The Torah tells us so little about Miriam – just 31 verses in all! – But it suggests so much more… Intriguingly, after a lacuna in the text of 38 years, the narrative at Numbers chapter 20 in parashat Chukkat reopens with Miriam’s death. The eldest of the three sibling leaders, it is not surprising that she is the first to die. However, unlike Aaron and Moses, where a reason is given for their deaths in the wilderness (Num. 20:12) and for whom the Torah describes full mourning rites (Num. 20:24-29; Deuteronomy 34:5-8), the Torah says the barest minimum about Miriam (Num. 20:1):
The Israelites, the whole congregation, came into the wilderness of Tzin in the first month; and the people dwelt in Kadesh; and Miriam died there, and was buried there.
In the absence of more information, the Sages made a connection between Miriam’s death and the clamour for water that followed and created the legend of Miriam’s Well (Ta’anit 9a). In other words, they sought to fill in the gaps, aware that in the very brief statements about Miriam in the Torah it is evident that, designated as a n’vi’ah – a prophet (Exodus 15:20) – she played a very important leadership role in the Exodus and subsequent wilderness journey.
My chapter on Miriam in my recently published book, Trouble-Making Judaism (David Paul Books, 2012 – ISBN: 978 09548482 9 3) analyses her story and offers an entirely new perspective. For now, I would like to suggest that we try to imagine that rather than being the first of the three sibling leaders to die, Miriam was the last. So, with both Aaron and Moses gone, how might Miriam have counselled the congregation encamped by the River Jordan (Chukkat – Num. 22:1) before her death concerning their entry into the land beyond?
Perhaps, reminding them about how she stood watch over Moses, when he lay in a basket at the water’s edge and arranged with Pharaoh’s daughter for her mother to be the baby’s wet nurse (Exodus 2:4-9), Miriam would have counselled the people to negotiate with the other peoples, when they entered the land and find a way of living peaceably together.
Perhaps, reminding them about how she had led the women with songs and dances and timbrels at the Sea of Reeds (Ex. 12:20), Miriam might have instructed that, instead of ‘600,000’ men (Ex. 12:37) marching forward for battle and sounding trumpets of alarm (Num. 10:9), the 600,000 women, whom the Torah does not mention, should lead the way, singing and dancing and playing their timbrels.
Perhaps, reminding them about how they had waited for her when she was excluded from the camp for seven days, after speaking out against Moses (Num. 12:1ff.), Miriam would have counselled the people to be patient and not to allow their unruly emotions to get the better of them when they faced the unknown challenges that lay ahead.
Of course, this is all mere fantasy… and I’m not suggesting that we should treat the Torah as a contemporaneous chronicle. But what a powerful image: a joyous band of women leading the way into Canaan with songs, dances and timbrels! Perhaps, if women were the leaders in Israel – and Palestine – today, a path towards peaceful coexistence might be found…