We’ve had a lot of water from the skies lately. In fact, there have hardly been three days straight without rain, which is quite a change from last summer, when the whole Midwest was suffering from drought. We complained last year, and we complain this year. Too little rain, too much rain, either way, it’s no good for the crops. Water is the kind of resource that is a blessing when it’s given in the right amount.
This week, in parashat Chukat, we read that Miriam dies. “The Israelites arrived in a body at the wilderness of Zin on the first new moon, and the people stayed at Kadesh. Miriam died there and was buried there.” (Num: 20:1) Immediately, the people “were without water” (20:2) and the people started kvetching again, fighting with Moses and Aaron about their having brought them out into the wilderness to die there, making them leave Egypt. Old argument.
The Midrash says that the fact that the community was without water immediately after Miriam’s death suggests that while Miriam was alive, there was a well of pure water that followed the Israelites wherever they went. When she died, it disappeared. Miriam, mar-yam, “bitter waters”, had a remarkable connection to water throughout her life. She sat beside the river as her baby brother Moses floated to safety. She led the women in song after they crossed the Sea.
The entire community had a relationship with water, in fact, not just in the sense that they needed water to survive, which of course, they did. But in addition, in order to survive as a holy community, they needed water. In chapter after chapter, whenever there is a brush with some sort of tamei (state of “impurity”), the solution is water. Do the dishes, wash the clothes, take a bath, and then you can come back into the community, cleansed. Just before Miriam dies, in fact, we read that water is needed to purify any individual who has come into contact with death – through a corpse, or an animal offering. Death may be part of life, but we are commanded to make a distinction between the two, and water allows us to do so.
So, if the water disappeared when Miriam died, how was the community to remain holy? How was the community to continue separating life from death, tamei from tahor (purity)?
There was another source of water, and we read about just after we read of the community kvetching about water in the wilderness. Moses turned to God, who told him that he and Aaron needed to gather the community, take the rod in their hands, and tell the rock to bring forth water. Well, Moses took the rod alright, but instead of speaking to the rock, he hit it twice. Water did come forth, but it wasn’t the purifying water that Miriam brought to the people.
This is water that sprang not only from a rock, but from anger. This was not the water that could purify a community. It quenched their physical thirst, but there was a cost. The cost was that Moses and Aaron would never see the Land. Just like the spies who paid for their faithlessness in God when they reported back to the people (a few weeks ago….Shelach l’cha) Moses and Aaron would die in the wilderness too, constantly in search of water, and always just a little thirsty.
Today, the heavens are giving forth too much water for the land to absorb at once. Like the water that burst forth from the rock, we may have physical thirst slaked, but at what cost? What’s the cost of our impatience with the land and its resources? Has Miriam’s purifying water left us for good? Perhaps we can regain our special relationship with precious water by staying our hand, protecting our resources, and treating the land as Miriam would have.