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Miriam's Well

  • Rav Michael Hattin
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion


Dedicated in memory of Eliyahu Asheri HY"D.
May HaKadosh Barukh Hu have mercy upon His people and upon His land.
May He return Gilad Shalit home.


Miriam's Well

By Rav Michael Hattin





            Parashat Chukat, midway through Sefer Bamidbar, constitutes the chronological turning point of the Book.  The Parasha begins with a lengthy description of the mysterious rites of the para aduma or red heifer (Bamidbar 19:1-22), a ceremony that restores a state of tahara or ritual fitness to an individual who has come into contact with a human corpse or grave.  This red heifer, that has not more than even two black hairs (!), is slaughtered outside of the Israelite encampment and its blood is ritually sprinkled.  The body of the beast is then set alight as cedar, hyssop and scarlet are added to the dancing flames.  The collected ashes are then gathered and combined with spring water, a bundle of hyssop is dipped into the mixture, and with these waters of purification the petitioner is sprinkled on the third and seventh days.  After immersion in a mikva at the conclusion of the rites, the supplicant is restored to a state of tahara, and is again able to enter the Tabernacle or Temple area, there to experience the Divine presence.


            In the very next section (20:1), the Torah relates that "the entire congregation of the people of Israel came to the wilderness of Zin in the first month, and encamped at Kadesh. There, Miriam died and was buried…"  As the commentaries indicate, quoting the tradition of the early Rabbis, at this juncture the Torah begins to narrate events that took place at the conclusion of the period of wandering, which had commenced almost forty years earlier with the episode of the spies. Rashi explains that the emphatic expression of "the ENTIRE congregation of the people of Israel came to the wilderness of Zin in the first month" implies that the congregation of which the Torah now speaks was whole and complete, for "the generation of the wilderness had perished, while this new generation had been separated for life" (commentary to Bamidbar 20:1).  As if to emphasize the point, Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra perceptively comments that the Torah records not a single event or prophecy that occurred in the intervening thirty eight years!  The events that had transpired since the Exodus from Egypt – the revelation at Sinai and the golden calf, the building of the Mishkan and its dedication, the journey from Sinai towards the new land, the sending of the spies and the Korachite rebellion that was its aftermath – had been documented at length, but of all of these actually took place over the course of only two years! 




            In a remarkable instant, then, the Torah proceeds from the account of the generation of the Exodus to the story of their children, who now stand ready to enter the Land.  And whatever the deeper meaning of the obscure service of the red heifer, its thematic significance is immediately apparent, for the narrative of the para aduma offers much-needed closure to the wilderness experience and serves as a fitting transition for the account that follows.  The generation that left Egypt, condemned to perish, for its lack of trust, in a drab and desolate wilderness, takes its leave in this week's Parasha; with an unexpected suddenness, the generation poised to enter the Promised Land takes its place.  Solemnly, they cast off the mortal gloom associated with the demise of their parents' generation and in so doing, like the tameh supplicant who has been sprinkled with the restorative waters of purification, the people of Israel are restored to the healing presence of God.


            But it will be without their old leaders that the people of Israel enter the new land, for even as they reach the arid wilderness of Zin that is on the southeastern outskirts of the Dead Sea, Miriam perishes, soon to be followed by her brother Aharon and eventually by Moshe himself. The people of Israel, thirsty and impatient to embrace their new destiny, cried out at Zin for water and relief, and Moshe and Aharon had sought God's counsel.  These two brothers, who had faithfully led the people since the Exodus, were told by God to speak to the rock so that it might give water to the parched masses, but they impetuously abrogated God's command and struck it instead.  And in consequence, they too were doomed to not enter the land of Canaan.




            In essence then, the opening of the Parasha may be regarded as the completion of the wilderness era, as the entire adult generation of the Exodus, including its illustrious and faithful leaders, passes from the scene.  Although Miriam's death is narrated first, the Torah offers us scant details about the event:


The people of Israel, all of the congregation, came to the wilderness of Zin, and the people dwelt in Kadesh.  Miriam died there and there she was buried.  The congregation had no water, and they gathered against Moshe and Aharon… (Bamidbar 20:1-2).


All we do know from the passage is that her demise takes place during the final year of the wanderings, that at the time the people are located at Kadesh in the wilderness of Zin, and that in the aftermath of her death the people thirst for water.  Rabbinic tradition attempts to fill in for some of the obscurity by explaining the linkage between these seemingly disparate elements:


Rabbi Yose bar Yehuda says: The people of Israel had three excellent leaders – Moshe, Aharon and Miriam.  Three good gifts were extended to the people of Israel on their behalf – the well, the clouds, and the manna.  The well was provided due to the merit of Miriam, the clouds of glory because of Aharon, and the manna on account of Moshe.  When Miriam died, the well disappeared, as it says: "The people of Israel, all of the congregation, came to the wilderness of Zin, and the people dwelt in Kadesh.  Miriam died there and there she was buried."  Immediately afterwards, the text states: "The congregation had no water, and they gathered against Moshe and Aharon…"  When Aharon died, the clouds of glory disappeared…when Moshe died, all three were gone… (Talmud Bavli, Tractate Ta'anit 9a).


As Rashi explains on the Talmudic passage, this mysterious well was


a rock from which would issue forth water.  It would roll along and accompany the people of Israel (in their wanderings from place to place).  It was the very rock that Moshe struck, for it had initially refused to give forth its water on his behalf, since Miriam had died (commentary to above passage from Tractate Ta'anit 9a). 


In other words, the Sages draw a connection between the fragments mentioned in the text: during the final year of the wanderings, Miriam died.  As a result, the miraculous well dried up and the people became thirsty.  But because the well only provided its waters on her behalf, it remained deaf to Moshe's entreaties (for he initially heeded God's command to "speak to the rock"! Bamidbar 20:8).  Thus, he struck it instead and, in so doing, sealed his own fate.




            The three basics that the Sages enumerate – the well of water, the clouds of glory and the manna – are of course the three essential items that any voyager through the desert wilderness needs for survival.  One who enters its maw requires water to drink, shelter from the burning sun and dry winds, and food to eat.  Rabbi Yose bar Yehuda, in linking these three essentials to Miriam, Aharon and Moshe, highlights their pivotal role in securing Israel's survival during the long and arduous experience of traversing its uninhabited expanse.  The three loyal and dedicated leaders, always at Israel's side and seeking their best interests, at all times their advocates who never despair of one day reaching the new land, are transformed, in Rabbi Yose's reading, into the critical instruments that guarantee the continued existence of Israel, even as the desert dust slowly swallows up the condemned generation.  In general terms, then, Rabbi Yose associates this triumvirate with food, water and shelter.       


            Actually, we may even consider the matter in more specific terms.  Thus, the particular connection between Aharon and the "clouds of glory" becomes more intelligible when we realize Aharon's special role.  After all, Aharon officiated as High Priest in the Mishkan that was also perpetually covered with a similar manifestation – the protective pillar of cloud that shielded it by day.  And it was the Aharon who daily ministered at the fiery altar, just as the analogous pillar of fire hovered over the Mishkan at night (Shemot 40:38).  It is therefore quite natural to link the clouds of glory, which according to Rabbinic tradition offered ongoing relief and protection to the weary Israelites from the harsh and inhospitable wilderness conditions, with the merit of Aharon. 


            As for Moshe, though it had been the people's plaints that had secured the pledge of heavenly manna, it was the lawgiver who had communicated God's accession and then patiently guided the people as they became familiar with the food's curious and unsettling properties (see Shemot 15:27-16:36).  And surely no one could dispute Moshe's central role in securing the people's physical survival on several charged occasions when God's wrath had been kindled against them.  It is entirely natural, therefore, to ascribe the gift of the manna – the potent expression of physical sustenance – to Moshe's merit.  But why should Miriam have been associated with a miraculous well of water, the source of life and refreshment to the parched Israelite masses?




            In considering the lengthy career of Miriam, we note that the Torah narratives connect her with water on more than one occasion.  Recall that at the beginning of the tale of the Egyptian servitude, Miriam had stayed close by her infant brother as he was pathetically placed in a basket of reeds and released into the watery grasp of the Nile.  When Pharaoh's compassionate daughter soon found him, it was Miriam who had stepped forward and arranged for the child's natural mother to nurse him (Shemot 2:1-10).  In essence, Miriam had secured Moshe's survival, even as the river threatened to destroy him. 


            Later on, as the people triumphantly traversed the Sea of Reeds while the menacing Egyptian hordes drowned in its depths, Moshe led them in song to the God who had "done gloriously, for He threw the horse and its rider into the sea!" (Shemot 15).  And Miriam his sister took the timbrel in her hand, leading the women of Israel in a joyous refrain.  Once again, Miriam's concern for the people was dramatically linked with the looming waters that had almost overcome them.  Parenthetically, it should also be noted that it was in the immediate aftermath of that momentous song that the people of Israel had first entered the wilderness and thirsted for water (Shemot 15:22-27), and God had provided for them.


            We may additionally suspect whether the Sages were intrigued with the otherwise obscure name of Miriam (MiRYaM), for unlike her illustrious younger brother Moshe, the Torah nowhere provides us with the inspiration for her name.  While the appellation clearly contains intimations of exaltedness or ascendancy (ROM), its four Hebrew consonants also include the three letters that make up the Hebrew word for water (MaYiM).  And even as Moshe berates the people at the rock and lifts his hand to strike it, he unconsciously recalls his sister's merit, just as Rabbi Yose explained, for in that moment of anger he calls Israel "the MoRiM" or rebels.  But the word is written deficiently, so that the letters – once the definite article "Ha" has been removed – spell the name of Miriam with exactitude (see Bamidbar 19:10), whose own death had been recounted scarcely nine verses earlier!




            Some of this may be unduly speculative, for the Torah does not explicitly indicate that Israel was provided with a continuous well of water by the merit of Miriam.  In all probability, the Rabbinic linkage is an attempt to convey something more profound than simply narrative detail.  In effect, by ascribing the well to Miriam's merit, the Sages are emphasizing the impact that her guidance had on the people of Israel.  The life-giving waters that refreshed them during the entire course of their wilderness wanderings were understood by the Sages as metaphors for her inspiring words and deeds, for even as the Torah tells us relatively little about her lengthy career, she is present at the critical and tense moments when the fate of the people hangs in the balance.  It is Miriam who preserves her brother who will become the future liberator and it is she who rouses Israel to song even as they reel from the staggering events at the Sea of Reeds.  Like cool waters that refresh the weary and anxious traveler as he cautiously makes his way through the uncertain wilderness, Miriam buoys the people of Israel and raises their faltering spirits. 


            When we wonder, then, how a people survives four decades of aimless wandering even as all hope seems lost, the Sages provide us with an answer.  If there is inspired and selfless leadership at the helm, if there is genuine guidance and concern and steely determination to stay the course, if the people's shepherds have a clear vision of a brighter future and can focus their constituents' eyes on that goal even as the journey seems interminably long and fraught with setbacks, then the people will survive and one day flourish.  The basic needs of the people have to be met even while prosperity or tranquility are still far-off goals, and it is the duty of good leaders to make that possible. 


            Like all great leaders, then, Miriam, Aharon and Moshe were condemned to pass from the scene before the destination was reached, in order to drive home the point that the best of them labor for their people and care little about their own personal attainments.  Whether or not these three figures reached the Promised Land did not concern them nearly as much as whether the people of Israel would one day reach it.  And with that spirit of loyal service, they did their quiet work even as the people sorely tried their patience and stamina.  May Israel merit having leaders of their caliber to guide them.


Shabbat Shalom