Miriam and the Red Heifer

Life Lessons from the Torah Portion

Parshah: Chukat  Numbers 19:1–22:1

Moshe Kempinski

Judaism Moshe Kempinski
Moshe Kempinski
צילום: PR

We read in the Torah portion of Chukat the following

"Speak unto the children of Israel, that they bring thee a red heifer without spot, wherein is no blemish, and upon which never came yoke".(Numbers 19:2)

We are then told that the calf that was used for this ritual must be red in color and without blemish. Furthermore it must not have been used to perform menial labor This red heifer is then ritually slaughtered and its body is burned outside of the camp . Then a piece of Cedar wood, hyssop, and wool dyed red are added to the fire, and the remaining ashes are placed in a vessel containing pure “living (running ) waters “.(Numbers 19:9)

When an individual encounters death his or her soul is scarred. The state of Impurity or Tumah is the result of our confrontation with the fact of our own mortality, and of our physicality. It is the result our dealing with specter of losing potential and ending the power to grow. Taharah,or Purity  on the other hand, represents the reaffirmation of our connection to the infinite.

The items added to the Red Heifer includes Cedar wood and Hyssop branch .The use of these items in the words of Rashi is symbolic of the vanity and haughtiness that brought about the sin in the first place He explains quoting Midrash Tanchuma that " because he has exalted himself like a cedar... he should humble himself like a grass( the hyssop bush). It is that humility that opens the way into new opportunities for growth. The red color represents our failures that need to be remedied.

The “living waters”  represent  the word of Hashem and His life giving powers. “They have forsaken the Lord, the fountain of living water,” Jeremiah 17: 13) . It further describes  life and cleansing. Yet more dramatically water is adaptable. It transform’s itself into the vessel that contains it.

This was a characteristic that truly describes the character of Miriam the sister of Moshe.  Miriam whose name includes the word Yam or oceans. This is the same living waters that were used to return empowerment to the man encountering his own mortality with the red heifer.

It is not happenstance , then , that the story of Miriam’s death quickly follows in the Biblical text .

We read ;    ”Miriam died there and was buried there” (Numbers 20:1)

Then immediately following we read  “there was no water for the people.” (Numbers 20:2)

Miriam was called a prophetess even before we hear of any prophecy she utters.

 ”And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances.” (Exodus 15:20)

Why is she described in this fashion and where do we see its manifestation?

We read in the midst of the slavery the following account;

    “Now a man of the house of Levi married a Levite woman, and she became pregnant and gave birth to a son.” (Exodus 2:1-2)

Yet we know that there were already two older children born to these parents.

The Midrash in tractate Sotah describesthe  subtext. When Pharaoh decreed that all baby boys would be thrown into the Nile, Amram and Yocheved the parents of Moshe decide to separate so as not to endanger any more children. When they did so, they were followed by most of the other Israelite couples. Desperation and hopelessness gripped the people and thrust them into despondency.

According to this midrash, Miriam approached her father and said, “your decree is worse than Pharaoh’s. Pharaoh decreed against the boys, you decreed against both boys and girls. Pharaoh decreed only in this world, you decreed in this world and the world to come. Pharaoh’s decree may be overturned, your decree (not having children at all) cannot be overturned.”

Miriam convinced her father to remarry her mother, and so Moshe and subsequently many other children in many other families were born.

Miriam like the clear pure waters refreshed the broken souls and gave them back life and hope. Miriam represented the quenching hope filled waters of redemption. Our sages have taught that the children of Israel were afforded three gifts that were given to them in the wilderness in the merit of their leaders. The Divine clouds of Glory that surrounded and protected the people were given in the merit of Aaron. The manna from Heaven was given because of Moshe and the “waters of the well” were gifted due to Miriam.

Miriam represented hope in the midst of adversity.

That source of waters ended when Miriam died. We read the following painfully brief account of the death of Miriam;

    ”Miriam died there and was buried there” (Numbers 20:1)

The torah does not even offer even a minor description of the ensuing burial and mourning but does immediately inform us that

    “there was no water for the people.” (Numbers 20:2)

As the people arrive at Kadesh at the edge of the Desert of Zin and discover the lack of water they cry out

    “If only we had died when our brethren died before G d! Why have you brought the congregation of G d to this desert, to die there, us and our cattle? Why have you taken us out of Egypt—to bring us to this evil place?” (ibid 20:4-5)

Without the vision of Miriam the people fell again to despondency and fear. People yearn for the calming nourishment of the water but forget the type of spirit and broad long distance vision that enabled the water to appear. That vision and spirit was epitomized by Miriam. She was quickly forgotten when people became engrossed in the difficulties of the here and now. They were so engrossed the neglected to mourn for her.

It is those nourishing swallows of water that a people or individuals trekking through their pathways of destiny need to have to gain the strength to go forward. Like the waters of Miriam’s well and the waters used for the red heifer , we are reminded that Hashem the source of all hope .

We read in Jeremiah " Hashem is the hope ( Mikveh) of Israel ( Jeremiah 17:13). The word for hope in the text is also the word for a ritual cleansing pool a Mikveh.

The secret of living waters

LeRefuat Yehudit Bat Golda Yocheved