In this week’s Torah portion, Chukat, we encounter the deaths of both Aaron and Miriam. Moses and his siblings were the leaders of the people Israel on their journey to the Promised Land. Of course Aaron was named High Priest and Miriam was called the N’viah, the prophetess. Each had their important role and according to the Talmud each brought special gifts to the people Israel. Moses brought sustenance through the manna that God gave that fed the people Israel in the desert. Aaron invoked God’s holy name and the Cloud of Glory, the Divine Presence came and protected the people on their way from all enemies. And Miriam is noted for a sacred well that followed the Children of Israel throughout the Wilderness and quenched their thirst.
The Talmud in Taanit 9a teaches this story commenting on the verse in our Torah portion:
And Miriam died there… And there was no water for the congregation (20:1-2)
Three great providers arose for the people of Israel–Moses, Aaron and Miriam–through whom they received three great gifts: the well, the clouds [of glory], and the manna. The well was in the merit of Miriam, the clouds in the merit of Aaron, and the manna in the merit of Moses.
When Miriam died, the well was removed, as it says, “And Miriam died there…” and, immediately afterward, “And there was no water for the congregation.” The well then resumed in the merit of the other two.
When Aaron died, the clouds of glory were removed, as it says, “And the Canaanite, the King of Arad, heard …and waged war on Israel.” He heard that Aaron died, and thought that he now had license to attack Israel [because the clouds of glory which protected them were gone. The well and the clouds] then resumed in the merit of Moses alone.
Because the well dried up, Moses struck the Rock in this week’s portion to bring out an abundant flow of water rather than speaking to it as God had told him.
Some of the commentators say that Moses was so distraught about his older sister’s death that in his grief and frustration he hit the Rock to quench the thirst of the People. After all, it was Miriam’s ability to think and plan ahead that baby Moses was saved and raised in the palace of the Pharaoh. It was Miriam who organized the women in celebration and dancing in thanksgiving for the rescue at the Sea of Reeds.
Miriam is only mentioned six times by name in the Torah. But clearly played an important role in the life of the Israelites. As we read of her this week, may we be inspired by her leadership, her ability to think strategically and plan ahead and her joyous nature that gave thanks to God.