Hard and Wet

Double Mitzvah Jewrotica Parsha

Written by Sender Rozesz. Sender Rozesz is a practicing attorney with a background in Jewish pluralistic education for adults. Sender Rozesz is Jewrotica’s resident Double Mitzvah columnist. The views reflected in his writing represent his own personal views, and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations, institutes or associations with whom he may be affiliated.

Rated PG-13

What is hard and stiff, but capable of ejaculating life-giving fluids if handled just the right way?

Get your mind out of the gutter! Unless, of course, you guessed that it is the rock that Moses was supposed to speak to – but which he hit twice instead – from which water then began to flow, supplying the entire Israelite nation with their water needs.

Ugh. I didn’t intend to begin this week’s column with such sacrilege. No more jokes about anyone wielding his mighty staff, slapping his rod, or getting his rocks off.

Oy, enough! Let’s back up.

In this week’s Parshah, Chukas, Miriam dies. Immediately thereafter, the Torah tells us: “The congregation had no water.” Numbers, 20:1-2. Why did they run out of water? And what is the connection to Miriam’s death? The Talmud tells is that the juxtaposition of these two ideas is not accidental – “from here we learn that all forty years they had the well in Miriam’s merit.” Babylonian Talmud, Taanit, 9a.

Let’s back up even more.

Forty years earlier, in the arid desert between the Red Sea and Mount Sinai, the Israelites were thirsty. G-d commanded Moses: “you shall strike the rock, and water will come out of it, and the people will drink.” Exodus, 17:6. When Moses did so, the rock became a font of water, flowing to the Israelites’ encampment and quenching their thirst. This became known as the “Well of Miriam,” and was provided to the Israelites in her merit. How do we know? Because when she died, the water stopped.

But why would the water be associated with Miriam?

Because Miriam had just emerged as the leader of the Israelite women – “Miriam, the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women came out after her with timbrels and with dances.” Exodus, 15:20. So it is really that water is associated with *all* women. And, as we discussed here, water is female; in fact, a woman is likened to a well of water, as suggested by the commentator Ibn Ezra regarding the famous verse in Proverbs: “Drink water from your own cistern and running water from your own spring.” Proverbs, 5:15. The woman is the nurturer, from whose womb flows the life of all future generations. She is the spring, the source of water.

Forty years later, Miriam died, and a new source of water had to be found.

So G-d said: “Take the staff and assemble the congregation, you and your brother Aaron, and speak to the rock in their presence so that it will give forth its water. You shall bring forth water for them from the rock and give the congregation and their livestock to drink.” Numbers, 20:8.

Why is it that the first time, G-d commanded Moses to strike the rock, and forty years later, he commanded him to speak to the rock – and indeed, when Moses struck the rock instead of speaking to it, he was severely punished?

Perhaps this too, is the impact of women.

For forty years were raised, sustained, nurtured by Miriam’s well. The rock from which the well sprung – and indeed, all of creation – shared in this miraculous phenomenon and relationship, in which even the inanimate sprang forward to fulfill G-d’s will. All in the merit of the woman.

And after forty years of woman’s soft and nurturing touch, perhaps it was G-d’s intention to demonstrate the gradual softening of the world’s hardness; the refinement of its coarseness; the smoothing of its rough edges. Whereas when the Jewish mission began, the spiritual realms were at odds with the physical world, and for a rock to miraculously produce water, it had to be struck, and broken; now, forty years later, a stage had been reached where the physical world did not require violence in order to bend it to the Divine will; now, a soft-spoken command could achieve what once only a harsh striking could accomplish.

As Rabbi Akiva observed, the persistent dripping of water will ultimately wear a hole through the hardest of rocks. So too it is with the world around us. We don’t always perceive the positive impact that our good deeds have on the world around us, but Miriam’s well teaches us that we do indeed affect the very physicality of the world in very meaningful and profound ways.

Shabbat shalom!