Parshas Chukas: The Loss, and Legacy, of Miriam Ha’Neviah

In this week’s parsha, Parshas Chukas, the forty years of wilderness wandering are winding down, as the nation will soon enter the Holy Land.  It is at this juncture that the Torah teaches us of the deaths of two of our great leaders: Aharon and Miriam, as well as the impending death of our most dedicated and exalted leader, Moshe (Bamidbar 20).   

The pasuk (verse) tells us, וַיָּבֹאוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל כָּל-הָעֵדָה מִדְבַּר-צִן, בַּחֹדֶשׁ הָרִאשׁוֹן, וַיֵּשֶׁב הָעָם, בְּקָדֵשׁ; וַתָּמָת שָׁם מִרְיָם, וַתִּקָּבֵר שָׁם – And the Children of Israel, the entire congregation, came to the wilderness of Zin in the first month; and the people settled in Kadesh; and Miriam died there, and was buried there (Bamidar 20:1). 

From her days as the courageous and compassionate midwife of the Hebrews, when she dared to defy Pharaoh’s order of infanticide (see Shemos 1); to her days as the brave young girl who assisted Bas Pharaoh (the Egyptian Princess) in saving Baby Moshe (Shemos 2); to her days as leader of the women through highs and lows (Shemos 15:20-21); to the forty years of desert wandering, with the well of water that sustained the people in her merit (Rashi to Bamidbar 20:2); Miriam the Prophetess had led an exalted, holy, dedicated and ennobling life.  And now, not far from the borders of the Promised Land, Miriam’s life in this world has come to its end. 

R’ S. R. Hirsch writes (Bamidbar 20:2): “(Miriam) had completed her mission on earth.  Her grave in Kadesh would show future generations that she did not leave this world until the new generation was ready for the future that had been promised to it.

“During Israel’s long wanderings, filled with so many difficult experiences, the women did not take part in the incidents of defection from G-d, which resulted from despair.  They cheerfully trusted in G-d and devotedly waited for Him, and for this reason they were not included in the fateful decree of death in the wilderness (Bamidbar Rabbah 21:10).  Now, mothers and grandmothers were about to go up with the new generation to the Promised Land.  Bringing with them their personal recollections of the past in Egypt and of the journey in the wilderness under G-d’s guidance, they could refresh the souls of their grandchildren and great-grandchildren from the spiritual wellspring of their experiences with G-d.  The fact that these Jewish women were so deeply imbued with the Jewish spirit may be ascribed in no small part to Miriam, who set (for) them a shining example as a prophetess.

“This chapter, which describes briefly and simply the deaths of Aharon and Miriam… declares that what made Miriam into Miriam and what made Aharon into Aharon did not die when Miriam and Aharon died.  Just as their work lives on forever in their nation, their true essence is eternal; it has now departed transient earthliness and returned to G-d, the Source of all life…

“Truly, the death of a tzadik (righteous person) offers convincing proof of immortality.  For only one who is spiritually blind would identify the tzadik with his corpse, which lies inert, already marked by the traces of decay.  How can one identify the corpse with what only a short time before had employed thought and will with spiritual strength and moral power?  Only one who is blind would not see that the corpse of a tzadik is merely the garment of a man who departed – and cast aside his cloak.”

The faith of the women, the faith that lived on in the women, was due to Miriam’s shining example in the exalted way she lived – and died, which taught them – and teaches us, how a Jewish heroine lives for herself, for the nation, and for G-d. 

Of Rabbi Machlis, and his legendary wife Henny Machlis a’h, Sara Yoheved Rigler writes, “A young, mentally ill American-Israeli man named Oren spent much time in the closed ward of mental hospitals, where R’ Machlis visited him regularly.  Though he did not come from a religious background, Oren always referred to R’ Machlis as ‘my rabbi.’  Though he had a very anti-religious side to him, Oren often came for Shabbos to the Machlis’.  Sometimes, he was out of control, violent and angry, and the police or Magen David Adom had to be called…

“Nevertheless, both R’ Machlis and Henny always treated Oren with endless patience and love.  Henny spent countless hours listening to him.  Henny would encourage Oren, ‘Tell me a joke.’  ‘What do you call the birds at the Kotel?  Birds of pray,’ Oren would offer.  Henny would laugh uproariously, and even if she had heard the joke before, she would laugh.

“‘Henny had a very high tolerance level,’ recalls R’ Machlis.  ‘She had a lot of things going on in her life, but Oren could be here for hours talking to her, and she always made him feel important and loved.  Not all people need food, but all people need love – love and attention and someone to listen to them.  Henny spent a lot of time with him, more time than me.  He needed a tremendous amount of patience.’

“Oren attempted suicide many times.  After years on dialysis, he died a natural death in his early forties.  R’ Machlis conducted the funeral and, crying, delivered the eulogy.  He begged Oren’s forgiveness for one time when he did not respond to his phone call” (Emunah with Love and Chicken Soup, p.72-74).

Why does the story of Miriam’s death follow the laws of parah adumah (the red heifer), with which our parsha opens (Bamidbar 19)?  Rashi teaches: לוֹמַר לָךְ, מַה קָּרְבָּנוֹת מְכַפְּרִין, אַף מִיתַת צַדִּיקִים מְכַפֶּרֶת – to teach you that just as the offerings atone, so too, does the death of the righteous atone (Rashi to Bamidbar 20:1). 

The righteous teach us in life, and continue to teach us in death.  Their dedication to fellow man, to the community, and to Torah and mitzvos, sets a shining example for who we can, and who we should, strive to be.  Though Miriam’s death is recorded in Parshas Chukas, her legacy lives on, if we can but emulate her ways – and the ways of all righteous Bnos Yisroel (Jewish women) who followed in her path.  May her death continue to be an atonement for our people, as we learn from her ways and emulate her deeds.

בברכת בשורות טובות ושבת שלום,


  • Malki Ben-David
    Posted at 08:19h, 21 June

    This divrei torah was so beautifully written. Thank you for sharing!

  • Joyce Klein
    Posted at 11:08h, 22 June

    Such a meaningful explanation!
    I must save this!
    Thank you Michal!
    Good Shabbos!