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Miriam's Well: Symbol for the Source of Life
Miriam's death is reported in this week's parshah, Hukkat, and in the very next verse, we learn that the people are without water. Rashi notes that, during the 40 years the people were in the desert, they had access to wells because of Miriam's merit. Indeed, legend has it that Miriam's well accompanied the people from place to place as they wandered.
Pirkei Avot teaches that the mouth of this well was one of the 10 special things that was created during twilight on the eve of the first Shabbat. These 10 things have both a natural and supernatural quality; they were made during creation for future need. When Miriam dies, the well also disappears.
The people assemble against Moses and Aaron in anger because they lack water.
Moses and Aaron go to the Tent of Meeting to escape the angry masses and ask for God's help. God directs them to bring the rod to the rock and get water from it. But Moses and Aaron misrepresent themselves, declaring to the people: "Shall we get water for you out of this rock?" They do not attribute this miracle to God, but rather try to take the credit themselves. For this they are punished by not being allowed to enter the land before they die.
The subject of wells arises again in Hukkat when the people make their last part of the journey through the desert. Once again, they are thirsty, and when they arrive at Beer, a name that means "well," God says to Moses, "Assemble the people that I may give them water." Israel responds by singing a song in honor of the well. The song describes this as "the well which the chieftains dug." It speaks of the well being dug with the maces and staffs of nobles.
This is quite a different well from Miriam's, which appeared wherever they needed it in the desert while she lived, and from the two rocks that Moses hit with his rod. This is a well introduced by God, but dug by humans.
Created during the twilight of the first Shabbat, mysteriously appearing whenever and wherever the people needed it, the legend of Miriam's well is symbolic of faith in the sustaining power of what is mysterious and beyond our understanding.
Yet, I am equally moved by the spirit with which the people welcome this human-dug well, singing spontaneously to it. In the desert, they were completely dependent on God for water, but as they get closer to the land that they will settle in, they begin to move toward greater self-dependency.
With Land Comes Responsibility
While the Torah always links success in working the land to following God's commandments, this shift in types of wells indicates that the people must do more than follow the mitzvot to make the land a place where they can live. They will be asked to dig their own wells, plant their own seeds and raise their own meat. Manna will not fall once they enter this land. With the gift of the Promised Land comes responsibility to tend it with their own hands.
The legend of Miriam's well continues to resurface in our own day, reminding us of the merit of the righteous and of the mysterious never-ending Source of Life, unseen but just below the surface. The well at Beer also springs up, reminding us of the hard, physical labor of those who came before us, and of how much digging we need to keep doing for the privilege of living on this earth.
Rabbi Danielle Stillman is a Reconstructionist rabbi and the Hillel adviser at Ursinus College. Email her at: firstname.lastname@example.org.