By Rabbi Susan Laemmle
Numbers, chapter 20 begins: Read Hebrew, then English. With her two brothers, Miriam has led the people out of Egypt and through the dessert for nearly forty years, and now — in three words, vatamat sham miriyam — she is dead. Later in this chapter, Adonai tells Moses that soon Aaron will “be gathered unto his kin, “ whereupon the entire community witnesses the transfer of priestly power to Eleazar and then Aaron’s passing, which they bewail in mourning for thirty days. How has our tradition viewed the dramatic difference in the way in which these two deaths are experienced in the Torah? And how do we view that difference today?
There is no denying the basically patriarchal slant of Israelite society, the Torah, and the rabbinic tradition. And yet, within its boundaries, Judaism has all along chipped away to make room for women. Indeed, we egalitarian Jews owe a special debt to commentators who seized upon textual gaps, connections, and oddities as opportunities for expanding women’s significance.
So it is that Miriam’s one named but fleeting appearance in Parshat Hukkat — where she appears only to disappear forever — gets connected to another elusive episode — chapter 21: verses 16-18, called the Song at the Well. This rabbinic, midrashic connection yields a meaningful, even if not directly articulated, memorial to “the prophetess,” as she is called when taking up a timbrel to lead her sisters in dance and song. The connection between these two passages supports itself on chapter 20’s textual juxtaposition with which I began this Drash — Miriam dies and then the community lacks water. Rashi and Ramban turn sequence into causation, teaching that it is because of Miriam’s merit and righteousness that the people have had water to drink throughout the forty years in the wilderness; and so with her death, the water supply ceases.
The surest source of fresh water in the desert would be a well. As everyone here knows, the patriarch’s are continually boring wells, often giving them names. But also women and wells are often linked in the Torah. Hagar encounters an angel and later hears God’s voice by a wellspring; Rebecca meets the emissary of her beloved by a well, as do Rachel and Zipporah. And so it is that the rabbinic tradition, as it were, digs another well and names it after Miriam. Doing this gives meaning to the juxtaposition of her death to the people’s thirst, and it also — and importantly — gives weight to her death, making it matter in a substantial way. Not in the august and hierarchical way that Aaron’s death matters, but in manner than affects the very basis of life.
Furthermore, according to Mishnah Avot 5:9, the mouth of this well is one of the ten special things that God created on the eve of the first Shabbat, beyn ha-sh’mashot. This Pirkei-Avot mishnah acknowledges the miraculous nature of an ever-present water source in arid land even while including it, and other such departures from the natural order, back into that very order; as Birnbaum puts this, all unexplained beginnings as well as everything supernatural resulted from the original cause — God.
This sense of awe before a desert well directly manifests itself later in chapter 21, after the pivotal episode at Meribah in which Moses strikes the rock, speaks roughly to the people, and receives his punishing sentence from God. At that point, the people pause in their continuing journey at a place named Beer, which of course means “well”, and we listen as “Israel sang this song” — az yashir yisrael et ha-shirah hazot — the very same words that introduce the Song at the Sea in Exodus. This time, the people sing after God has told Moses: “Assemble the people that I may give them water.”
The song itself is short, elliptical, and unclear in its references. But its opening “Spring up, O well, sing to it” — ali v’aer, enoo lah — and its concluding “and from the wilderness a gift” — ooh’mi-midbar matanah — provide a basis for the midrashic interpretation that the well was gifted to them in the wilderness to serve their needs and accompanied them until it eventually entered the sea of Tiberias. Nachmanides explains: “In the opinion of our sages, it was Miriam’s well, or some other well that came forth at Moses command by divine fiat, not something that the Israelities had asked for.”
Commenting on the first parsha of Sefer B’midbar, Midrash Rabbah speaks of what Moses, Aaron, and Miriam each contributed to the people during the desert period: “The well was due to the merit of Miriam, who sang by the waters of the Red Sea and by the waters of the well.” The linkage between the two passages is based on the analogous use of v’taan in the Song at the Sea and eh-noo in the Song at the Well, both words having the same root. This midrash goes on to raise and answer a question: “How was the well constructed? It was rock-shaped like a kind of bee-hive; and wherever they journeyed, it rolled along and came with them. When the standards under which the tribes journeyed halted and the tabernacle was set up, that same rock would come and settle down in the court of the Tent of Meeting and the princes would come and stand upon it and say, Rise up O well, and it would rise.”
Modern scholars regard the Well Song as an ancient poem that functions in the Torah text as a corrective to the grievous complaints about water in chapter 20 and earlier. In The Five Books of Miriam, Ellen Frankel takes an eclectic approach: “God teaches the Israelites how to summon up water with this incantation, after Miriam’s Well disappears at her death. In the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, this song was chanted every third Sabbath at the minchah sacrifice while Moses’ Song at the Sea was sung on the other two Sabbaths.” I pause to emphasize the last sentence from Frankel, based on Masechet Rosh Hashanah 31a —which I find dramatic and moving: repeat sentence. It seems to me that the near-parity of these two passages can only be explained when the Song at the Well gets connected to Miriam.
Let me go even further — to another modern interpretation that surprised and enlightened me when I came to it in Profs. Tamara Eskenazi and Adriane Leveen’s The Torah: a Women’s Commentary: “Many modern scholars conclude that the Song at the Sea was created and performed by women. Beginning in the mid-20th century, a considerable body of literary, historical, sociological and musicological evidence has been amassed to suggest that the Song should be attributed to Miriam. One ancient manuscript tradition calls it the Song of Miriam. Also, songs of military triumph belong to a victory song genre typically composed and performed by women, not men, to greet victorious troops after battle. Thus the title “Song of Miriam” that is often used by modern interpreters for Exodus 15:21 might in fact be appropriate for this much longer passage as well.”
Before concluding, I pause to notice how far we’ve come — from a one verse mentioning of Miriam’s death to the suggestion that one of the two biblical portions for which we stand up in shul could well be attributed to her. Having traveled that journey through writing this drash, I feel happy that John and I finally started placing Cos Miriam — a goblet of water — next to Cos Eliyahu at our family seder. Perhaps others of you who don’t already include this representation of Miriam’s well on your Passover table will do after hearing this drash. I would argue that this simple act helps open up our homes, hearts and communities — much as some rabbinic and modern commentators have opened up Torah to make it more welcoming of women’s experience.
One final word, taking us back to the dark side of this past Shavout — the tragedy in Orlando. It turns out that several years before the ritual of Miriam’s Cup emerged in 1989, Professor Susannah Heschel had suggested placing an orange on the seder plate as a symbol of the need to include gays, lesbians and others marginalized within the Jewish community. John and I plan on including an orange next year for the first time —because now we understand how vital it is to use every means at our disposal to open up and dig deep.
May the Orange of Inclusion nourish us, and may Miriam’s Well slake our thirst. Shabbat shalom.