There are many dilemmas and debates boiling over in our country at this moment in time. In truth, there are always challenging decisions that confront us individually and as a society. Now, however, there is an acuteness to them that is indeed unique. Everything from pandemic responses and police reform, to personal decisions about how to donate or demonstrate for causes we believe in, each of them calls us to weigh our decisions carefully and with wisdom.
In this way, the Israelites in the desert struggled similarly. Each decision was one with numerous and profound repercussions. Serious mistakes had already been made, lives had been lost. Though a cloud and pillar of fire may have guided the people, the path forward towards building thriving lives and a functioning society still seemed shrouded and unclear. Against this backdrop, the Talmud relates a fascinating teaching. Noticing that in parshat hukat, the death of Miriam is immediately followed by a lack of water, the Talmud tells us that it was in Miriam’s merit that the people had a well of water that accompanied them throughout the desert while she was alive. The Talmud then continues and states that furthermore, Aaron’s merit produced the clouds of glory that shielded the Israelites from the elements, and in Moses’ merit there was manna to eat each day (see Ta’anit 9a).
In the tradition of great Jewish philosophers such as Maimonides and Yaakov ibn Haviv, these Talmudic teachings call out to be interpreted not on the literal plane, but rather, on the moral and ethical one. As such, we can look to some fascinating research about wisdom to see that what the Talmud offers us in these teachings is perennial guidance for the predicaments of our modern lives.
In a 2019 book titled “Applying Wisdom to Contemporary World Problems”, which contains findings from university researchers of wisdom traditions and practices from across the globe, one reads about certain common features of “wise decisions”. These include a three part thinking rubric of 1) developing self transcendence 2) considering the perspective of others, and 3) having intellectual humility. This is striking because, as we shall see, these are the qualities that Jewish tradition attributes to the three figures of Miriam, Aaron and Moses.
In midrashic tradition (Exodus Rabbah 1:13-14) it is the child Miriam who is able to convince the Israelite families to continue to have children despite Pharaoh’s harsh decrees. She helps them to transcend themselves in the moment and to act based on a larger picture of national redemption. Aaron is called a “lover of peace and pursuer of peace” by the Mishnah (Avot 1:12), a characteristic that he is able to actualize through his ability to see the perspective of others, sometimes to a fault, as indicated in his capitulation in the incident of the golden calf. Nevertheless, his capacity to inhabit another person’s perspective is indubitable. Finally, it is the Torah itself that tells us of Moses’ humility, stating, “Now Moses was a humble man, more humble than any man on the earth” (Bamidbar 12:3).
Thus, what the Talmud may be teaching us by indicating that Israelites’ survival (by having water, shelter and food) was in the merit of Miriam, Aaron and Moses, is that their survival was made possible through practicing the wisdom of self transcendence, seeing other perspectives and embracing intellectual humility.
When surrounded by a wilderness, be it a physical wasteland, pandemic, or social upheaval, it is easy to feel lost or to default to an egocentric way of thinking. The Torah asks us to be and do more. It asks us to think beyond how things affect just us. It asks us to sincerely see the perspective of another. And it asks us to be humble so that we can learn. It asks us not to wander in the wilderness, but to be wise.