Chapter 20 of the biblical book of Numbers could be renamed "The Transition of Leadership." Approaching this chapter, the leadership triumvirate of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam guide the Israelite people based on God's direction. The chapter begins with Miriam's death. After Miriam dies, the people complain about the lack of water. In God's response, Moses and Aaron are told they will not enter the promised land. The first part of this prophecy is brought to fruition at the end of the chapter when Aaron dies.
There is obvious symmetry in the chapter opening with Miriam's death and closing with Aaron's, but there is some less obvious symmetry as well that underscores the transformational nature of this chapter.
Numbers 20:1 begins with five words:
וַיָּבֹ֣אוּ בְנֵֽי־יִ֠שְׂרָאֵ֠ל כׇּל־הָ֨עֵדָ֤ה
Va'yavo-oo v'nei Yisrael kol haeidah
They went, the children of Israel, all of the tribe/community
The verse concludes with the death of Miriam. Jumping to verse 22 of the chapter we have the exact same five words used as the Israelites move to the mountain where Aaron dies.
At first read, there doesn't seem to be anything unusual about these words, all of which appear many times throughout the Torah. However, these two verses are the only places where they are arranged in this way - which has an impact on the meaning. The more typical construct of these words would be:
Kol adat b'nei Yisrael
All of the Children-of-Israel tribe/community
I am one of those people who enjoys the nuances of Hebrew grammar, so a quick explanation: in the common phrasing above, the nouns b'nei Yisrael ("Children of Israel') and adah ("tribe/community"), are pushed together in the s'michut grammatical form (which is kind of like the Hebrew version of compound words). For this reason, I have translated this expression as "all of the Children-of-Israel tribe" - the Children-of-Israel tribe in contrast to another tribe.
What we have in our Torah portion is different. The two terms do not rely on each other. Everett Fox translates the phrase in Numbers 20 as "the Children of Israel, the entire community." The fact that the deaths of Aaron and Miriam are framed with these words, used nowhere else in the Torah in this way, is noteworthy.
Medieval commentator Rashi suggests that the arrangement of the words in both verses is to emphasize that this is the community that, in its entirety, would enter the Promised Land. Reflecting on Numbers 20:22, Rashi quotes an earlier midrash:
What is the meaning of "the whole congregation?" A complete congregation, a congregation which would be entering the Land, since those who had come out from Egypt had died. These were the ones of whom it is written (in Deuteronomy 4:4), "But you who clung to the Eternal your God are all alive today." (Midrash Tanchuma, Chukat 14)
With this understanding, the transition of leadership is even clearer. Not only do Miriam and Aaron die here, but anyone else who was not to enter the Promised Land has also died by now. We continue to read the chapter and learn of the transfer of the priest's clothing to Aaron's son when Aaron is "gathered to his kin" (Numbers 20:24).
There is public mourning for 30 days. Following this period of shloshim, the chapter concludes, and the Israelite camp begins to move. And the people complain… again! The language is similar to earlier complaints of the Israelites - why have you brought us out of Egypt to die in the wilderness where there is no bread and no water? (Numbers 21:5).
How is it possible that this is the transformed people who are, according to Rashi, "perfect and destined to enter the Promised Land"?
The scene appears to be following the "complaining Israelites" formula that can be seen many times in the book of Numbers. The people complain, God gets angry, and bad things happen to the people - in this case, fiery serpents.
But here is something that is not expected, and shows that the next generation of Israelites is emerging:
The people came to Moses and said, "We sinned by speaking against God and against you. Intercede with God to take away the serpents from us!" And Moses interceded for the people. (Numbers 21:7)
This is the first time that the people take responsibility for their actions and acknowledge that they have erred. In fact, the Hebrew word that is used, chet, is the same one that permeates our High Holy Day liturgy when we talk about missing the mark. In Judaism, we aren't expected to be perfect, but we are expected to acknowledge when we have missed the mark, take responsibility, and take steps to do better in the future.
Numbers 21 is the first time that the Israelites do this. They do not place blame on Moses or God, nor do they bend the truth as Aaron does when following the Golden Calf. Rather, they step up and say, "what we did wasn't right. We missed the mark by speaking against God and you." This is the first sign of the maturing of the Israelite community.
The importance of accepting responsibility isn't just a lesson for the Israelite community as they prepare to enter the Promised Land, it is a lesson that each of us must learn in our own lives. It takes time to acquire the maturity and courage to look within and recognize how we have missed the mark, but it is a key ingredient in growing to each of our full potentials, just as it was for the Israelites.