Chapter 20 in the book of Numbers opens with the decease of Miriam, Moses’ sister. Miriam who had diligently watched the banks of the River Nile and guarded the basket that hid and protected her baby brother, Moses, from Pharaoh, the pathological egotist, who had instituted a program of Hebrew male infanticide; Miriam who had courageously approached the Pharaoh’s daughter when she had discovered the floating basket containing baby Moses, and had asked her if she would allow her to find a Hebrew nursemaid for the child; Miriam who had run home with all her might to alert her mother, Jochebed, and to bring her to Pharaoh’s daughter as Moses’ Hebrew nurse; Miriam the prophetess who had led the women of Israel in a song of exultation and praise to the Lord for delivering his people from the clutches of one of the world’s most powerful empires at the time; Miriam who had succumbed to the rigors and stress of protracted desert life and had thoughtlessly criticized Moses’ Ethiopian wife with Aaron; Miriam, for whom Moses had interceded and begged God to restore and heal her of her leprosy; Miriam whose sin had brought the entire nation of Israel to a standstill as they waited for God to heal her-this same Miriam had just died at Kadesh. The death of a sibling is a traumatic event because the role of a sibling is a unique one, and although sibling relationship may be far from being perfect, it is still significant in that siblings can function as best friends, confidants, surrogate parents, and even role models. No one knows the emotions Moses experienced as a result of Miriam’s death. Sadly, immediately after the announcement of Miriam’s death, we read that the people gathered themselves against Moses and against Aaron, not to comfort them for the loss, but to chide, blame, complain and murmur. Moses had patiently led them all the previous years, but the bitter complaints were unrelentingly frequent. The ingratitude and exasperating pressure from the rebels finally got the best of Moses. We read with sympathetic sadness how he lapsed under the accumulation of verbal onslaught, and sinned against God. Because of his sin, Moses could not lead Israel across the Jordan into the Promised Land. But the record tells us that God, who does exceeding abundantly more that we can ever ask for or think, immensely rewarded Moses, first by burying him Himself and then resurrecting him from the dead. Moses who could have been an Egyptian mummy is now alive forever. He did not only finally enter into the Promised Land, but he stood there on the Mount of Transfiguration, talking to Jesus in resplendent glory.
Sometimes we lose sight of the fact that our leaders-whether they be clergy or secular- are mere human beings prone to making mistakes. We harshly judge them; make crass jokes even about their physical appearances or their families or whatever we focus on to inflict maximum pain on them. The Bible tells us that of all the millions of adults who set out for the Promised Land from Egypt, only two crossed over to possess the land. The rest died in the wilderness, largely due to their sin of murmuring and complaining about the way they were being led. We do not read anywhere that the people came together to pray for strength for Moses or even to show appreciation for the work he was doing for them. All they did was criticize and rebel. Freedom to say whatever we feel about whoever we want to talk about is not without cost as far as God is concerned (Matthew 12:36), particularly if what we say hurts the other person.