Chukat – The Depth of Water
Parshat Korach relates the deaths of Miriam and Aaron, the two siblings of Moses. The Midrash teaches that Israel was graced with miraculous gifts in merit of these three siblings, the “royal family” of the wilderness era. Miriam was responsible for the presence of water; Aaron’s merit brought the clouds of glory surrounding the camp and protected the people from the perils of the wilderness; and the manna fell daily from heaven for the sake of Moses.
In Miriam’s merit there was always plenty of water in the wilderness. A spring of water flowed from the earth near the camp, known as the ‘well of Miriam.’ Wherever the nation camped the spring flowed nearby. Immediately after Miriam’s death the people complained that they had no water. The spring stopped flowing, and Israel panicked. Moses was then instructed to speak to a rock and bring forth its water.
Why indeed did the water cease to flow upon Miriam’s death? The Kli Yakar, an early 17th century commentary written by Rabbi Ephraim Lunschitz, explains that the people did not eulogize Miriam properly when she died. They didn’t stop to value the qualities that Miriam had shared with the nation, thereby failing to learn from her loss. The water then ceased to flow, making the extent of the loss from Miriam’s death blatantly obvious.
Let us try and understand why water was the reflection of Miriam’s life in the first instance. Rabbi Soloveitchik explains that water is plentiful in most places, and we tend to take water for granted. Water is a basic human need and every city council provides a water treatment service. With our modern infrastructure water flows effortlessly through our taps; it is always available on demand. We don’t give it much thought unless there is a problem with the water supply.
We need water for everything, from drinking to bathing to tending our gardens. Water enables life to thrive and vegetation to grow. Miriam was a similar force in the Israelite camp. She nurtured and cared, helped people to grow and to thrive. Although she held no formal office Miriam gave to the nation no less than Moses and Aaron. Miriam’s care is most evident in her concern for her younger brother Moses, looking after him from cradle to grave. She enabled his birth, saw that he would survive as an infant, and even made it her business that he would have a fulfilling family life as an adult. Miriam did the same on a national scale, always there to give encouragement and gentle guidance. Like a flowing stream of water that quietly brings its benefits to the local ecosystem, Miriam nurtured the nation through a generation in the wilderness.
The commentaries always find relevance in the order of the narrative, drawing lessons from the juxtaposition in the text of one episode to another. The death of Miriam follows the Mitzvah of the the red cow, and the placement of these has significance. The commentaries note that just as the ashes of the red cow provided purity and atonement to those ritually contaminated, the death of the righteous similarly provides atonement for the people. Miria