Losing a Leader
It is possible to provide security against other ills, but as far as death is concerned, we men live in a city without walls.
I pray thee, let me go over and see the good land that is beyond the Jordan” (Deut. 3:25). Moses petitioned, and God denied.1Significant portions of this essay were first included in an article by this author, “In Death as in Life,” Bible Review 15:03 (June 1999), available at http://members.bib-arch.org/publication.asp?PubID=BSBR&Volume=15&Issue=3&ArticleID=16. At the end of Deuteronomy, the Israelites reached their final destination, but sadly did not share the joy with those who led them on the arduous journey. Miriam, Aaron, and Moses never got the satisfaction of entering the land, and we cannot help but empathize with their unrequited yearning. They met their deaths on the way. Even the hero died. Moses and company were not spared the fate of all mortals. Their deaths in relatively close sequence indicated to the Israelites that along with the new terrain, they had to transition to new leadership. One of the most striking aspects of the demise of all three is that their deaths mimicked, stylistically and substantively, the lives they respectively led. This technique proves to be a very powerful comment on their personal histories. By reading between the lines of each death scene, we come closer to understanding the contribution of this famous sibling triumvirate. We also understand the hole that losing a leader creates in those who follow.
Miriam in Life and Death
Miriam’s death appears as the main narrative portions of Numbers wind to a close: “And the children of Israel, even the whole congregation, came into the wilderness of Zin in the first of the month; and the people stayed in Kadesh. Miriam died there and was buried there. The community was without water, and they joined against Moses and against Aaron” (Num. 20:1). We are disturbed by the paucity of words, the absence of eventfulness surrounding Miriam’s death and burial. There was no announcement of death as there was in the narratives on Aaron’s and Moses’ passing; there is no comment on the loss. Public mourning is not recorded, only the aggravated complaining of a congregation once again in need. One well-known midrash links verses 1 and 2 artificially by suggesting that the well and water that Israel received while in the desert came in Miriam’s merit and that, with her death, they were taken away. Without her, the children of Israel were thirsty.2Sifrei on Deuteronomy, 205. Yet, there is no recognition in the narrative itself that the people suffered this loss of provision with any awareness of its supposed source. They expressed no sadness. Instead, we are aghast at the self-centeredness of the collective in the face of personal and national tragedy. Another midrash surprises us with its interpretation of events. According to one reading, Moses and Aaron were busy mourning the loss of their beloved sister and were so grief-stricken that when the Israelites appeared at the tent door and realized the news, they backed away. It was at this point that God condemned the brothers: “Public servants, leave here immediately. My children are ravished with thirst and you mourn over an old woman?”3Yalkut Shimoni I:563. Rather than admit any indiscretion on the part of the Israelites, God condemned Moses and Aaron for neglecting their communal responsibilities in favor of private despair.
This midrash, like the text, shows little pity for the loss, and, in fact, compounds our surprise at the text’s dismissiveness. We the readers feel the death of Miriam as a great communal loss. How could those experiencing it not feel it? How could they be so selfish? The initial harshness, however, softens when the matter is framed as a leadership dilemma; communal needs take precedence in a time of crisis over the leader’s personal suffering. It is hard to mourn one death when death becomes a collective shadow over an entire people wasting away from thirst. Even so, they could have paused for a few moments in such a long trek and given Miriam the burial she merited as a faithful servant to the Israelites, a protective sister, an obedient daughter. She did not deserve a death of ignominy. Nor did this neglect teach the Israelites the dignity of leadership, if the death of even one leader was virtually ignored.
If we apply the literary reading of biblical deaths, namely that they often mirror the qualities of a life, then it is easier to unlock the mystery of their deaths. Miriam’s past history sheds light on her demise. Every biblical mention of her name appears curtailed. She is only allotted one verse in her introduction, Exodus 2:4, where she had no name, only a relationship to her younger brother: “And his sister stood from afar.” Her conversation with Pharaoh’s daughter was equally brief. What may be claimed as the climax of her leadership, her singing the Song at the Sea, was only two recorded verses long (Ex. 15:20–21). Numbers 12, the longest narrative stretch involving her, is not as interested in her as it is in a defense of Moses to his siblings. Her name is mentioned only in 12:1 and then later in the chapter when several verses are devoted to her illness. We no longer expect much information about her, and in death, this enigma of brevity continues.
Yet, the stylistic parallels are valuable in that they clue us to a pattern of character development – or, one may even suggest, an arrest of development. Mention of Miriam is almost always overshadowed by the needs of another, most often the needs of the congregation. When she is introduced it is in service of her brother at the behest of her mother, standing by the water. At the splitting of the sea, we expect Miriam to continue her song, only to be told two verses later that, “Moses led Israel onward from the Sea of Reeds and they went out into the wilderness of Shur; and they went three days in the wilderness and found no water” (Ex. 15:22). There is an obvious parallel between this climactic moment and the anonymity of Miriam’s death. Attention to her is consistently bypassed by the needs of the congregation, even at her death. Specifically it is the need for water that takes precedence time and again. Although the midrash mentioned earlier attributes the water to Miriam’s credit, it seems to serve only as an obstruction to a sustained focus on her. It is no wonder that her name means “bitter waters.”
The only caveat to this is in Numbers 12:15–16 when she was expelled from the camp for seven days with the biblical disease commonly referred to as leprosy. Her illness was a consequence of the slander of Moses. Nevertheless, the Israelites waited for her to be healed before continuing their journey: “And Miriam was shut up without the camp seven days; and the people journeyed not till Miriam was brought in again. And afterward the people journeyed from Hazerot and encamped in the wilderness of Paran.” We sense the honor awarded her in their waiting, but also the inconvenience to the large camp her sickness posed. Although here the interruption in textual focus on her is positive, still the narrative moves quickly from her to the ongoing trek of the Israelites: “And afterward the people journeyed from Hazerot and encamped in the wilderness of Paran.”
Miriam is somewhat of an anomaly in the role established for women from the book of Genesis. We know nothing of her own family life, with the exception of the names of her brothers. She is not identified in the biblical text as a wife or a mother, but instead, in Exodus 15, as a sister and as a prophetess. And the unusual and disquieting information about her death is in keeping with the unusual parameters of her character. In Yalkut Shimoni, Moses is depicted as carrying Miriam’s head and Aaron, her feet. Both are engaged in her burial and grieve privately over her death. This midrash creates a portrait of a tripod that has lost one of its legs. Instead of this sibling triumvirate standing in unison, now two stand vertically and support the third who lies lifeless, horizontally.
Miriam’s death is an omen of the upcoming death of the brothers. The structure of leadership was changing; the wilderness was swallowing it. Miriam demonstrates a sad truth about death. The actual moment of death is, for most, not a staged beautiful closure. It is a jarring, abrupt cessation of life that leaves a wide, inexplicable gap for those left behind. But life and the biblical narrative continue despite the loss, as depicted in the text. The midrashim on this incident offer death what the passage of time offers death: hindsight, reflection, and a fuller, more gentle measurement of individual worth. Helen Keller once said, “Death is no more than passing from one room into another. But there’s a difference for me, you know, because in that other room I shall be able to see.” In the “other room” of our midrash, we are able to see Miriam’s death and the heaviness of her loss at a distance. The two portraits of death, that of the text and that of the midrash, stand side by side. Her immediate loss was eclipsed by the urgent needs of the collective, but her death ultimately exacted a far deeper grief. Only when we lost Miriam did we also begin to celebrate her life.
Aaron: Mourned by the Community
Aaron’s death is awarded more detail, but no less mystery. In the very same chapter in which Miriam’s death is recorded, Aaron’s passing is also described:
And they journeyed from Kadesh; and the children of Israel, even the whole congregation came unto Mount Hor. And the Lord spoke unto Moses and Aaron in Mount Hor, by the border of Edom, saying, “Aaron shall be gathered unto his people; for he shall not enter the land which I have given unto the children of Israel, because you rebelled against my words at the waters of Meribah. Take Aaron and Eleazar his son and bring them up unto Mount Hor. And strip Aaron of his garments and put them upon Eleazar, his son; and Aaron shall be gathered unto his people and shall die there.” And Moses did as the Lord commanded; and they went up into Mount Hor in the sight of all the congregation. And Moses stripped Aaron of all his garments and put them upon Eleazar his son and Aaron died there on the top of the mount; and Moses and Eleazar came down from the mount. And when all the congregation saw that Aaron was dead, they wept for Aaron thirty days, even all the house of Israel. (Num. 20:22–29)
There are several fascinating aspects of this passage, but most notable are the repeated mention of the community, the forewarning Aaron received about his death, the presence of his brother and son at the moment of his passing, and the curious legacy of the clothing. In many respects, Aaron’s death is the most complete narrative depiction of the three; it appears there was time for him to prepare for the moment, to spend it with his family, and to depart in the presence of his community. It is a sharp contrast from the beginning of Numbers 20; Miriam’s death was both sudden and solitary.
The passage begins in similar fashion to Miriam’s death scene, as an interruption of the sojourns of the children of Israel. Here, however, there is special mention of the “whole congregation.” It is this group that frames the passage, as it closes with “all the house of Israel.” Again in the middle we are reminded that this event takes place “in the sight of all the congregation.” That the whole congregation would travel together and mourn collectively for one of its leaders comes as no surprise, but the noticeable absence of this communal presence in the death of Miriam and, to a lesser degree, Moses, makes it noticeable here. Aaron had been a man of the people. He served as spokesman to them and orchestrated the plan for the Golden Calf in consonance with their wishes. In rabbinic literature, he is lauded as a pursuer of peace, a mediator who was devoted to his constituents. While he may have erred in some respects (Deuteronomy 9:20 records God’s displeasure with Aaron for his involvement in the sin of the calf: “And the Lord was very angry with Aaron to have destroyed him”), Aaron was a defender of the people. He had mercy on their faults and, through the generosity of his spirit, was able to overlook some of their evil tendencies. God seems to find more mercy for those too generous than for those who were not generous enough. One midrash queries why Moses was not accorded the same public mourning and concludes, “since he judged strictly and criticized whereas Aaron never said a negative word to any man.”4Avot DeRabbi Natan 12. For this, the midrash concludes, Aaron was awarded the appellation “a pursuer of peace.” Aaron’s mistake was in loving the congregation too much. It is no coincidence, then, that his death would be framed by the presence of the people he unconditionally loved.
Aaron was the natural choice to be a representative of the people. In this public capacity, clothing was particularly significant. An entire chapter of Exodus (28) is devoted to the creation of the priestly vestments: “And thou shall make holy garments for Aaron thy brother for honor and for beauty” (Ex. 28:2). The priest had to be properly clothed to serve his holy task, to garner respect for his position as the divine emissary. Rather than view this as a concession to human aesthetics and materialism, the Bible views such dress as an important means to enhance the divine image. Aaron’s disposition made him “well-suited” to the wearing of such garments; where Moses himself confessed his deficiencies as a leader in the beginning of Exodus – “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?” (Ex. 3:11); “I am not an eloquent man” (Ex. 4:10) – Aaron was chosen as his voice. Where Moses covered his face with a veil when bringing the commandments off the mount (Ex. 34:33), Aaron appeared before the congregation in the full splendor of the vestments. Moses shied away from some of the public aspects of leadership. Aaron, on the other hand, was able to act and dress the part of a public persona.
At his death, Aaron bequeathed this legacy of leadership to his son, Eleazar, symbolically through his clothing. According to one midrash, the fabric of his life was so intertwined with the fabric of his clothing that Moses was unsure how to disrobe Aaron while he was in the process of dying. In another midrash God interjected and told Moses to do his task and the Heavens would do theirs. As Aaron was dying, Moses asked him, “Tell me what you see.” Aaron responded, “I see naught but the clouds of honor clothing me as you disrobe me.”5Yalkut Shimoni I:763. Even in death, Aaron moved from one wardrobe to another, exchanging the clothes of this life for a new set of other-worldly coverings.
With this disrobing, Aaron met his death with equanimity. In the text, Aaron’s death was foretold. In another midrash, it was Moses who had to tell Aaron he was about to die. Unsure how to broach the subject, he woke Aaron early in the morning, confessing difficulty with a matter of study on which he sought his brother’s advice. Moses was bothered that in Genesis, as a consequence of Adam’s behavior, the first man introduced mortality to the world. Aaron responded, “Moses, my brother, do not speak thus, are we also not to accept the divine decree?”6See Yalkut Shimoni, Ĥukkat and Sefer HaAggada [Hebrew], eds. H.N. Bialik and W.H. Rawnitsky (Tel Aviv: Devir, 1987), no. 108, 71. When Moses saw that Aaron understood the inevitability of death, Moses revealed that Aaron was soon to meet his Maker. The sense of peace conveyed in the midrash, a gentle transition from this world to the next, is even more exaggerated in the continuation of the midrash as Moses dictated Aaron’s death scene and Aaron conceded:
Said Moses to Aaron, “Rise up, my brother to this bed.” He rose. “Extend your arms.” He extended them. “Shut your eyes.” He shut them. “Close your mouth.” He closed it. Immediately the Divine Presence descended, kissed him and he died.7Ibid.
These midrashim convey Aaron’s ability to face death. It was for him as simple as removing his clothing, as if the outer shell was a reflection of the inner life. Aaron was so enmeshed in the responsibility symbolized by his clothing that passing the clothing on to his son was enough to signal his death. He was able to follow simple directives; he succumbed to divine judgment limb by limb. In Numbers 27:13, Moses was told that he, too, would die “as your brother Aaron was collected up unto his people.” Rashi comments on this strange expression; death is one of the most unique expressions of individuality. Could it be that Moses would have the same death as his brother? Rather, Rashi suggests, Moses envied the death of his brother and pined for its equanimity. He wished, as perhaps any human would, for a death forewarned, a death shared with one’s family and community, a death where fate is accepted with peace. Aaron died that way because he lived that way.
Moses’ Final Debate
Not so Moses. Moses argued from the moment he became a leader to the moment of his death. It is not surprising that when he finally died, Deuteronomy 34:7 reads: “And Moses was a hundred and twenty years old when he died; his eyes were not dim, nor his natural force abated.” We sense a man taken by force, open-eyed and full of life, hungry to cross the Jordan and fighting against his very last breath. Tennyson wrote,
No life that breathes with human breath
Has ever truly longed for death.
How true ring his words for Moses.
Moses received forewarning of death like his brother, but unlike his brother he was told long before, in the book of Numbers, chapter 20, only to die at the end of Deuteronomy 34. He is told again and again that he would sleep with his ancestors.8See Deuteronomy 31:14, 31:16, and 32:49–50. Why is he told on several occasions to ascend a mountain to see the place from afar that he would never enter? Why did God not hearken to his plea, “Let me go over, I pray Thee, and see the good land that is beyond the Jordan” (Deut. 3:25)? Why was this fighter allowed more time to prepare for his final debate than his siblings?
One could argue that Moses’ first act of leadership or role as protector came in Exodus 2:11–14, when Moses saw one of his brothers shamed by the physical force of his taskmaster. He saw discord and put himself at the center of it, a place he gravitated to throughout his leadership. After killing the Egyptian, Moses immediately tried to break up a fight between two Hebrews and, ironically, questioned the use of violence. The Hebrew slave turned to Moses and offered up the question that, as we saw earlier, would color and typify Moses’ long tenure of leadership: “Who made you chief and ruler over us?” (Ex. 2:14). In essence, this small scene foreshadows the vicissitudes that Moses faced in the wilderness. It is the seed of contention that germinated into much larger personal battles: the constant bitterness of the Israelites in the desert, the intimate questioning of his character by his own siblings, the battle waged by Korah and his followers against Moses’ leadership. It is against this backdrop of dissonance that Moses’ death must be analyzed. Moses was a fighter. He fought for his life as an infant on the Nile, he fought God over his death, and he fought in many other skirmishes in between.
Moses was told, near the end of Numbers, that he, like Miriam and Aaron, would die.
And the Lord said to Moses, “Get thee up into the mountain of Abarim, and behold the land which I have given unto the children of Israel. And when thou hast seen it, thou also shall be gathered unto thy people, as Aaron thy brother was gathered; because you rebelled against My commandment in the wilderness of Zin, in the strife of the congregation, to sanctify Me at the waters before their eyes.” (Num. 27:12–14)
Thus, as a very result of conflict, Moses was punished. His punishment was not only death but also a death that would, because of its location, signify unrequited longing. He was taken up to Mount Nebo to look at the land, but “[he was] buried in the valley near the land of Moab near Beth-peor; and no one knows his burial place to this day” (Deut. 34:6). Three times was he told to go up on three different mountains to see the land that he would not enter, and with the irony that marks so many tragedies, he was buried in a valley.
The fighting spirit of Moses is also captured in the numerous midrashim that record his emotions at this time. Perhaps the most striking of these is a very lengthy plea to God, the angels, and the natural world to spare his life. “When Moses beheld that the divine decree had been sealed [signifying his death] he drew a small circle and stood within it and said, ‘Master of the Universe I will not move from here until you cancel the decree.’” 9Deuteronomy Rabba 7:1 as seen in Sefer HaAggada, no. 137, 77. Here Moses sulked like a stubborn child to a strict parent. He would fight this last fight until he won with his life. Contrast this to the unruffled, almost effortless way that Aaron accepted his death, particularly in its midrashic treatment. In one of the most painful expressions of Moses’ tenacity, the midrash records Moses plea-bargaining with God:
At that moment, Moses said before the Holy One, blessed be He, “Master of the Universe, is it known to You the anguish that I suffered over Israel until they would believe in Your name? How much I suffered because of them until they observed the Torah and commandments? I said [to myself] I see them in their suffering; I will see them in their fortune. And now that the good of Israel has come You say to me, ‘You will not cross the Jordan.’” (Deut. 3:26)10Ibid., 76.
God in this midrash was uncompromising. Moses took his case to the heavens, the sun and moon, the stars and mountains. In every direction, he supplicated for mercy, for a voice to compete with the finality of God’s voice. But Moses was a voice alone. This loneliness in death sharply contrasts with the death of his brother, Aaron, and also reflects the very solitary nature of his leadership. Martin Buber captures the silence and aloneness of the act: “As he is making his way over the ridge and is mounting to the level summit, he is reminiscent of one of those noble animals that leave their herd in order to perish alone.”11Martin Buber, Moses: The Revelation and the Covenant (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1958), 201. But neither the midrash nor a modern scholar can capture the cold, unyielding absence of company as does the Bible with its economy of words “and no man knows of his grave to this day.”
Moses died alone, his eyes undimmed, his natural force unabated, because in this spirit he lived. He lived essentially without family, forgoing normal domestic bonds for a life as God’s servant. He fought God in defense of the people and the people in the defense of God. Mostly, he was a constant fighter against injustice, be it a cruel taskmaster, a group of bullying shepherds, or the illness of his sister. In his last, great battle, he fought against the injustice of his own death.
Those They Left Behind
Miriam and Aaron died in a book where so many of their generation also took their last breaths. Moses knew, in light of his losses, that he, too, would be going the way of all men soon enough. The Israelites also paid a price with their souls for this journey. Rashi tells us this as the narrative unfolds yet again. As their leadership died off and they approached Canaan, they were also exposed to enemies. The giants they bemoaned earlier became living beings who denied them access to trespass their lands. More importantly, these enemies did not have to be giants to imperil their lives and obstruct their journey.
Numbers 21 opens with a war between the king of Canaan and the Israelites. It lasts only one verse but Israelites, whom we do not hear of again, were taken captives of war. One midrash, to minimize the pain of this fact, contends through word play that it was only one maid who was actually taken.12Yalkut Shimoni I:764. But this midrash does not get the last word. As a result of this latest skirmish, the Israelites changed course and veered to the Reed Sea, a location mentioned in Deuteronomy 1:40 as the site of trouble. It is precisely at this location that the order to wander further in the desert as a punishment for their reaction to the scouts had been given. The wilderness long ago stopped being their refuge. It was now their prison. Realizing the change of course and the implications, the Israelites cried out again:
They set from Mount Hor by way of the Sea of Reeds to skirt the land of Edom. But the soul of the people was much discouraged because of the way, and the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why did you make us leave Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread and no water, and we have come to loathe this miserable food.” (Num. 21:4–5)
The complaints were the same, but were now spurred on because of new factors: war captives, a battle with the Canaanites, and the backtracking on the journey because of obstacles. And yet, the complaints we hear are essentially the same. Water. Bread. For once, Rashi takes a sympathetic view of the people’s distress in his interpretation of the troubling expression “But the soul of the people was much discouraged because of the way” (Num. 21:4). Rashi explores a host of biblical expressions where the soul suffers to give meaning to the Israelites’ suffering:
“The soul of the people was much discouraged because of the way”:…because of the difficulties of the journey which were so hard for them. They said, “Now we are close enough to enter the land, and yet we have to turn back. Just so had our fathers to turn back and they stayed in the wilderness thirty-eight years until this day.” Consequently, their soul became discouraged because of the hardship of the journey.13Rashi, Numbers 21:1.
Rashi then states that in the Bible, no mention is made of the suffering of a soul without a concomitant explanation, offering proof texts to support this claim.14To prove his point, Rashi cites Zechariah 2:8, Judges 10:16, Zechariah 11:8, and Job 10:16. He sums up his lengthy comments with the following observation: “the phrase ‘shortening of the soul’ signifies that one cannot bear it – the mind cannot bear it.”15Rashi, Numbers 21:1.
The people began to experience the fullness of loss and grief, not only over their situation, but over the recent loss of leadership that left them even more aware of their insecurity, of potential enemies, of their dried-up food resources. The complaints had not changed. What changed were the guardian angels in the guise of a heroic family who protected them along the way. The Israelites were so busy challenging their leadership that they failed to understand how much they needed their leaders until they were no longer there.
We might refer to this as what psychologists call the “fundamental attribution error,” blaming the wrong source for problems. They saw their leaders as their problems, until they lost their leaders and then they had only themselves to blame. This is implied in Boyatzis and McKee’s Resonant Leadership:
One of the problems with attributing success to our own efforts and failure to others’ shortcomings is that, under stress, we end up seeing the world in very black-and-white terms, and we slowly lose the ability to see ourselves, or those around us, realistically. We miss a lot. Then, when things do go wrong, it is very easy to continue to blame others, and feel sorry for ourselves as things deteriorate – especially when the downturn feels like a surprise and follows a period of denial…. When we live like this, we often find ourselves becoming a shadow of who we thought we were.16Boyatzis and McKee, Resonant Leadership, 47.
In the wilderness, with no one else to blame, the Israelites became a literal and figurative shadow of themselves as a community. The deaths of their leaders paralleled their own dying selves. Some disappeared into the landscape. Some were like walking dead who caved in to seductions and lust, desires and impulses, because they were only half-alive anyway. If the deaths of Miriam, Aaron, and Moses as their leaders matched their lives, then the same was also true of those they led.
To die a death that mimics life in these texts is not a reward or a punishment, but a simple, almost expected continuation of life itself. In the words of contemporary writer and physician Sherwin B. Nuland, “death is not a confrontation. It is simply an event in the sequence of nature’s ongoing rhythms.”17Sherwin B. Nuland, How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994), 10. That Miriam should spend her life in service of others and not die that way would be uncharacteristic. That Aaron would die without contentment or the presence of his community is unthinkable. That Moses should contend with the uncompromising nature of life and yield to it immediately in his death would almost disappoint. The tragedy of the text is ultimately for the reader of the Bible and not its heroes. Life does not always mimic art, and the lives we lead, however noble or selfless or contentious, do not necessarily translate into self-styled death scenes. How rewarding it would be to die as Petrarch recommends, “A good death does honor to a whole life.” But, unfortunately, these death scenes in no way indicate to the innocent reader that we can control death. Quite the opposite. The God of these narratives collected His dues at unexpected moments. Yet perhaps the texts encourage a small, even illusionary, hope that we are to be ultimately remembered not by how we die, but by how we live. That is how we remember Miriam, Aaron, and Moses. Their deaths are only a confirmation of what we always knew about them.
The death of a leader forces succession and a transition that can be uncomfortable and unexpected. We do not betray the legacy of a leader who died by looking for the next leader. We honor the memory of a leader by appointing a new leader in his or her place because we continue the legacy of concern and commitment that they have established. It is an ultimate act of trust. We continue because we must. If biblical leadership demonstrates a repeated pattern it is this; hardly one leader passes before another one is determined. We do not let a nation suffer or thrive without a leader. We continue after a leader dies because the leader who has left us would have continued had he been able to continue. The investment of one leader must translate into the ongoing nurturing of the next. Meaningful and responsible survival demands it. Jewish history demands it.