Prophets, Priests and Politicians: Parashat Korah, Numbers 19:1 – 22.1 15.06.13
Repeatedly, Moses is described as the greatest leader the Jewish people ever had. There was also no one like Miriam. Without Aaron, would Moses have reached his great success? In this segment, both Miriam and Aaron die in that order; shortly thereafter it will be Moses’ turn. All three die in that final year in the wilderness without entering the Promised Land. What an illustrious and mutually complementary leadership the trio had made. As it is written in Micah (6:4), “I brought you forth out of the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of bondage, and I sent before you Moses, and Aaron, and Miriam.” (See also I Chronicles 5:29)
Moses was the rabbi, the teacher/leader (Moshe Rabbenu מֹשֶׁה רַבֵּנוּ) rather than a high priest or a thundering seer. He was also a man of action who assassinated an Egyptian slave taskmaster and had to flee. He knew when to get out and when and how to get his people out and then traverse enemy territory successfully.
The Torah speaks of Moses and the prophets; rarely does it suggest that Moses was a prophet. Yet most Christian and many Jewish commentaries assert he was the greatest prophet that ever lived. He was not only not the greatest prophet, he was not even one at all contrary to Maimonides’ claim. He was the greatest political leader. However, a great political leader does not a prophet make.
Moses’ older sister was the prophet. Moses recognizes and acknowledges this. (Exodus 15:20) He does not refer to himself as one. Dubbing Moses a prophet confuses the different leadership roles of politicians, prophets and priests. For one, Moses, like Jonah, was called by God to assume his role. He did so extremely reluctantly. Upon her mother’s suggestion, when only a child herself, Miriam decided to rescue her younger infant brother from the edict of death and float him down the Nile to be rescued by the Egyptian princess. It was as if she could foresee how, if raised among the Egyptian nobility, Moses could emerge with leadership skills that would allow him to rescue his people as she had rescued him. That is why, though named by his father, Chaver (father), and called Avigdor by his grandfather, he would henceforth be known by the name given to him by the Pharoah’s daughter, “he who is drawn out”. At the same time, Miriam was clever enough to ensure Moses was instilled with loyalty to his people by convincing the princess to hire Yocheved, his natural mother, as his wet nurse.
Aaron, though also chosen by God for the position of High Priest, in contrast to the selection of his younger brother, Moses, exhibited no reluctance to serve. However, unlike Moses, he was not trained on the job but isolated and given a specific course of detailed instructions in priestly practices. That position was to be continued as part of a dynamic succession rather than by self selection or a call in spite of one’s own desires or self-conception. Miriam would have no part in choosing the prophets that succeeded her. Moses was able to choose his disciple, Joshua, as a successor. Aaron passed on his role through inheritance to his son, Eleazar.
Prophets, politicians and priests not only differ in the way they are selected and how their successors are chosen, they differ in how they exercise their leadership. A politician who thinks the office makes the President (or the Prime Minister) is suffering from a deep and severe delusion. His or her personal authority makes the office. A political leader accumulates and dispenses personal authority, one which is tremendously enhanced when he believes that God is behind him. When Moses leads the Israelite males and sings to the Lord his praises for their deliverance from the Egyptians, he sings as an “I”. (Exodus 15:1) When Miriam sings, she does so in the name of “We”. She was a prophet of and amid the people. Moses was an elitist who delegated power.
A priest has no personal authority at all. He is only an expression of his office and derives his influence from the formal authority granted to that office. In contrast, a prophet or prophetess has neither formal authority nor personal charisma but exercises his or her persuasive power by means of her authentic authority. She has neither coercive power nor the power of high office to give her legitimacy.
Moses needed the early practical training as distinct from a training in practices and procedures. However, without the requisite prudence and the forty years in the wilderness tending sheep to learn what was required to be a shepherd of his people, he would not have been the success he was for he began his active adult life as a very rash and volatile young man. A politician is a legislator. He appoints judges to administer and interpret the law. But it is the law, and not he, which must rule, a law certainly backed by coercive power, but coercive power that backs the rule of law and does not undermine it. A prophet or prophetess operates only through persuasion and not through legislation, persuasion even about how a law itself or an edict or even a leader may have exceeded the bounds of fairness. A priest operates through repetition and making sure the second order rules which maintain the structure of the social system are adhered to with precision and exactitude. That is why, from their very different perspectives, both Miriam and Aaron revolted against Moses and suggested that his power had gone to his head, as much as God may have backed him up, for God continually had to learn to limit His exercise of His power.
Miriam in a Greek world would have been dubbed a goddess of water. Though she was not a goddess, she was the source for divining water in the desert, a source that dried up when Miriam died in Zin in the last year the Israelites were forced to wander in the wilderness. She was an original not to be duplicated. But even her water, so important for cleansing and purification, had its limits as chapter 19 makes clear. Sprinkling water on someone who could not be cleansed of a ritual sin was useless. But when the water was not forthcoming from the rocks after she died, the commonwealth of Israel once again turned against the leadership of Moses and Aaron (20:2) moaning that Moses had led them only to allow them and their cattle to die in the barren wilderness.
Moses fell on his knees and begged God to intervene. God instructed Moses and Aaron to assemble the people with their rods and speak to the rock to ask it to give forth water. (20:8) But instead of speaking, Moses smote the rock with his rod, not once but twice. (20:11) Water finally gushed forth. But God reprimanded both Moses and Aaron for not doing precisely what they were told. Sometimes, a politician’s skills at improvisation and creativity are crucial, but not when commanded by God to do precisely one thing, something which Aaron understood, but the latter allowed himself to play second fiddle to his brother at precisely the time when detailed obeisance was required. Moses was punished for his actions and Aaron for his inaction in not following a precise protocol and procedure when God gave a direct order. Aaron would die five months after Miriam passed away. Prophets could be original and spontaneous. Politicians had to improvise with prudence while priests ensure the rituals that are the prerequisites in order for a society to enact laws, determine policies and carry out actions are followed in meticulous detail.
Miriam was buried in an anonymous place in Kodesh. She is honoured in name only. Aaron died on Mount Hor. Chapter 20, verses 25-29 read: “25 Take Aaron and Eleazar his son, and bring them up unto mount Hor. 26 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.’ 27 And Moses did as the LORD commanded; and they went up into mount Hor in the sight of all the congregation. 28 And Moses stripped Aaron of his garments, and put them upon Eleazar his son; and Aaron died there in the top of the mount; and Moses and Eleazar came down from the mount. 29 And when all the congregation saw that Aaron was dead, they wept for Aaron thirty days, even all the house of Israel.”
The respect for Aaron and his infamous compassion (andrachamim) was expressed in the long period of mourning. In comparison, Miriam had been known for her personal kindness (chesed) and Moses for his righteousness (tzedek). As I explained in an earlier blog, Miriam largely disappeared from the story until the challenge over Moses’ Cushite wife. Miriam, along with Aaron, had not challenged Moses because, as many commentators suggest, he married a dark-skinned woman, a Cush, as if they were both racists. Rather, Miriam was concerned with the hurt and neglect Moses had caused his wife as he dedicated everything to his political cause. The different roles require very different strengths of character which receive, in turn, very different responses; Miriam’s deepest essence was to be considerate of others even if it meant going against a furious, vindictive and punitive God. And the people of Israel remained loyal to her because she always remained among them even as Moses and Aaron rose up to their exalted positions.
For a prophet is a visionary while a politician has to be pragmatic and a priest must exhibit the greatest purity. That is why it is Miriam who has to remind her two brothers that leadership requires and embraces different voices and why God, the defender and expression of the singular commanding voice, punishes her so harshly because He mistakenly believes that His form of leadership can be replicated in human society. That is why each of the three leaders expresses his or herself so differently, Miriam through music, dance and drama, Moses in what he writes and Aaron through his long silences and articulate interventions. For each operates in a different temporal dimension, the prophet as an articulation of eternal time expressed through constant change. A politician like Moses lives in historical time while a priest lives in obeisance to repetitive cycles – the week, the year. Though God spoke directly to Moses and confronted Moses face-to-face, God spoke to Miriam through visions and dreams. It was Miriam who led the women of Israel in song and dance using timbrels to celebrate the Israeli escape from their Egyptian pursuers. (Exodus 15:20-21) “Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; Horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.” As it is written in Jeremiah (31:4), when Israel once again marches forth out into the world, Israelis will go forth with drums, dances and merrymakers rather than swords and guns.
My daughter, Rachel, wrote a poem entitled, “The Song of Miriam’s Well” with a prefatory credit to T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland.
Through the wasteland, I traveled with them.
So there was rock and also water.
A spring, a stone that rolled,
Where no moss grows.
The sound of water and cicada,
And the dry grass singing.
When the Clouds of Glory settled,
I lay on my side,
And dug myself deep into the desert sand.
Date palms sprung up around me,
To shade the noblemen with their buckets,
“Rise up, O well, (And in chorus, they’d answer)
The well our forefathers dug
Maces, staffs, striking the flint face.”
And like a beehive, spewing swarms of bees,
I would spout water for their dry mouths.
They knew how to suckle on rock,
Honey cakes and oil from the flinty stone.
But when my mistress died…
Miriam, who sang at the Nile,
Not knowing if her brother, among the Reeds, was to live or die,
Miriam, who sang at the Reed Sea,
When we emerged alive out of water, this time.
Well, I could sing water no more.
They came with their buckets in the Wilderness of Tzin,
Saying Kaddish for her, named of bitterness,
Miriam, mayim marim.
Stone-faced, I could not even cry.
What does it take to weep sweet water?
This time Moshe’s staff struck twice
And yet no drop.
Now, you are leaving the desert behind.
You are thirsty, your people crying for water.
But I have no mind to roll on with you.
A new water-out-of-rock must be found.
Be the overflowing spring,
Or a cistern that doesn’t lose a drop.
Be the one who digs deep into desert sand.
In Albert Hirschman’s terms, Miriam was the exemplification of loyalty, both in what she gave and what was returned to her in turn by the Israelites. In contrast, as I wrote above, Moses was the exemplification of the exit and not the entry; though he led, he lacked a fluent tongue. Instead, his older brother, Aaron made up for Moses’ speech impediment with his soft and sensitive voice. Together, the three made up one of the greatest leadership teams in history.
 An image based on Midrash Tanhuma Parashat Hukat (9).
 From Deut. 32:13, the image is based on a midrash in TB Sotah 11b.
 She is named for the verse in Ex. 1:14, “for the Egyptians had embittered their lives “.וימררו את חייהם
 Based on Pirkei Avot 2:8.