Miriam passed away towards the end of forty years in the desert the only woman to die during this era. This information is juxtaposed to the laws of the Red Cow, a law which was activated 39 years earlier. Rashi picks up on this anomaly and answers that this comes to teach us in the same way sacrifices atone, so too does the death of the righteous atone.
Why both? Why do we need sacrifices and the passing of the righteous? What does the death of tzaddikim attain that korbonos fail to achieve?
Granted that the loss righteous are needed what sin prompted the need for Miriam’s death?
Perhaps we can pick up a clue from what transpired when Miriam expired. After her departure the well which existed in her merit vanished and the people started to grumble for water. Their request for water was legitimate, however the manner in which they demanded water was incorrect. This revealed an underlying flaw in their Middos, it is perhaps for this reason that Miriam died, and her death was to atone for their bad characteristics.
This then is the difference between Tzaddikim and Korbonos. Sacrifices come to atone for wrong actions; it is even possible to bring a korbon for wrong thoughts. However, it is possible that a person can be wicked even though there is no action to pin on him. For example a person can become frequently angry and frustrated without physically or emotionally injuring anyone, yet that person is far from the right path.
Not only do individuals exhibit faulty character development but sometimes an entire community may be going down the wrong road, a community might be sliding without actually transgressing any law. Tzaddikim who anchor and protect the generation, atone for the “community”. The death of a tzaddik can serve as a wake up message and provide forgiveness.
When a tzaddik dies – Think.
Rabbi Elazar Menachem Man Shach (1899 – 2001) besides for being recognized as the Gadol Ha-Dor, was the Rosh Hayeshiva of “ Ponevezh”, a world renowned Yeshiva located in Bnei Brak. Rabbi Chaim Friedländer, filled the position as Ponevezh mashgiach.
Rabbi Chaim was diagnosed with cancer and the disease already in its advanced stages. The doctors told Reb Chaim he had two weeks to live.
With just two weeks left Reb Chaim was unsure how to maximize his time left in this world. Should he try and finish a mesechta, or start an interest free Gemach, or give as many public lectures as possible. Unsure of what to do, Reb Chaim approached Rav Shach for his sagacious advice.
Rav Shach told him “Work on your Middos, the Vilna Goan tells us that our primary purpose in this world is to refine our character, and therefore improving your Middos should be your main focus”!
It is proper not to postpone consoling mourners till Shabbos. (Mishna Berurah 287:1).