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  • Mourning Miriam:A Modern Midrash
  • Rachael Freed (bio)

The Israelites arrived in a body at the wilderness of Zin on the first new moon, and the people stayed at Kadesh. Miriam died there and was buried there.

The community was without water.

Numbers 20:1–2

Again and again I wrestled with the text: the end of Numbers 20:1 and the beginning of the following verse. It couldn't be right. It announced the time and place of Miriam's death, and moved immediately to the community complaining about having no water.

Given that it was Miriam's portable Well that had provided for the community in the desert, perhaps their complaint was a metaphor acknowledging their loss. But I thirsted for more.

She was our first female heroine whose claim to fame was beyond others who'd borne sons, the first to be called prophetess (Ex. 15:20). Yet here are Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut's words in his late 20th century Torah commentary: "No official mourning period was observed for her." Did he mean to say, "There is no report here of the mourning period observed for her?"

Mourning goes back to Abraham. He buried, mourned and bewailed Sarah (Gen. 23:2). Jacob buried Rachel by the side of the road, marked her grave with a pillar (Gen. 35:20) and grieved for her for the rest of his days. When God gave Miriam a "time out" as a public shaming (Num. [End Page 90] 12:5) the community waited seven (shiva) days for Miriam to return before they journeyed on. Surely they would have done at least that when she died.

I read the lines again. The letters of the black fire were clear. There was nothing there about mourning the heroine of the Exodus. I recalled J. K. Rowling's thesis in one of the Harry Potter books. Harry made the words of an old diary reappear though they'd been erased for fifty years. If Harry Potter could do it, well so could I! I would find the missing mourning in the white fire between the final "mem" ending verse 20:1 and the "vov" which begins 20:2.

Out of the white fire came a blinding light, and then a series of pictures, like impressionistic paintings. As at Sinai, we were all there, at Kadesh, all a part of the women's community mourning our beloved prophetess.

Remember the shiva for the engaging woman who protected her brother's very life, who led us in ecstatic song celebrating God's power after the Exodus; who for thirty-nine years of wandering served as the community's vessel of care and nurture; who was the bearer of the well of water and hope. Profound paintings of communal mourning—I am both humbled and proud to remind you of our experience.

* * *

As it was written... (Num. 20:1) The Israelites arrived in a body at the wilderness of Zin on the first new moon, and the people stayed at Kadesh. Miriam died there and was buried there.

For seven nights the women's community separated from the camp to mourn our loss. We filed silently and solemnly to Miriam's burial place outside the camp at Kadesh. There we rent our clothes, wailed our loss, whispered our love, told stories remembering her—as woman, prophetess, leader, midwife, healer, dancer, and singer.

Some celebrated her well of compassion, recalling her nurturing leadership and nourishing love. Others drummed a dirge as they circled her grave, keening, holding hands, swaying and weeping. For others an outpouring of rage and fear: that they wouldn't, couldn't, survive without her.

Shekhinah's own sorrowful tears joined ours slaking the thirsty earth atop Miriam's grave and the surrounding desert. Water so uncommon here—our tears transformed that sandy plain into the greenest, most fertile oasis in all the desert. Here wells have continued to spring from [End Page 91] that moment to this, sustaining a lush community of pomegranate trees: each tree commemorating the life of a woman who mourns Miriam.

As the sun rose each morning the women returned to the camp, tears drying on our wind...


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pp. 90-92
Launched on MUSE
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Archived 2012
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