Parashat Chukat tells the famous story of Mei Meriva, when Benei Yisrael complained about the lack of water in Kadesh, and God instructed Moshe to produce water from a stone.
The story of Mei Meriva begins by informing us of the death of Miriam, Moshe’s sister (20:1), and the very next verse tells that the nation found itself without water. To explain the connection between the two episodes, the Keli Yakar suggests, boldly, that Benei Yisrael were punished for failing to accord Miriam proper honor upon her death. She was buried without much attention and without widespread eulogies, which would have been befitting for a woman of her stature, and so God punished Benei Yisrael by withholding water from them.
This theory gives rise to the question of why, in fact, Benei Yisrael failed to properly mourn for and eulogize Miriam. What might be the cause of this slight to her honor?
It would seem natural to associate the Keli Yakar’s theory with the last time when Miriam is mentioned in the Torah – the story of her disparaging remarks about Moshe, for which she was punished with tzara’at (chapter 12). Although that episode occurred many years earlier, the Klausenberger Rebbe suggested that the people still resented Miriam’s disrespect for their devoted leader and teacher, and they therefore could not bring themselves to give her the honor she deserved after her death.
As the Rebbe proceeded to note, this explanation adds a striking dimension to the ensuing story of Mei Meriva. Soon after Miriam’s death, the people faced a crisis and cast the blame on Moshe. They angrily berated Moshe for bringing them out of Egypt into the wilderness – even though they had been cared for with manna and water for nearly forty years. The venom spewed towards Moshe at that time far surpassed Miriam’s disparaging remarks about Moshe. And thus right after the people showed their disdain for Miriam on account of her insulting comments spoken about Moshe decades earlier, they turned around and hurled far worse insults at Moshe. The Klausenberger Rebbe suggested that it was this hypocrisy that angered Moshe, prompting him to deridingly call the people “morim” (20:10), which Rashi understood to mean “fools.”
Significantly, we might add, God did not display any anger towards the people at Mei Meriva. To the contrary, His anger was directed at Moshe and Aharon, who themselves reacted angrily to the people’s complaints. Although the people acted unreasonably and hypocritically, nevertheless, Moshe and Aharon were expected to respond with patience and empathy, recognizing that the people’s outburst was brought on by a dire crisis. They may, indeed, have acted like “morim,” like hypocritical fools, but the appropriate response from the leadership was sensitivity and understanding. People facing hardship often act irrationally, and we must respond with patience and tolerance, rather than exacerbating their pain with harsh criticism.