Drash on Parashat Chukat 2019
Rabbi Jacqueline Ninio
Emanuel Synagogue, Woollahra, NSW
In Parashat Chukat we read about the death of Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron. Imagine being born into that family! One brother, Moses, is the great prophet, leader of the Jewish people, a powerful figure on the stage of history who changed the destiny of an entire nation and guided their journey to the Promised Land. The other brother, Aaron, the High Priest, responsible for the spiritual life of the people, creating a link between them and their God, also a leader, a strong and powerful force in his own right. And then there is the third sibling, Miriam. She was the older sister who protected her brother Moses as he was cast into the waters of the Nile. She was the one who intervened to ensure that he would be cared for by her mother as well as the Pharaoh’s daughter, she watched over him and sheltered him. Then, when the people leave Egypt and have passed through the split waters, it is Miriam who takes up her timbrel and leads the women in song, a joyful dance and musical expression of the freedom they were now blessed to enjoy. She encouraged all the community to join together in celebration. And then, through the desert wanderings, Miriam sat with the people, she tended to their needs, she was a listening ear, a nurturing presence. Miriam is described as a prophet. Just like her brother Moses, she too delivers the word of God. But Miriam’s voice is different; she expresses her love for God and her connection in a way which is unlike that of her powerful brothers.
In the portion we are told of Miriam’s death and in the very next sentence says that community is without water. Based on this juxtaposition of verses, the Rabbis suggest that there is a connection. They describe a magical well which followed the people through the desert, providing them with water. But the well was only there because of the merit of Miriam. It was her presence and prophecy which blessed them with the water to sustain their bodies as she sustained their spirits and when she died, legend says, the well did too. The people were without their soul, their heart, their nurturer. Miriam was the one who sat with them, she cried with them, she laughed with them. She nurtured and loved them. She was the one who listened to their troubles, who reached out and held their hands, who was there in the daily moments of their lives. Unlike Moses and Aaron who were occupied with the work on the grand stage, connecting with God, creating the link between the heavens and earth, dealing with the politics of leadership. Miriam was there with the people, hearing their stories, listening to their struggles and helping them with the tribulations of daily life. It is she who is the heart and soul of the people, it is she who nurtures their spirits, who feeds their being, who leads not from above but from amongst her people. Her role is no less important than that of her very impressive brothers, yet too often we focus on them, the events of the world stage and we don’t notice Miriam, working diligently amongst her people, also tending to their needs, bringing the presence of God to their lives. So this Shabbat Chukat is a time to focus on Miriam and to see what lessons she teaches us, what legacy she leaves to inspire our lives.
Firstly, Miriam calls to us to celebrate moments, to express the joy we feel, to mark precious and beautiful times in a sacred and holy way. When the Israelites were freed from slavery Miriam sang and danced, she allowed her whole being to burst with the love and delight she felt, freedom’s song was given voice through her. She encouraged everyone to be in the moment, to celebrate life’s journey together and to stop to honour the significant times. She teaches us to be thankful and grateful for what we have and to celebrate special moments in our lives together with community.
Miriam also reminds us that sometimes the greatest acts happen quietly and gently around us. She reached out to others, she listened to their stories, she sat with people in their pain and soothed their wounded souls. Miriam’s deeds remind us of the significance and importance of our daily encounters with one another, our interactions which can make a difference in one another’s lives. So many people touch our lives, people who are there for us, who stand beside us, who reach out to hold us when we need it and too often they go unnoticed, unrecognized. We value the big gestures, but Miriam’s story reminds us of the significance and importance of those people who are there for us every day, who are with us in our struggles, our suffering and our joy.
So this Shabbat when we remember Miriam and her life we are called to see, notice and hear the people around us who nurture us. To be grateful and thankful for their presence in our lives and to recognise the significance of caring for and meeting one another and the holiness of those encounters. And remembering to celebrate, laugh, cry, sing and dance together.