“All’s Well” Parashat Chukat 5775

Parashat Chukat tells of the deaths of Moshe’s two siblings, Aharon and Miriam. After Miriam’s death a crisis quickly ensues [Bemidbar 20:1-2]: “The people settled in Kadesh. Miriam died there and was buried there. The congregation had no water and so they assembled against Moshe and Aharon.” The Talmud in Tractate Ta’anit [9a] teaches that the water shortage was no mere coincidence. The Talmud asserts that Am Yisrael received their water from the “Well of Miriam”, a source of water that existed exclusively because of Miriam’s merit, The “Well of Miriam” travelled along with Am Yisrael during their forty-year sojourn in the desert. After Miriam died the well dried up and a water shortage ensued.

Fair enough, but the Torah never mentions any sort of “Well of Miriam”. The closest thing to it is in an episode in Parashat Beshalach [Bemidbar 16:1-7] “[Am Yisrael] camped at Refidim, and there was no water for the people to drink. So the people quarreled with Moshe… Hashem said to Moshe, ‘Pass before the people and take with you [some] of the elders of Israel and take into your hand your staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. Behold, I shall stand there before you on the rock in Chorev, and you shall strike the rock and water will come out of it and the people will drink.’ Moshe did so before the elders of Israel.” Most of the commentators identify this rock with the “Well of Miriam”.

The problem is that this rock is in no way connected with Miriam. In fact, Miriam is really just a minor character in the Torah. She appears in only three episodes. When we first meet her she is watching her baby brother Moshe floating down the Nile River in a basket. The next time she appears she is leading the women of Israel in song after the splitting of the Red Sea. Her last appearance is when she and Aharon besmirch Moshe’s relationship with his wife, Tzippora. Miriam is punished and contracts Tza’raat. But where the Torah is silent the Midrash is wordy, heaping copious amounts of praise on Miriam. For instance, the Midrash tells of how Moshe’s parents did not want to have more children because they would perish in the Nile. Miriam convinced them of their folly, telling them “Pharaoh sentenced only the baby boys to death. You are sentencing the girls to the same fate!” As a result of her scolding her parents reunited and Moshe was conceived. Also, the Midrash identities the Jewish midwife, Pu’ah, with Miriam. Pu’ah, along with Shifra, brazenly disregard Pharaoh’s charge to kill the Jewish boys at birth, fully cognizant that they might very well pay for this insubordination with their lives. On what basis does the Midrash associate these stories with Miriam?

Even on a Midrashic level it is not at all clear that the “Well of Miriam” had anything to do with Miriam. The Talmud in Tractate Bava Metzia [86a] lauds Avraham Avinu for his treatment of the angels when they come to visit him in the beginning of Parashat Vayera. The Talmud teaches that Am Yisrael eventually benefitted from each act of kindness that Avraham performed that day. Specifically, because Avraham told the angels [Bereishit 19:4] “Please let a little water be taken”, Am Yisrael were rewarded by receiving the “Well of Miriam”. Rav Shmuel Eidels, better known as the MaHarSha, asks how the Talmud in Tractate Ta’anit could insist that the well existed because of Miriam’s merit when the Talmud in Tractate Bava Metzia clearly states that it existed because of Avraham’s merit[1]. Luleh mistefineh, I would ask further: Why does the Talmud in Tractate Bava Metzia insist on calling the well the “Well of Miriam” if it was given because of a deed performed by Avraham? Why wasn’t it called the “Well of Avraham”? The MaHarSha answers that Avraham’s merit was sufficient to get the water from the rock the first time. It required Miriam’s merit to get the water to continue to flow every day for the next forty years. Rav Baruch haLevi Epstein[2], writing in the Torah Temima, has trouble with this explanation, as it makes it seem that Miriam had much greater merit than Avraham Avinu. Rather, he suggests that through Avraham’s actions Am Yisrael merited a person like Miriam, whose spiritual greatness was rewarded with the “Well of Miriam”.

I suggest that what Rav Epstein means is that the greatness of Avraham is reflected the greatness of Miriam. Let’s take a closer look at what happens after Moshe’s mother puts him in a basket on the Nile River. While Miriam watches silently from afar, Moshe just happens to drift into some reeds at the precise location where the daughter of the Pharaoh is bathing. The Princess sees the basket and realizes that it contains a Jewish child. She has mercy on the baby and decides to bring him home. While Moshe’s life has been saved by the Princess, there is simply no way in the world that she will raise him as anything but an Egyptian. Moshe will grow up an Egyptian Royal and he will never know that he is the descendant of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov. As far a Miriam is concerned, this is tantamount to death, and it will not happen on her watch. And so she approaches the Princess and asks [Shemot 2:7] “Shall I call a Jewish woman to nurse the child?” Excuse me? You dirty Jewish child! How dare you speak to the Daughter of the Pharaoh! I should have you killed for your audacity! The Princess tells Miriam “Go!” Don’t press your luck. Leave before it is too late. But Miriam is undeterred. Moshe’s future as a Jew is too important. She “goes” back home and calls her mother, Yocheved. When the Princess sees the mother together with the child she abandoned on the Nile only minutes earlier, her anger is replaced by compassion and she takes Yocheved and Moshe to the palace. Moshe will always know where he came from.

Miriam stood up for her faith, even at the price of her life. This she learnt from her ancestor Avraham. As the father of Monotheism, Avraham was willing to die for his faith in one G-d. Indeed, the Midrash teaches that King Nimrod threw him in a fiery furnace for just that reason. Avraham’s actions with the angelic visitors in Parashat Vayera show the same kind of passion and dedication to Hashem. Why does Avraham tell the angels to take water and to wash their feet? Rashi teaches that the angels worshipped the dust on their feet[3]. By telling them to wash their feet, Avraham is telling them “My home is your home, but my home is also the home of the One True G-d. There is no room for idolatry between my four walls.” But there is more. Water is traditionally used as a metaphor for Torah. When Avraham tells the angels to “take some water”, he is also telling them that they must exchange the dust on their feet for the Torah of Hashem. He says this to three people whom he has never met before. No, it’s not polite and it’s not politically correct, but it is the right thing. In fact, it is the only thing that concerns me.

Rav Yaakov, the son of Rabbeinu Asher, writing in the Ba’al HaTurim, notes that the word “yukach” – “[let water] be taken” – appears only three times in the entire Tanach. While this may be so, notice that when Yocheved is taken to the Pharaoh’s palace the Torah tells us “Va’tukach ha’isha” – “the woman was taken”. The same word, albeit with a slightly different conjugation, is used in both locations, eternally tying them together.

Miriam was a worthy successor to Avraham. Like Avraham before her, Miriam put her faith in Hashem above anything and everything else, come what may. Miriam’s passion was Avraham’s passion, and for this reason Avraham’s well became Miriam’s well[4].

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5775

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Moshe Dov ben Malka

[1] My wife, Tova, suggested that we could answer that the two Midrashim in the Talmud disagree. But the fact that none of the commentators who address this question bring that answer suggests that the two can be reconciled.

[2] Other commentators brought in the Ein Yaakov make similar suggestions.

[3] The MaHaRaL, writing in the Gur Aryeh, suggests why a person would worship the dust on his feet: Nomadic people spend their lives on the road. Dust represents the deity of the Nomadic life that they lead. This is similar to the Egyptians worshipping sheep as the earthly representatives of the constellation Aries.

[4] There is a legend that the rock that served as the Well of Miriam is buried at the bottom of the Sea of Galilee (Kineret). If this is so, then a loop has been closed. Even with Israel’s recent explosion of desalination plants, most of our drinking water comes from the Kineret, meaning that Well of Miriam continues to give us water to this day.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including two briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. He speaks regularly for the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Ari is a highly requested speaker at AIPAC events, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science", and his speaking events are regularly sold-out. Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA and Canada. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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