Mel Alexenberg
Author of "Through a Bible Lens"

Ancient Selfies and Miriam’s Well

My Times of Israel blog posts exploring the biblical portion of the week usually begin with the “Torah Tweets” blogart project of digital photography and Twitter poetry created by my wife Miriam and me.  Hukat/Decree, the sixth portion of the biblical book Numbers, is about Moses’ sister Miriam, not to be confused with my wife Miriam.  It is read in synagogues in Israel on Shabbat, July 9, 2016.

Miriam saves the Israelites by encouraging the women to make sexually-enticing selfies to seduce their exhausted men toiling under Pharaoh’s whip.  Making polished brass mirrors to beautify themselves resulted in intimate relations that gave rise to a new generation of Jewish children.    Miriam saves the Israelites again by providing a well of water that followed them on their trek across the desert.

Moses told the Israelites to contribute materials for creating the furnishings of the Tabernacle.  Women brought gold and silver.  Those women who had nothing of value to contribute brought the brass mirrors that they used in Egypt to entice their weary husbands.  Moses recoiled in disgust that these women would have to audacity to bring objects for a sacred sanctuary made of cheap metal designed to inspire lustful thoughts.  God rebuked Moses and said to him, “Accept them, for these are more precious to Me than anything because through them children were born in Egypt when their husbands were weary from back-breaking labor.”

Hukat/Decree (Numbers 19:1-22:1)

“The entire Israelite community came to the Tzin Wilderness in the first month and the people stopped in Kadesh.  It was there that Miriam died and was buried. The people did not have any water, so they began demonstrating against Moses and Aaron.”  (Numbers 20:1, 2)

In the Tzin Wilderness where Miriam, sister of Moses and Aaron, ended her journey, the 7 Torah letters crowned with tagin ascended.

Little 3-pronged tagin crown letters of heavy words of hardship to lighten them for their heavenward ascent when the Torah is read.

Hebrew letters in the everyday world meet tagin in the emotional world where compassion, strength, success, and splendor surround beauty.

On a rocky cliff overlooking the Tzin Wilderness, Mel and his students attached tagin made of balloons attached to rainbow painted letters.


(I recently found this photo posted on my Facebook timeline by a young woman who wrote, “Those two students in the photo are my parents.”  My wife Miriam and I didn’t know our role as matchmakers at the college we founded in the Negev desert.)


As the weather balloons filled with hydrogen (helium was not available) ascended, an eagle spiraled up around them.

Miriam’s brothers ascended to mountain tops and engaged in priestly rites while she brought spirituality down to earth – Torah to water.

Miriam’s life was linked to water.  She saved baby Moses floating on the Nile and led singing and dancing on crossing the Red Sea.

The Israelites were sustained by water from Miriam’s well that followed them through their desert wanderings.

The Arizal, Rabbi Isaac Luria, taught that on entering the Land of Israel, Miriam’s well reappeared gushing water beneath the Sea of Galilee.

He took his student Chaim Vital in a boat on the Sea above Miriam’s well, opposite pillars of an old synagogue, and gave him water to drink.


The Arizal said, “Now you will attain wisdom from this water.” From then on, Chaim Vital felt he was entering the depths of Torah wisdom.

SUCCESSFUL ORCHESTRATION (Based upon my book Photograph God.)

Miriam, like her brother Moses, represents the kabbalistic concept netzah.  The Hebrew word netzah has multiple meanings.  It can mean “success and victory” in overcoming obstacles and fighting injustice.  It also can mean “eternity and perpetuity,” leading to prophetic vision, long-range view, endurance, and staying power.   We find it introducing many of the Psalms as the word for “orchestra conductor or choirmaster,” suggesting mastery, organizational skills, and leadership in guiding a diverse group of players to work together in creating an integrated whole.

Miriam rebelled against the debilitating hopelessness of centuries of bitter slavery.  In Hebrew, her name is related to both the words for “rebellion” and “bitterness.”   She successfully orchestrated saving her baby brother Moses by rebelling against Pharaoh’s evil decree to murder all Hebrew new-born boys.  She organized the women in activities that restored the hope for freedom lost by their husbands.  After crossing the Red Sea, she leads the women in singing and dancing with tambourines of rebellion. Miriam’s Well provided drinking water for the Israelites in the parched desert.  These key actions in Miriam’s life are all linked to water.  Water in kabbalah symbolizes the flow of divine light from heaven to earth.

As a young girl, Miriam hid among the high rushes growing on the banks of the Nile River.  She stood watch from afar over her baby brother Moses floating away in a reed basket that her mother had made.  She saw Pharaoh’s daughter Batyah come to bathe in the river and discover the basket.   Hearing the woeful cries of the baby, Batyah decided to rescue him and adopt him.  Miriam had the chutzpah to approach the royal princess and suggest that she could arrange to have a woman nurse the baby.  When Batyah agreed, Miriam brought Moses back to his own mother who coupled material nourishment with the spiritual nourishment that prepared him for growing up as a prince in the royal palace. (Exodus 2:1-10)

Years later, after the Red Sea drowned the Egyptian’s pursuing the Israelites with their cavalry and chariots to return them to slavery, Moses led the Israelites in a song of thanksgiving (Exodus 15:1-18).   “Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand, and all the women followed her with tambourines, dancing” (Exodus 15:20).  How did the women get tambourines to take with them in their hasty retreat from Egypt?  They didn’t even have enough time to bake their bread that turned into stiff matzah under the desert sun.   Miriam had instilled her unwavering faith in the eventual redemption in the Israelite women.  She encouraged the women to make tambourines in anticipation of a time when they would sing and dance with them in joyous celebration of their freedom.  She encouraged the women not to lose their vision of a better future despite the bitterness of their brutal bondage and their misery mourning their murdered children.  They shared Miriam’s rebellious spirit to overpower their depression, despair, and hopelessness.

The high point of the Song of the Sea was followed by a great let down with the realization that a long journey through the parched desert lies ahead.    In response to Miriam’s inner strength, successful leadership, and faith in a better future, God provided a wondrous well that followed the Israelites, gushing drinking water wherever they camped.  However, when Miriam died and was buried in the Tzin wilderness, there was no more water. Without Miriam, the traveling well disappeared and the community was left without water (Numbers 20:1-2). The oral tradition suggests that the source of underground water was contingent upon Miriam’s song.   Thereafter, the Israelites could only bring forth water by singing Miriam’s song of divine praise that she had orchestrated with tambourines and dance at the Red Sea.

Wells are associated with settlement and the wells the patriarchs had dug.  The Tzin wilderness where Miriam’s life ended was the entry point into the Promised Land for the leaders of the Israelite tribes to spy out the land.  It would seem obvious that they would return to joyfully lead their people into the land their ancestors had settled.  Except for Caleb, who possessed a different spirit, and Joshua, Moses’s disciple, the other tribal leaders argued against settling the land where they would have to dig wells, plant and sow, build homes, fight wars, and collect garbage.  They opted for a fully spiritual life in the desert where they could devote all their energies to Torah study while free manna food was delivered to their tents and water supplied from an itinerant well.  They missed the main point of the Torah that genuine spirituality can only arise from the quality of our daily encounter with the material world.     The divine response to their rejection of lowering heaven to earth was the death sentence.  The rejectionists were condemned to wander in the desert for forty years until all of them had died off.

After Miriam was buried, her well departed from the desert to settle in the Promised Land anticipating that all the Israelites would soon follow.  Legend tells that Miriam’s Well found its home beneath the Sea of Galilee.  The water gushing up from under the lake can be seen to this day from the shore at the city of Tiberius.   To the Prophetess Miriam’s credit, her well continues to feed the Sea of Galilee, a major source of drinking water for the population of modern Israel, mostly the descendants of Caleb’s tribe of Judah.   Archeologists have recently identified Miriam’s Well according to the description of the site by the great 16th century kabbalist known as The Arizal.

About the Author
Mel Alexenberg is an artist, educator, writer, and blogger working at the interface between art, technology, Jewish thought, and living the Zionist miracle in Israel. He is the author of "Through a Bible Lens: Biblical Insights for Smartphone Photography and Social Media," "The Future of Art in a Postdigital Age: From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consciousness," and "Dialogic Art in a Digital World: Judaism and Contemporary Art" in Hebrew. He was professor at Columbia, Bar-Ilan and Ariel universities and research fellow at MIT Center for Advanced Visual Studies. His artworks are in the collections of more than forty museums worldwide. He lives in Ra’anana, Israel, with his wife artist Miriam Benjamin.
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