Two things come to mind when I think of Miriam. One, that she was Moshe’s sister and two, that she was stricken with tzoraat after speaking lashon hara. That’s quite a slim picture of a woman who was so influential in the lives of the Jewish people. So let’s paint a bigger picture.
Miriam was one of three leaders of the Jewish people during their time in the desert. She was also one of seven female prophets. In parshat Chukat, this week’s parsha, Miriam’s leadership comes to an end as she dies and is buried in Kadesh.
Immediately after her death and burial, which takes place at the end of pasuk alef, the text informs us that the people had no water. The relevant text is underlined below:
Nothing is written by accident in the Torah, so we always try to make connections between bodies of text.
So what is the connection between Miriam’s death and the fact that there was no water?
Throughout the Torah, in Tehillim and Navi, water is repeatedly used as a symbol of life and sustenance. An easy inference to make would be that Miriam’s leadership was a sort of sustenance for the Jewish people. But if we look at the Talmud (Taanit 9a), we learn just how important Miriam was and exactly what connection she had to the water of the Jewish people. Let’s go to the text:
The Talmud tells us that there were three main sustainers of the Jewish people during their time in the desert (first underline). Those three sustainers from God were a well of water, a pillar of cloud, and manna (second underline). Each one of the three gifts were given to us in the merit of our three leaders, Moshe, Aharon, and of course, Miriam. The well of water was in Miriam’s merit (first box).
So there is a direct connection between the events of Miriam dying and the well of the Jews drying up (second box). Once she was no longer alive, the Jews lost the well that was given to them in her merit. Although the well eventually returned to sustain the Jewish people, in the merit of both Moshe and Aharon, the loss of water signified the loss of Miriam’s great leadership.
But that’s not all. Miriam’s connection to water runs even deeper.
Throughout her life, Miriam is strongly associated with water. Just look at her name – “מרים.” There are multiple definitions of the root “מר” – one of them is “water,” and the definition of “ים” is “sea.” Her name means water – twice. Miriam was also involved in saving Moshe from the water of the Nile when he was a baby (Exodus 2:7-9). Her song of praise after the crossing of the Red Sea is also documented (Exodus 15:20). Her most important connection to water, arguably, was the well given to the Jewish people in her merit.
If water is a symbol of sustenance and life, and Miriam had such a strong connection to water, we can learn that Miriam dedicated her life to sustaining others. She gave Moshe life by saving him from water, she gave women life as they joined her in song after the splitting of the water, and she helped the entire Jewish nation thrive during their time in the desert with a well of water.
Through God, and water, Miriam the prophetess was a key sustainer of the Jewish people.