Watershed Moments: Dr. Gila Vachman on Parashat Chukat


What was the connection between the death of Miriam and the absence of water?

Our sages say that the three “gifts” accompanied the Israelites during their years in the desert: the well of water, the pillar of clouds and the manna. They were in the merit of Miriam, Aaron and Moses.

Dr. Gila Vachman, lecturer in Midrash and Aggadah at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, explores Miriam’s identity and leadership and their association with water.

Full transcript below:

The 20th chapter in the book of Bamidbar (Numbers) is a turning point, or rather a watershed, between generations- between the generation that left Mizrayim (Egypt) and the generation that will enter The Promised Land.

Suddenly, we skip 38 years ahead and it tells us about the death of Miriam, the sister of Moshe and Aharon. Immediately after the death of Miriam, we hear that there was no water for the people ולֹא־הָ֥יָה מַ֖יִם לָ/עֵדָ֑ה . The question is what is the connection between these two facts? What is the connection between the death of Miriam and the fact that suddenly there was no water? These two verses are explained by the sages as a cause and effect: because Miriam died there was no water for the people.

The sages have a tradition, a Midrashic tradition, about a special well that walked with Am Yisrael (the people of Israel) in the desert. They call it Miriam’s well. It says: “As Israel left Egypt, they were appointed three good leaders: they are Moshe, Aharon, and Miriam. In their merit they received 3 gifts: the cloud pillar, the manna and the well. The well was in the merit of Miriam, the cloud pillar was in the merit of Aharon and the manna was in the merit of Moshe.”

In a different place, the Tosefta describes how this well looked: “Such was the well which accompanied Israel in the wilderness, like a rock full of holes bubbling and rising as from the mouth of this flask, ascending with them to the mountains and descending with them to the valleys. Wherever Israel rests it rests opposite them.

The princes of Israel come and encircle it with their staffs and recite over it this song:

“Rise up, oh well,

Sing out, to it.”

Why is this well really related to Miriam what is the connection between Miriam and water? Well, first of all the first time we meet Miriam is near the water when she saves her young brother from the water of the Nile. The second time we meet Miriam is also near water, when she leads the singing and dancing after the crossing of the Red Sea. Also her name Miriam has the word Yam in it, Yam meaning sea.

So, we see that there is a connection between Miriam and water, but there’s another question after Israel entered The Promised Land. We would expect this well to disappear yet we still hear about this well in Midrashic traditions- describing that the well entered the Sea of Galilee (the Kinneret) and it is still there until this day. Why would a nation tell itself stories about a well that keeps on escorting them although they don’t need it anymore?

I think the answer is the leadership of Miriam. Moshe and Aharon present a very masculine kind of leadership, very forceful or fearful. Miriam is more of a mother.  She presents a softer kind of leadership- the one that sings and dances. I think that is the reason the people of Israel keep telling themselves stories about the good that Miriam brought to them throughout history. I believe this is the leadership that we meet miss the most the leadership of Miriam.