Miriam’s Well

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

As we discussed last year, in this week’s Parshah, Chukas, Miriam dies. [1]

Miriam, the daughter of Amram and Yocheved, who, even as a young girl, was instrumental in the safe and healthy delivery of Jewish children in defiance of Pharaoh’s orders; who watched over her baby brother Moses as he was concealed in the long reeds of the Nile river, and until he was finally and safely returned to his mother to be nursed and weaned; a prophetess in her own right, who led the Jewish women and girls in song and dance on the shores of the Red Sea; who was so beloved to the Jewish people that the entire nation waited until she was healed of the leprosy that G-d inflicted upon her. Miriam passes away.

Miriam’s death had two immediate consequences for the Jewish people.

The first was spiritual. Immediately prior to its announcement of Miriam’s passing, the Torah discusses the law of the Red Heifer. The law of the Red Heifer is absolutely loaded with symbolism. In its most literal understanding, it was a process by which a red heifer was sacrificed, and a mixture was made of its ashes, cedar wood, and wool, which would then be mixed with water from a living spring. Whenever a person would come into contact with human death, that person would become ritually impure and in need of purification. The purification would be accomplished by impure person being sprinkled with this mixture by means of a hyssop, and then immersing his/herself in water. [2] Thus, the Red Heifer came to represent the banishment of death.

More symbolically, however, and in a larger sense, the Red Heifer — a female cow — was seen as the mother coming to atone for the sins of her child: the Golden Calf, with which the Israelites had sinned forty days after the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. The taint of this sin, and the weakening that it had wrought in the Jewish people’s relationship with G-d, followed the Jewish people long after they were forgiven. The Red Heifer was intended to be an atonement for that sin, and a restoration of their bond with the Almighty. [3]

Why is the passage relating Miriam’s death juxtaposed with the passage of the Red Heifer? The Talmud answers: “To teach you that just as the Red Heifer brings atonement, so too the death of the righteous bring atonement.” [4] And now we know where the Christians got their idea from. So Miriam’s passing effectuate a kind of blanket atonement for the Jewish people.

Interestingly, there were obviously many deaths of many other righteous people throughout the Jewish term through the desert — and perhaps, most notably, Miriam’s older brother, Aaron, the high priest, whose death is also recorded later on in this very Parshah. [5] How significant it is then, that it is specifically with Miriam’s death that the Torah chooses to teach us of the power of the righteous, and the power that they have to atone for their people.

The second consequence of Miriam’s death had a physical manifestation.

Immediately after her death the Torah tells us: “The congregation had no water.” [6] 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.”[7]

Last year we talked a bit about the connection between Miriam and water, but let’s explore that a bit more. After all, there appears to be a bit of a theme here: a critical component of the Red Heifer mixture is water from a living stream, and the final step in the purification process is for the impure person to fully immerse in water. Miriam was responsible for that water, even as her death wrought the same atonement as the Red Heifer itself.

This hints to a purpose behind the water that is frequently overlooked. Obviously, the water that the Jewish people enjoyed in Miriam’s merit was used for drinking. It was used for cooking. But — particularly from the juxtaposition of the Red Heifer laws and Miriam’s death and the loss of their source of water — we learn of an additional critical need that Miriam’s well fulfilled: a Mikvah.[8]

A Mikvah is the ritual bath that marks the end of every purification process. As we discussed before, in the context of someone who came into contact with death, immersing in the Mikvah would be the final step to restoring their purity. Thus, the Mikvah — and Miriam’s well — first and foremost represents purity and life. Nowadays, since we are missing so many of the other ingredients for the purification process, men no longer have much biblical use for the Mikvah, other than a more symbolic use instituted by the rabbis. Thus today, the Mikvah essentially serves one primary and frequent purpose: it marks the end of a woman’s menstrual period during which she is forbidden from having any kind of sexual intercourse with her husband. At the end of the seventh day since a woman has last spotted menstrual blood, she immerses in the Mikvah, and great care is taken to ensure that the waters of the Mikvah touch every spot and crevice of her body. When she emerges from a Mikvah, she knows that, after a two-week period of separation, she is now going home to have sex. Indeed. It is a Mitzvah to make sure to have sex on “Mikvah night.”

Miriam’s story, as we have discussed over the past weeks, is quite a romantic one. Originally a sickly girl, Miriam’s health and previously-unimagined beauty was restored under the loving care of her husband, Caleb. Once she reached her peak, she was so beautiful that men could not look at her without becoming so aroused that they would immediately turn to their wives for sex.

Miriam, once she hit her stride, was a sexually-arousing woman — and water was her thing. Crossing the Red Sea, and seeing the crashing of the waves upon her enemies (all that water!) inspired her to lead all of the other Jewish women in song and dance. And when the Jewish people needed water — to drink, to bathe, and to immerse in the Mikvah so that they could have sex with the husbands — the water was provided in Miriam’s merit.

Indeed, it seems likely that it was the use of the water as a Mikvah that was more thematically attributed to Miriam than the mere fact that it prevented the Jews from dying of thirst.

R’ Schneur Zalman of Liadi notes in the Book of Tanya that our natural appetite for pleasure emanates from the element of Water, for it is water that promotes the growth of all kinds of pleasure-giving things, which indicates that concealed within it is the element of pleasure. [9] Consider that it is water that (along with the help of other enzymes) assists the digestive system to break down food (saliva); and that it is the water within the bloodstream that carries those nutrients to all parts of the body. Remember — the adult body, on average, consists of about 60% water.

Miriam’s well, therefore, symbolizes water, life, pleasure, sex, and marital harmony.

When Miriam died, her well stopped. The Jewish people complained to Moses, and, after hitting the rock twice, water was restored. [10]

But get this — even after her death, and the miracle that drew water from a new source, a new well — that well was still called “Miriam’s well.”

In fact, the Talmud states that, “if you want to see the well of Miriam, climb to the peal of Mount Carmel. When you look down toward the sea, you will notice a round rock, shaped like a sieve. That is Miriam’s well.” [11] Significantly, in connection with the above statement, the Talmud further notes that generally, a moveable well is not ritually pure, because it obviously cannot maintain any kind of a connection with living water. However, Miriam’s well is the single exception to that rule, as despite its moving status, it is a perpetual source of pure living water.

Indeed, the Midrash states that the well of Miriam rests today in the Sea of Galilee (the Kineret), and that on every Saturday night, it flows into all of the natural wells and springs of the world, and that anybody who encounters such waters and drinks them is healed from all ailments. [12] Thus, many have the custom, on Saturday night, after the Shabbat ends, to draw water from a natural well or a spring, just in case the water may have been touched by the water of Miriam’s well.[13]

Thus, it is to this very day that Miriam and her well continue to bestow life, healing and purity upon her people.

Works Cited

[1] Numbers, 20:1.

[2] Numbers, 19:1-22.

[3] Numbers, 19:22 in Rashi, from Midrash Aggada.

[4] See Babylonian Talmud, Moed Kattan, 28a.

[5] Numbers, 20:28.

[6] Numbers, 20:1-2.

[7] Babylonian Talmud, Taanit, 9a.

[8] See Sefer HaSichot of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, 5th of Tammuz 5740, 17th of Sivan 5740, and Motza’ei Shabbat, Parshat Chukat-Balak 5739.

[9] See Sefer Tanya, Likutei Amarim, Chapter 1.

[10] Numbers, 20:2-11.

[11] Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat, 35a.

[12] Leviticus Rabba, 22:4; Numbers Rabba, 18:22.

[13] Shulchan Oruch Harav, Shabbat, 299:20.