This week, the Torah announces the death of Miriam and immediately thereafter informs us the Israelites lacked water. We have a tradition that due to the merit of Miriam, a miraculous well accompanied us in the desert and, at her death, the well was taken away. This tradition seems to hint at some special connection between Miriam and water; what might that be?
Much earlier, before the birth of Moses, the enslaved Israelites faced a terrible dilemma. Pharaoh had ordered that all male Israelite newborns be drowned by being cast into the Nile. The rabbis tell the story that Moses and Miriam’s father, Amram, the leader of that generation, prevailed upon his community that they dissolve their marriages. He reasoned that no new births would mean no further infanticide. Miriam confronted her father and persuaded him, through a series of arguments, to allow Israelite births to continue, despite Pharoah’s evil decree. Amram had been prepared to forego having more children, but Miriam boldy prophesied that, in fact, her mother Yocheved would give birth to the hero who would ultimately save the Jews. Pharaoh’s persecution demoralized the people and its leader, but Miriam had true grit; the threat of babies drowning in the water of the Nile, however horrific, did not intimidate her, it provoked her.
When Moses was born, Amram joyfully kissed Miriam on the head and pronounced her prophecy fulfilled. But when baby Moses was set afloat in the river, Yocheved angrily slapped her daughter on the head saying, “What of your ‘prophecy’ now?!” Miriam did not allow her parents’ lack of emotional restraint to distract her. With quiet determination, she marched to the river’s edge to await the commencement of her baby brother’s destiny. The water’s edge did not crush her spirit; it steeled her resolve.
Legend has it that Rabbi Akiva, who ultimately became one of the greatest of our sages, initially felt he was too coarse a person and too distant from his Judaic heritage to ever embrace it. Out for a walk, he came upon a stream dripping steadily onto a rock. He noticed that the water had gouged out a depression in the stone. He surmised, “If [water] which is soft, hollows out the [rock], which is hard, all the more so will Torah, which is hard, carve out my heart, which is merely flesh and blood.” Water, it seems, has two qualities which captured the attention of our rabbis: It is persistent in its efforts, which empowers it to be extravagant in its impact. Miriam likewise demonstrated uncommon determination and audacity.
Rabbi Mitch Levine