"Miriam died there and was buried there."
This week's Torah reading, parashat Chukat, begins with the description of the para aduma - red heifer - the Torah symbol, par excellence, both of the ultimate purity of creation, and of the the Torah's insistence that life predominates and prevails over death. So it is particularly poignant and instructive that the para aduma is immediately followed by the account of the death of Miriam the prophet. The great commentator Rashi, points out that Miriam, too, like her brothers Moshe and Aharon "died through a kiss [from G-dís mouth rather than by the angel of death]," meaning that her death was not the result of any spiritual imperfection, but as an expression of pure love. Her own purity can be seen, then, to parallel the purity inherent in the para aduma, and Rashi also makes mention of this: "Why is the passage relating Miriamís death juxtaposed with the passage of the red heifer? To teach you that just as offerings bring atonement, so the death of the righteous secure atonement."
A quick review of Miriam's life will reveal her essential role in the formation of the nation of Israel, the early development of her brother Moshe, the survival of Israel in the desert, the deep attachment between Miriam and Moshe, and the unceasing nature of her love for Israel, which continues to this day, nourishing her people both spiritually and materially.
Miriam, as Midrash teaches, along with her mother Yocheved, were, in fact, Pua and Shifra, the two midwives who defied Pharaoh's decree of infanticide, thereby granting life, and not death, to the Israelite nation in Egypt. We are further told by Midrash that Miriam's parents, Amram and Yocheved, in light of the cruel Pharaonic decree, had divorced, so as not to bring children into the world to face instant death. Miriam chastised her parents for their acquiescence, and convinced them to remarry. The result was the birth of Moshe. Miriam continued to look after her baby brother, and when Pharaoh's daughter discovered Moshe in his ark upon the Nile, Miriam convinced Pharaoh's daughter to hire Moshe's mother, Yocheved to be the child's wet-nurse. In this manner, Miriam rescued the nation from certain physical annihilation, and laid for Israel the foundation of her future spiritual maturation.
We next hear of Miriam at the crossing of the Sea of Reeds, when she pick up her drum to lead the women in songs of praise to G-d for His miraculous deliverance of Israel from the pursuit of Pharaoh's army. Of course, for Miriam, as for the entire people, this was a moment of great exhilaration, to be free at last from Egyptian oppression. But for Miriam it was also a personal vindication of all her previous efforts on behalf of her people and Moshe.
Most revealing is the fact that Miriam, and only Miriam, thought, while still in Egypt, to pack drums and musical instruments for the journey into freedom. While others brought gold and silver and blue and scarlet threads for the eventual building of the Tabernacle and the vessels, it was Miriam who understood the value of spontaneous song and creative expression of thanksgiving and attachment to G-d. She understood that every soul in Israel must be guaranteed the ability and the freedom to initiate and articulate their own spiritual expression as part of the greater Torah nation.
Miriamís death is immediately followed by a dearth of water in the desert and the convening of the people against Moshe and Aharon: "The congregation had no water; so they assembled against Moshe and Aharon." (Numbers 20:2) Again, Rashi explains: "From here [we learn that] all forty years they had the well in Miriamís merit." From this we learn of Miriam's well, the source of water which followed Israel through the desert, providing for the people both physical nourishment, and, symbolically, spiritual (Torah) nourishment.
Moshe's great error of striking the rock in order to produce water, and the punishment he received of not being allowed to enter the land of Israel, can also be see in the light of his sister Miriam. This is the first time in Moshe's one hundred and twenty years that he is without her. Was his apparent anger, calling his people, "you rebels," (ibid 20:10), really an expression of his anguish over the loss of Miriam, who for all these years kept her watchful eye on him? Could the fact that the Hebrew word used here for "rebels," "morim" contains within it the same letters which form the name Miriam be revealing to us the great loss felt by Moshe?
Fortunately for Israel, the loss of Miram's well was only temporary, and it would continue to follow Israel throughout the duration of its desert sojourn and eventually enter with the people into the land, where it remains until this day. Miriam's well continues to be a source both of physical sustenance and spiritual nourishment for Israel. Israel's main water sources are hidden underground, many of which have yet to be rediscovered in modern times. The people of Israel today are reclaiming these well springs of life-giving water and Torah knowledge. Miriam's protective legacy lives today, proving, like the red heifer, the predomination of life over death, and like the red heifer, providing the keys to the rebuilding of the Holy Temple and the resumption of the Divine service: "They shall neither harm nor destroy on all My holy mount, for the land shall be full of knowledge of the L-rd as water covers the sea bed." (Isaiah 11:9)
Tune in to this week's TEMPLE TALK as Yitzchak Reuven, all alone in the studio once again, explores the enigmatic process of the red heifer, which renders the impure pure, and leads us on a spiritual odyssey that begins with wonderment, and proceeds to acceptance of G-d's will, wisdom and faith. No wonder its waters are required before entering the Holy Temple. Yitzchak gets a surprise call from his very best friend, Rabbi Chaim Richman, who is raising a lot of dust and spirits as he makes his way across the great state of Texas, meeting along the way true men and women of faith, who stand with Israel in these turbulent times. With a touch of a Texan accent, the rabbi delivers a clear vision of where the current international anti-Israel frenzy is leading and why we must remain steadfast.