Differences in Deaths by Shmuel Garber


Parashat Chukat focuses on two events: the death of Aharon and the death of Miriam. Before the Torah reaches the death of Miriam, it discusses the Parah Adumah (red heifer). What is the connection between the death of Miriam and the Parah Adumah? The Gemara (Moed Katan 28a) explains that just as the Parah Adumah atones for us, so too does the death of the righteous. Later, before the Torah talks about the death of Aharon, it mentions the Bigdei Kehunah (priestly garments). Why are these two topics juxtaposed? The Gemara continues to explain that both of the Bigdei Kehunah and Aharon’s death also bring atonement.

To understand this Gemara, a few questions must asked and explained. Firstly, how does the death of Tzaddikim bring atonement? Also, how do we derive this from Parah Adumah and Bigdei Kehunah? Perhaps the death of Tzaddikim brings forgiveness because a spiritual and moral awakening is produced when they die. And how is the death of a Tzaddik motivating, if the initial thought would be that it should bring you down? A true Tzaddik is humble and doesn’t talk about his Chassidut. It is only after he dies that one finds out about how much Chessed he did, which motivates one to do more Chessed. However, not everyone has the capability to do as much Chessed as a true Tzaddik.

However, we are still left with the question of how exactly we infer this from the Bigdei Kehunah and the Parah Adumah. The Parah Adumah is effective only on someone who isn’t pure, therefore working for the people who are Tamei. This is the equivalent of the steps that everyone can take for atonement. The Bigdei Kehunah, however, are worn only by the Kohanim. The Kohanim, the ones who help us get atonement, are not ordinary people. Therefore, what ordinary people can do is to support these Kohanim who study Torah and will develop into our future Gedolim. By setting an example of how to act, the Kohanim inspire others to live in the same fashion.

When the Torah describes Miriam’s death it states, (BeMidbar 20:1), “VaTamat Sham Miriam VaTikabeir Sham,” “she died there and was buried there.” In contrast, regarding the death of Aharon the Torah simply states (BeMidbar 20:29), “VaYir’u Kol HaEidah Ki Gava Aharon VaYivku Et Aharon Sheloshim Yom,” “they (Bnei Yisrael) saw that Aharon had died and they cried for thirty days.”

Why does the Torah use the double language solely concerning Miriam’s death? The Torah wants to compare her death to that of Aharon and of Moshe. Regarding Aharon, one day he is a Tzaddik and living his normal everyday life, and the next day Moshe and Elazar inform the people that Aharon has died. Therefore, it is a complete shock that the great Aharon has passed. This explains why there is great public mourning. Regarding Moshe, Bnei Yisrael are not shocked that he dies because they are warned and well aware that he is at the end of his life. However, there is never a closure because they are told they wouldn’t be able to bury him or even visit his grave. Even until this day we don’t know where he is buried. 

Additionally, why does it matter whether they are shocked or do not know where Moshe is buried? Rav Zalman Sorotzkin answers that our great leaders all lived a long life that was fruitful and that didn’t end up with that person dying from an unnatural cause. Usually, when such a person dies, the mourning is more reminiscing about the person’s great memorable life and is not so sad. The same would be true in the case of Miriam. She is about to die and everyone knows that he or she will be able to share his last words with her. Also, Bnei Yisrael are able to see her burial; there is an emotional closure. However, because Miriam is so great, there is still much mourning. If she were merely a normal person, there would not have been that intense mourning.

In this Parashah the Jews sing a song. There seems to be parallelism between this episode and the Yam Suf episode. However, there are a number of differences in the way is the two a re written. Shirat HaBe’eir, begins by stating that the Bnei Yisrael sing a song. However, Shirat HaYam, begins by stating that Moshe and Bnei Yisrael sing. Why does Shirat HaBe’eir not mention Moshe and Shirat HaYam does? Also, why only now after forty long years do they start singing for the well, whereas at the splitting of the sea they sing right away?

Chazal answer that the well is given to us in merit of Miriam, and when Miriam passes away, Moshe needs to make another miracle. As human beings we sometimes take for granted the everyday miracles of life, and only when we do not have them do we realize how much of a miracle they are. For the Jews in the Midbar, the rock was an everyday part of life, just like the sink is for us. We never think about how much engineering infrastructure goes into getting every drop of water. Similarly, the Jews of the time become accustomed to the rock, and only once Miriam die do they realize the miracle that they had, in her merit, for all of those years. This also explains why the Torah does not mention Moshe. He realizes the entire time how important Miriam is. It is only the rest of Bnei Yisrael who take forty years until she dies to realize how important Miriam and the well are.

From the death of Miriam and Aharon we learn many important messages. We see that we must be supportive of Torah learning and also that we should not take things for granted. If we realize how miraculous this world is, then just by looking around we should be able to establish a great amount of Yirat Shamayim as well as much Ahavat Hashem.

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