On Tuesday the 18th, the synagogue will have a Torah festival in which the entire Torah will be presented by various members of the congregation, piece by piece, in 60 second portions, or parashot. I took up the challenge of presenting one of these pieces, and was assigned a dense block of text--Numbers 19.1-22.1. Here is what I will present on Tuesday:
Bookended by the deaths of Miriam and Aaron, Chukat provides a means of unlocking the Torah’s symbolic nexus. At this point in its journey through the wilderness, the community is smarting from its wounds, touched by death. The sacrifice of a flawless red cow provides "water of lustration" to purge the Israelites of their impurities. The color of the cow and its gender, linked to fertility, possess immense power. But how does this arcane ceremony connect with the death of Miriam that follows? Commentators have remarked on the lack of fanfare this death receives. We are told only that Miriam died at a place called Kadesh (Holy), and was buried there.
Miriam once acted as a kind of midwife to the Jewish people by setting her brother Moses adrift in the birth canal of the Nile. Here, her death, like the sacrifice of the flawless red cow, compensates for the community's misdeeds. The Christian notion that the death of a righteous person enables atonement has its roots here. Miriam dies in order to purify the community. The word "lustration" means not only "purification" but the act of census or taking stock. Miriam's death encourages the people to take stock of their actions and repent, an act of holiness echoing the name of Miriam's place of death.