days performing rituals and keeping track of holy objects.
The most important part of Aaron’s death is when Moses removes the unique vestments he wears as the high priest, and puts them on his son and successor, Elazar. What makes someone a high priest is the breastplate with the divining gems, and the gold plate inscribed “Holy to God”. The clothes make the man.
Aaron the high priest is easily replaced by his son, through a change of clothing. But nobody replaces Miriam.
Aaron has to leave the camp and die with only Moses and Elazar as witnesses. Miriam dies in the camp, surrounded by the Children of Israel.
Yes, I admire Miriam, for her brilliance, her courage, and her dedication to her calling. And I also admire Aaron, for his dedication to the job he was assigned—serving as the people’s high priest for nearly 40 years despite his own personal failure in making the Golden Calf.
In the book of Micah, God reminds the Israelites:
I brought you up from the land of Egypt,
And from the house of slavery I redeemed you,
And I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. (Micah 6:4)
It took all three leaders to get the people out of Egypt and ready to enter Canaan: Moses to work with God to create a new religion; Aaron to faithfully play his role within that religion; and Miriam to challenge people and transmit inspiration.
Every person has a different set of abilities, and a different role to play in life. Whatever our own roles are, may each of us be blessed with the whole-hearted dedication of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.