In this week’s parsha of Chukas, Bamidbar chapter 20 is divided into four sections.
•Verses 1–6 describe the death of Miriam and the complaint of lack of water which comes in the wake of the great loss.
•Verses 7–13 covers the passage of mei merivah (the waters of strife) in which Moshe famously hits the rock.
•Verses 14–21 presents the request of Edom to allow the Israelites to pass peacefully through their land enroute to the Promised Land.
•Verses 22–29 reports the death of Aharon, his being replaced by his son Elazar, and the mourning of the people over the loss of this great leader.
This is a great chapter to learn in the macro sense, as the four sections contain many textual parallels indicating a cross-section of themes, as well as very clear lessons learned through the errors made by the players involved.
As we examine a few of them, we’ll note how the later narrative seems to be a correction.
When Miriam dies, not only don’t the people mourn, but they even fail to give her brothers, Moshe and Aharon, an opportunity to mourn. Instead, they quickly complain about the lack of water. That story ends disastrously, with a correction coming in 30 days of mourning for Aharon after his death.
The people gather against Moshe and Aharon right after Miriam’s death (20:2). In response, Moshe and Aharon assemble the people (20:10) to rebuke them for their misplaced priorities.
After complaining in 20:3–5 that they should never have left Egypt, and recalling the supposedly wonderful food they ate there, when the time comes to ask Edom to let them pass through their land, the Isralites recount the hardness of their lives in Egypt:
“The Egyptians mistreated both our fathers and us. When we cried out to G-d, He heard our voice and sent a representative to take us out of Egypt. We are now in Kadesh, a city at the edge of your territories. Please let us pass through your land. We will not go through any fields or vineyards, and we will not drink any water from your wells.” (20:15-17)
Note how they express gratitude for having been taken out of Egypt — and they don’t want the foods of the land, nor the water of the land, even as earlier in the chapter food and water and leaving Egypt were their complaints.
Even their ignoring Miriam could have been hinted to through Moshe calling them “Rebels” (20:10), as the word for rebels in Moshe’s language is “Morim” — spelled exactly the same way as Miriam, though with different vowels.
There is no question that mistakes are made in the first half of the chapter. Miriam’s death is ignored, Moshe and Aharon’s mourning is passed over, the people are disrespectful, and Moshe (and Aharon?) lose patience and miss out on a grand opportunity.
And look how the aftermath of these tales seems to present a complete turnaround. A nation that is not whining, but is submissive and respectful, a leadership that is respected and honored in life, and properly mourned for in death.
It is these kinds of turnarounds that we always say we strive for. Unfortunately it usually takes a tragedy to help the switch take place.
May we merit to undergo the proper changes and behavior modifications necessary, before a tragic event forces us to realize where we have focused our very misplaced priorities.