Parshat Chukat (Numbers 19:1 – 22:1)

Rabbi David Stav 

A unique phenomenon in the Torah emerges in the sequence of events not recounted in the text. Forty years of wandering in the desert have passed, and we can only imagine all that had occurred during that time, since the Torah tells us nothing about it. It is as if the Torah is saying to us: “After the nation was rebuked, it suffered the agony of its punishment on account of the sin of the spies, and I (Hashem) have no business shoving a microphone or a camera in their faces to pry into the nation’s private space and showcase its pain and suffering.”

And then, all of a sudden, we come across the following verse: “The entire congregation of the People of Israel arrived at the desert of Zin in the first month…” [Num. 20:1].

All our commentators concur that this event had transpired on the fortieth year of the People of Israel’s sojourn in the desert, when the protagonists in the narrative began dying off. The first to pass away was Miriam: “Miriam died there and was buried there” [ibid.]. A crisis soon ensues: “The congregation had no water; so they assembled against Moses and Aaron” [ibid., v. 2].

Though these verses do not directly link Miriam’s death with the water shortage, our commentators understood that since Miriam had accompanied the nation over forty years, she was also the one who made sure they had water. The Talmud (Ta’anit 9a) states: Rabbi Yose said: [Hashem] gave a well to Israel in Miriam’s merit, Miriam died and the well disappeared, as it is said: ‘and Miriam died there, and there was no water for the nation [to drink].

Our rabbis seemingly adhered to a tradition that a “wandering well” had accompanied the children of Israel throughout their wanderings in the desert, and the well had provided them with water (which is why we stop hearing complaints of a lack of water during that time). All of this was in Miriam’s merit.

However, if we were to take a rational, or even cynical approach, to this text, we would certainly find this idea puzzling. Who says that such a “wandering well” ever existed? Why hasn’t the text mentioned it? And who concocted the idea that Miriam caused it to exist?

The text does not explicitly confirm these ideas, but if we revisit the text from an objective viewpoint, the link between Miriam’s death and a scarcity of water becomes clear as day. But how can we explain it?

Some associated Miriam’s actions as a young girl with the appearance of the well later in her life.

At the beginning of the Book of Shemot, the text recounts how Moshe is born and is placed in a basket, and into the Nile. His sister Miriam followed the basket, standing from afar. We could understand this as the behavior of a sister concerned for the fate of her baby brother, but another possibility is that this sister was standing from afar to find out what would happen to a child who existed in her merit.

According to rabbinic tradition, after Pharaoh decreed that all Jewish baby boys were to be thrown into the Nile, Amram, Moshe’s father, separated from his wife because he didn’t want to have anything to do with this forced infanticide. Many others followed in his footsteps. Miriam was the one who told her father that his decree was worse than Pharaoh’s, since the royal decree only affected male births, while her father’s decision affected both sexes, and meant that no more Jewish children would be born.

Convinced by her argument, Amram returned to his wife and remarried her, and they merited to have Moshe as a son. We can only imagine how incensed Amram must have been with his daughter when he was forced to abandon his baby boy and put him into the Nile.

Miriam, however, decided to follow the floating basket to understand how her dreams would play out. Would Moshe be removed from the river? Would he end up playing a role in the nation’s redemption? In an act symbolizing her calm demeanor and level-headedness, she stood from afar, beside the bank of the Nile.

The same Miriam would later demonstrate her foresight by taking drums out of Egypt, explaining to her friends that one day, the nation would witness miracles and wonders, and that they needed to prepare.

Moshe provided the nation with bread through the manna, while Miriam provided the vision and the foresight. Water quenches thirst, but it certainly can’t satisfy a hungry belly. Food represents a person’s vital physical existence. Water and thirst symbolize the quest to infuse meaning and content into our physical existence.

Expounding on the verse from Yishayahu (Isaiah), “Those who thirst, go to water” [55:1], our rabbis conclude that “there is no water but the Torah” [Talmud, Bava Kama 82a]. A person does not merely strive to continue his physical existence, though it serves as a vital basis for any spiritual ascent. Rather, we aspire to find more inner meaning in our existence. Miriam is the leader who provides this vision, and her well, whose water rose toward the surface, expresses a person’s yearning to constantly rise up.

We often find ourselves inundated by everything occurring around us, to the point that we become preoccupied with trivialities. We need something to shake us up, put us back into proportion, and lift us up and out of the mundane. Miriam, with her unique outlook, produces a well that quenches the nation’s thirst for an entire generation, and alleviates their suffering by instilling hope and meaning in their lives.

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