Parshat Chukat/Balak: My Brother from Another Mother

This week’s Torah reading is a double parshah: Chukat and Balak.  Balak is the outstanding narrative of a foreign prophet, a talking donkey and the opening prayer of our Siddur.  Chukat is about paradox and irrational realities…and the deaths of Miriam and Aaron.  As fantastic as is that talking donkey, I can’t get my mind off losing Miriam and Aaron.

Maybe it’s all the Covid numbers that get reported everyday or maybe it’s summer and the sun is shining but things feel different. I’m not exactly sure why but I keep thinking about Miriam and Aaron.  Not the strong figures of leadership the Torah presents, rather the nuanced moments and the midrashic portraits.

Miriam, Aaron and Moses are the powerhouse of leadership in Judaism.  They’re three siblings with totally different realities.  In today’s world, siblings are most often defined as sharing the same parents.  But in the ancient (and up until very recent) world, siblings were children sharing a household.  I was once going through some old family photos with my mother.  I saw a picture of a group of children standing together posing with snowballs.  I asked my mother what the picture was about, she said that her father posed her and her siblings with the snow because it was rare to have snow in Safed.  But I realized she said ‘siblings’ and there were most definitely too many kids in that photo.  

I recognized one little girl as a cousin.  I asked my mom about her.  

Here’s her answer: ‘Yes, she’s a cousin, but I think of her as a sister because she spent so many years with us growing up. Her parents were caught behind borders in the war so she ended up staying with us for years.’

So what was to be a family visit with a cousin turned into years of siblinghood.  I asked her who the other little girl was, and my mother said, ‘That’s my Yemenite sister.’  My response was to stare and blink. My mother asked if I wanted to see her wedding picture and flipped to a picture of a young woman in traditional Yeminite clothing.  I finally managed to ask how she acquired a Yeminite sister.  She told me they’re not actually blood sisters, but this young woman came to live with them, stayed for most of her childhood until she married.  They always called themselves sisters.

Lest we think this is a Sephardic family dynamic, I remember the same thing happening with some of the stories my father told me about the shtetl he came from.  We were visiting distant cousins and my father was explaining how we were all related.  I lost track of it after the third time I heard him say ‘They’re not really brothers, they just grew up together because there were too many kids in their house.’  I asked him if it was common for people to give their kids to relatives and he said yes, a shtetl was like a large family.

So whether Ashkenaz, Sephardic, or blends of different communities, Jewish families are always defined by the unities we create and the households we open to each other.  But even when raised in the same household, the word ‘sibling’ is descriptive of the relationship, not the personhood.  The same household will always produce unique individuals, each with their individual strengths and chosen connections.

None of this is new, it’s how we were meant to see Miriam, Aaron and Moses.  Miriam – the oldest, the guardian – is always described to us as uniquely different from Aaron – the middle child, the peacemaker – and both distinctly different from Moses – the baby, the prince.  

Miriam is the oldest of her siblings and right from the start she protects her younger brothers.  She is the one who guards Moses while he is floating in a basket on the Nile and she is the one who is responsible for uniting Moses with his birth family so he could bond with them.  These moments describe a little girl stepping forward to speak to a princess of Egypt to save her baby brother.  We never recognize her courage — we should.

Speaking of the babies in Egypt, there is an unusual midrash that describes how the Israelite women secretly delivered their babies in the fields and hid them so the Egyptians wouldn’t kill the babies. According to this midrash, when these infants cried from hunger, wanting to nurse, the rocks around them would bring forth milk so the babies could eat, calm themselves, stop crying and stay safe.  Rocks in a field can appear like breasts, and the midrash describes this beautiful collaboration between the females and the earth to secure life in an empire that glorified death.  Why are we so concerned with this midrash?  Because the image of the rock as giving the waters of life continues with Miriam.

The Sages tell us that there is a giant rock that is rolled alongside the holy objects in the desert.  When Israel would make camp, each tribal leader would use their staff to draw a line in the sand from the rock to where their tribe was camped.  Once 12 lines were drawn, the rock would fill the lines with water and all of Israel drank fresh water in the desert.  The rock was referred to as ‘Miriam’s Well’.  As soon as Miriam dies, we are told Israel complains to Moses that they will die for lack of water — the well has dried up.

God tells Moses to gather the people at the rock and speak to it so it will bring water (again).  The image is that Moses should console the rock, comfort it, since its waters have dried up, perhaps it has cried itself dry over losing Miriam.  Instead, Moses gathers everyone at the rock and succumbs to the pressures of the people and does the unthinkable, he hits it!  

God’s reaction is extreme since God’s view is universal.  God tells Moses he will never enter the land of Israel because of hitting the rock.  It is not any rock, it is Miriam’s Well, it is the embodiment of the rocks of Egypt that saved all those babies and partnered with all those desperate mothers – it is the symbol of life when only death defined each moment.  Hitting the rock is an affirmation of Egypt and an assault on Miriam’s legacy.  As a result of Moses’ hitting the rock, it brings water, so the problem has been solved, but unfortunately, the moment was lost and the wrong message was delivered.  God tells Moses that his leadership now has an expiry date attached. 

Not long after all this, God tells Moses to go with Aaron and Aaron’s son onto a mountain where Aaron will die.  After placing all of the priestly garments on Aaron’s son, Aaron quietly passes away and the nation cries for him.  You can’t help but notice no one cried when Miriam died, they just complained that now they don’t have water.  Why no tears for Miriam?

It seems that the progression of their deaths and the peoples’ reaction contains the lessons of their leadership.  Miriam provided the safety and the water.  It was brought to the people and they did not have to find their own solutions.  All the images are of babies and nursing and guardianship.  No one can cry for her because they haven’t learned that they can provide water for themselves.  In other words, if all the water came because of Miriam, then how can they manufacture tears?  By the time Aaron dies, they have somehow learned that the answers lie within themselves and they should not expect them to come from anyone else — now they can make tears, supply water, sustain themselves and be ready to enter the land.

What caused the shift?  Aaron’s son is the only difference.

Of the three siblings responsible for getting us out of Egypt, only Aaron will pass his role to his child.  He is the symbol of continuity and growth.  The Torah tells us that Moses is told to put Aaron’s clothes on Aaron’s son and we watch continuity establish itself.  When we see continuity, we see empowerment and with empowerment comes independence – with independence comes Israel’s ability to make tears.

The midrash explains this beautifully when it comments on God telling Moses to take Aaron and his son up the mountain.  The Sages say “take him with words of comfort and consolation” (the words that should have been spoken to the rock).  The Sages continue by saying that Moses comforts Aaron by saying; ‘how complete you must feel, seeing your crown removed from your head and placed on the head of your son – something I will not be privileged to see.’  

Miriam teaches us guardianship, Moses teaches us law and Aaron teaches us continuity.  They will die in the order they were born – Miriam first, Aaron second, Moses last.  It completes the picture of these three and I can’t help but think of the people my parents viewed as siblings because they lived together and enriched their lives.  I’m reminded of how many times people have said to me that they view a close friend as a sister or a brother, unaware that they are describing ancient realities.  Miriam, Aaron and Moses, three siblings who each deserve their moment and recognition of how they each enrich us every time we read of them.

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