Table for Five: Chukat

Miriam’s Well
July 11, 2024

One verse, five voices. Edited by Nina Litvak and Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist

The entire congregation of the children of Israel arrived at the desert of Zin in the first month, and the people settled in Kadesh. Miriam died there and was buried there.

– Num. 20:1

Liane Pritikin
Writer, Torah Teacher

Pro-Palestinian protesters have really good chants. They’re short, they’re catchy, they rhyme. “Am Yisroel Chai” is great when sung at a concert or Succot event. But not a great chant for a protest. It doesn’t rhyme. There’s no call to action. And it’s in another language. How can we get others on board with our cause — basically for people to stop kidnapping and killing us — when we’re singing in our own unique language? Our parsha says the children of Israel, the people, settled in Kadesh. The root letters of Kadesh — K, D, Sh — play a major role in our practice of Judaism. Kiddush — when we sanctify wine to inaugurate Shabbat and holidays. Kedusha —  the part of our daily Shemonei Esrei prayer when we’re standing like angels sanctifying G-d. Kiddushin —  the first part of a marriage that unites a man and woman solely to each other. Kadosh — the word for holy. Beis HaMikdash — the holy Temple in Jerusalem. The common denominator of all of these words is holiness through separateness. Great for the unity of the Jewish people. Not great as a marketing strategy at a protest. But those are rules of the physical world, not the spiritual one. Spiritually the children of Israel — the entire congregation — showed up together. And separate from everyone else. Since Oct. 7 this has been the rallying cry of rabbis around the world: be united. And be Jewish. It’s our unity as Bnei Yisrael that makes us holy. And makes us a nation that truly lives. 

Rabbi Chaim Tureff
Rav Beit Sefer at Pressman Academy and author of “Recovery in the Torah”

The end of this verse regarding Miriam’s death comes at the end of an important period in Jewish history, our long journey in the desert. Interestingly enough, the commentators note that it’s sandwiched between two verses that are directly impacted by Miriam’s death. One about the well in the desert not having water after her death, and the other about the red heifer in the preceding verse. As Rashi notes, the connection between her death and the verse of the red heifer are that they both impact atonement. 

The Talmud notes that the well disappearing after her death demonstrates the well’s presence only due to Miriam. Miriam being a righteous person impacts not only herself but everyone. This demonstrates the imprint that someone can have. The famous Talmudic passages equating the death and saving of a life to saving or ending an entire world demonstrates the real impact each person can have. How are we influenced by those around us? Do we take the actions of those righteous individuals and imbue those principles into our lives or move on once they’re not present? As “Star Wars” demonstrated, we know that one who is dead can have a greater impact as their teachings live on through their students. Are we willing to take the lessons of Miriam; kindness, a ride-or-die attitude for her people, and a mindset of complete selflessness? Or are we part of the endless cycle of people that don’t learn and grow from our great ancestors? 

Rabbi Shmuel Reichman
International Speaker, Bestselling Author, Business Coach

There is an inspiring reason why the Torah describes the Jewish People coming together in unity right after we are introduced to the concept of chukim. The purpose of intellect is an oft misunderstood concept in the Western world, making chukim even more important to understand: A chok refers to a Torah law that seemingly defies human logic and rational explanation, such as parah adumah, kashrus (Jewish dietary laws), and shaatnez (the prohibition against mixing wool and linen). If there is no logical explanation for these mitzvot, what is their purpose? 

It is possible that while chukim do not appear to have any rational explanation, this is true only from the viewpoint of human logic. Logic may lead us toward the truth, but ultimately, truth resides in a realm beyond reason. 

A person can talk about Torah, spirituality, and mitzvot all they want — but until Torah life becomes an experiential reality, one that is more than intellectual truth, it will remain incomplete. We cannot understand the depths of spiritual truth without experiencing it. The journey of a Jew is the journey of emunah (faithfulness), of seeking out higher and more genuine expressions of truth – and this is both an individual and collective journey. This is why Jewish unity is so powerfully connected to the concept of chukim. May we be inspired to enjoy every step of this process, to embark on a genuine journey toward truth, and to endlessly expand our experiential and existential understanding of the ultimate truth. 

Rabbi Chaim Miller
Author, “Practical Tanya,” “Gutnick Chumash”

After Miriam’s death, the Torah becomes a tragedy. The very next verse relates, “The community was without water” (Numbers 20:2), because “the well was in the merit of Miriam … When Miriam died the well disappeared” (Babylonian Talmud, Ta’anis 9a). Shortly afterward, Moses hits the rock and loses the opportunity to enter the promised land. He dies on a mountain in an unknown location, leaving his lifelong project unfulfilled. Why was Miriam’s presence among the Israelites so vital and her absence so catastrophic? 

Miriam’s two most enduring achievements, her song at the sea and her well, share a connection. As the Midrash teaches, “The well was due to the merit of Miriam, who recited song at the sea … and regarding the water of the well, ‘Then Israel sang this song’” (Numbers 21:17; Numbers Rabbah 1:2). 

What’s the connection between the well and song? 

Unlike Moses, who said, “’I will sing to G-d” (Exodus 15:1), in the future tense, Miriam’s call was an urgent, “Sing to G-d!” (ibid. 21). As a woman, Miriam’s experience of spirituality was embodied. When the sea split, she did not retreat into her head or dream of a future time. She felt the revelation in her body and burst into song, encouraging the other women to join her. Her connection was somatic, engaging her feminine gifts of intuition, receptivity, and nurturing. Having a leader with these gifts was life-sustaining for the Jewish people. It was only when she was gone that they understood why.

Kira Sirote
Author of “Haftorah Unrolled,” Ra’anana, Israel

Forty years pass, the Jewish People begin to move closer to the Promised Land, and then Miriam dies. She dies there, in Kadesh, and she’s buried there, in Kadesh. Not in Beit Lechem on the way to Efrat, not in Chevron or Shechem or Tzefat or Teverya. There’s no Kever Miriam for us to pray at. 

But there’s this one verse — and the story that comes after it, of the lack of water, the protests against Moshe and Aaron, and their ultimate failure to handle yet another protest without breaking down. 

If Miriam had still been alive, would she have calmed the people? Would she have advised Moshe and Aaron how to listen with more empathy, how to speak to this new generation? 

What did Miriam do all those years, about which the Torah is silent? Did she help raise the first generation of children to keep the Torah? Did she tell them about the Splitting of the Sea, and teach them her song? Did she teach them about Lashon Hara and Moshe’s prayer for her health? Did she tell them about the dark days of slavery and show them the jewelry she took from the Egyptians? Did they know that the water they always found when they traveled was hers? 

She died, and then they knew what they had lost.  

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