“The Well of Miriam”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Chukat, we learn of the passing of one of the great Jewish matriarchs, Miriam, the sister of Aaron and Moses.

After 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, all the men who were above the age of 20 at the time of exodus, with the exception of Joshua and Caleb, had passed on. A new generation, born in freedom, was poised to enter the Promised Land. The people had arrived in the wilderness of Tzin in the first month (Nissan) and were now settled in a location known as Kadesh.

The Torah informs us of the sad news (Numbers 20:1): “Va’tah’maht shahm Miriam, va’tee’kaver shahm,” and Miriam died there and was buried there. However, instead of focusing, even briefly, on the great woman’s passing, Scripture immediately states (Numbers 20:2): “V’lo ha’yah mayim lah’ay’dah,” and there was no water for the people.

Despite the fact that this was a new, young generation born in freedom, the people responded to this most recent crisis in the same manner as their ancestors. Numbers 20:3 states: “Va’ya’rev ha’ahm eem Moshe,” the people quarreled with Moses and called out: “If only we had perished as our brethren perished before G-d! Why have you brought the congregation of G-d to this wilderness to die, we and our animals? And why did you have to have us ascend from Egypt to bring us to this evil place? Not a place of seed or fig or grape, or pomegranate, and there is no water to drink!”

From the juxtaposition of the death of Miriam and the lack of water, our rabbis assert that in Miriam’s merit, a well of water traveled with the people of Israel for 40 years in the wilderness, and, with her demise, the well vanished.

The extraordinary nature of the well is highlighted by the Mishnah in Avot 5:6, which states that the mouth of the well that supplied Israel with water in the wilderness was one of ten miraculous things created at twilight on the eve of the first Shabbat at the time of creation.

The Midrash (Tosefta Sukkah 3:11-13; Numbers Rabbah 1:2) further underscores the unusual properties of the well of Miriam:

It [the well] resembled a rock the size of a beehive, from which, as out of a narrow-necked jug, water coming out in a trickle shot high up in the air like a geyser. The well rolled up mountains with [the people of] Israel and went down into valleys with them. Indeed, whenever Israel encamped, the well rested close by on an elevated spot opposite the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. The princes of [the tribes of] Israel would come and walk around the well with their staves as they chanted the song (Numbers 21:17), “Spring up, O well, sing ye unto it.” At that, the waters welled up, rising high like a lofty pillar; each of the princes digging [into the ground] with his staff channeled water toward the [prince’s] tribe and toward his family, as it is said (Numbers 21:18):

“The well, which the princes dug,

Which the nobles of the people excavated,

Through a lawgiver, with their own staffs.”

Thus, the well flowed in all directions throughout Israel’s camp, watering all the surrounding wasteland. It branched out into streams so large that Israelites would seat themselves in small boats and go visiting one another. [There was no need to row], for a man who went upstream on the camp’s right side would [as the current reversed itself] return downstream on the right side; and so it was for the man who set out on the camp’s left side. Even the overflow of drinking water that spilled on the ground became a wide river, which coursed toward the Great Sea and, upon its return, brought back from there all the things in the world that were desirable.

The rabbis state that three special gifts were given to the Jewish people in the wilderness. The manna was given in the merit of Moses. The Divine clouds that surrounded the people of Israel were given in the merit of Aaron, and the well of water was given in the merit of Miriam. They explain that Miriam merited the well because of her extraordinary devotion to the infant Moses when he was placed in a basket in the Nile river, and Miriam waited, watching over the child until he was taken by Pharaoh’s daughter.

Miriam’s unstinting devotion to the Jewish people caused her to be seen as the nation’s mother-figure. Consequently, the visceral reaction of the people to the lack of water is best understood not as a community crying out for liquid to quench their thirst, but as a profound reaction to the loss of this most nurturing matriarch. Without their mother-figure Miriam, the starkness of the wilderness became almost too palpable. It was now an “evil place,” a place where the congregation of G-d was under the impression that they had been taken to die.

This sense of abandonment was not easily overcome. No wonder G-d was so understanding of the people’s predicament and saw their stridency in this situation as a mere overreaction, rather than as a rebellion.

Losing a mother is always painful.

May you be blessed.