In this week’s Torah portion, parshat Chukat, we read of the deaths of Miriam and Aaron, and Moses’ death sentence when he hits the rock. We are always troubled by reading of the loss of these leaders but we don’t often reflect on the loss of them as siblings.
Throughout the book of Genesis, we are introduced again and again to siblings with issues. It starts right at the beginning with the first brothers, Cain and Abel, and then continues through with Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, and Joseph and all his brothers. The first question a sibling ever asks God is when Cain asks: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” God does not answer the question.
Throughout Genesis, we are shown the lives of people who do not feel they are responsible for their siblings. The book ends with brothers selling a brother into slavery, the entire family following him into Egypt, resulting in the enslavement of the Jewish people.
But, as we are told of the despair of the people, we are introduced to another set of siblings: Miriam, the oldest, Aaron, the middle child, and Moses the baby. Pharaoh targets the baby boys which places Moses’ life in danger. Moses’ mother tries to protect him by placing him in an ark on the Nile, but it is Miriam, his sister, who stands guard at the banks to guard him. Miriam is the one who courageously speaks to the daughter of Pharaoh and arranges to have Moses nursed by his mother in his Jewish home. In that moment, Miriam changes the picture of siblings in the Torah forever.
When Moses grows up and stands before the burning bush receiving his life mission from God, he expresses fear at the thought of confronting Pharaoh. God tells Moses that his brother, Aaron, is already on his way to meet Moses and support him. Aaron will stand by his brother’s side for the rest of their lives.
These three siblings, Miriam, Aaron, and Moses, will have the usual angst that siblings will always experience. They will argue, they will compete, they will become estranged, they will reconcile, but they will always live inside their sibling relationship.
When Miriam guards her baby brother at the Nile, she is answering Cain’s question through her actions. She has decided to become her brother’s keeper. Because of Miriam’s decision, Moses has a window in which to live his life. Aaron will follow along this path with his big sister, and together they give us the leadership we hold as our model.
While Genesis shows us the challenge of the sibling relationship, Miriam, Aaron, and Moses, show us its rewards. The 14th century Jewish philosopher, Ralbag, stated that although siblings may not be as good company as friends, it is siblings who are more likely to respond in times of challenge. Miriam, Aaron and Moses taught us more than they ever imagined.
I’d like to wish everyone a sweet and peaceful Shabbat –our Jewish time to regroup, rest, and reinvigorate.