What constitutes a successful life?
People cannot evaluate whether they lived a good or bad life until they die. Miriam is an example. Leviticus 12–14 speaks about the metzora, a disease that Jewish sages in the Babylonian Talmud, Arachin 15b and other sources, say was caused by slander. They point to the punishment of Moses’ sister Miriam, as an example of a metzora; she was punished for slandering Moses.
Miriam is not mentioned frequently in Scripture. Her death is announced in Numbers 20:1. Her name occurs in two other Pentateuch narratives: in Exodus 15 where she and other women sing to celebrate the Israelite deliverance from their Egyptian taskmasters, and in Numbers 12 when she criticizes her brother Moses’ behavior to his wife and is punished with metzora. She is also referred to in Exodus 2 where she saves Moses from being killed with other Israelite males when Pharaoh commanded that male children be murdered. She is described there as Moses’ sister, without being named. She is recalled briefly in two other verses. In Numbers 26:59, she is included in the list of children of Amram and Yocheved. In Deuteronomy 24:9, the final recollection, her punishment for her slander of Moses is mentioned and the Israelites are warned not to copy her behavior.
Of the three narratives about Miriam, the two earlier ones – saving her brother and her song of praise – are positive recollections. The third and final one – about her criticism of Moses’ behavior – is conspicuously negative. Of the two simple statements, the one about her genealogy is neutral, without any judgment, but the reminiscence of her criticism, the last time that she is mentioned in the Torah, is a statement of disapproval.
Hillel’s view of success
The first century sage Hillel advises in Pirke Avot 2:3: “Do not be sure of yourself until the day of your death.” This maxim may refer to a change in one’s belief or an alteration in the circumstances of one’s life. Some commentators think that Hillel’s statement was prompted by an historical recollection. He may have recalled his former colleague Menachem. According to the Jerusalem Talmud, Hagigah 77b, “he [Menachem] went forth” and was succeeded by Shammai. One interpretation of “he went forth” is that he became a heretic of some kind.
Don Isaac Abravanel also warns that people’s views can change. He cites the Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 29a, that relates that John, the Hasmonean high priest who lived a century before Hillel, served in his office for eighty years, but at the end of his life he abandoned the ways of the Pharisees and became a Sadducee.
However, the fifteenth century philosopher Shem Tov ibn Shem Tov understood Hillel’s statement differently. He saw Hillel commenting on the turning wheel of fortune. One day one is rich, the next poor; one day successful and happy, the next a failure and sad. The latter interpretation may describe Miriam’s life.
Aristotle and Plutarch
The fourth century B.C.E. Greek philosopher Aristotle, in his Constitution of Athens, and the second century C.E. Greek historian Plutarch in his Parallel Lives, as well as other ancients, recount the story of the sixth century B.C.E. Greek law giver Solon.
After enacting laws for Athens, Solon visited the enormously rich king Croesus. Croesus was extremely proud of his fortune, but wanted to increase it by fighting the Persians and appropriating their wealth. Recognizing Solon as a brilliant scholar, he asked him if he had ever seen a happier man than he. Solon replied that he had. He told Croesus of Tellus who ended his life an honest and reputable man.
Croesus was surprised and asked Solon if he knew anyone else. Solon said he also knew of two brothers who were very affectionate to their mother. Once when they saw that the oxen pulling their mother’s cart were unable to move forward, they took the yoke on their own shoulders and brought their mother to her destination, where everyone marveled and called her a fortunate and happy mother. The brothers laid down to rest and died a painless and tranquil death from their exhaustion, amidst many honors.
Croesus did not understand that Solon was telling him that a person cannot be called happy until after death. Croesus serves as a good example. Although he was one of the richest men of his generation, he died a terrible death. He lost his battle to the Persians and became their slave.
Evaluating Miriam’s life
Although there is little textual support other than the proximity of verses, the Babylonian Talmud, Taanit 9a, states that a well was given to the Israelites during their wilderness sojourn because of the “merit of Miriam.” “When Miriam died the well disappeared, as it said [in Numbers 20:1], ‘And Miriam died there,’ and immediately following [in the next verse], ‘And there was no water for the congregation.’” The Talmud is praising Miriam by stating that she had “merit” and by telling us that God performed a miracle for the Israelites on her behalf.
The Babylonian Talmud, Bava Batra 17a, also relates, again with no textual support, that Miriam died like her brothers with the tranquil death called a “kiss of the Lord.” The notion is based on the use of the words al pi, which is an idiom for “through,” but which literally means “by the mouth.” It is used for Moses in Deuteronomy 34:5 and for Aaron in Numbers 33:38. The words are not found to be associated with Miriam at all. Despite the absence of al pi, it is clear that the rabbis were seeking to show that Miriam ended her life meritoriously.
Yet, although there is also no certain basis for the opposite view, it is possible to say that Miriam’s life was unsuccessful. There is no doubt that Miriam acted bravely and properly in the first two episodes – watching out for Moses and singing praise to God.
However, the final act that the Bible records is her criticism of her brother Moses. Scripture relates that God was not pleased with her behavior and was determined to punish her severely. It was only because of Moses’ prayer that she was saved. Nevertheless, God struck her with leprosy for her act. This negative judgment is repeated in the final statement about her, that the Israelites should always remember why and how she was punished.
Additionally, rather than proving her merit, the two previously-mentioned talmudic statements may be seen as proof of her unhappy situation. They could persuade us of the opposite of what they intend.
The juxtaposition of Miriam’s death and the story of the absence of water can be seen in an entirely different light: The verses were placed together to highlight that the Israelites did not weep for Miriam as they did at the death of her brothers. In fact, if they wept at that time, it was not for her, but for the loss of water. In regard to the “kiss of the Lord,” we see that although we would like to think that Miriam died an easy death, the words used for Moses and Aaron, al pi, are not used for her.
Scripture does not explicitly evaluate whether Miriam ended her life well or not. If we seek to decide this matter, our decision can only be conjecture. The Talmud clearly extols her, but does so with no clear biblical support. She is said to have had a miracle performed because of her merit until the day of her death, and that God granted her the same tranquil end that God gave to her brothers. Yet, on the other hand, the Bible itself records an explicit prominent derogatory episode as her last appearance in Scripture. If she is evaluated based on her final act, she did not live successfully. If this interpretation is correct, it highlights Hillel’s maxim, “Do not be sure of yourself until the day of your death” and do not rely on prior good deeds.
 A version of this explanation appeared in my book “A Rational Approach to Judaism and Torah Commentary,” published by Urim Publications.