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Parshas Chukas - Be'er Miriam: Rebel Against Despair, Never Give Up Hope

This week's Dvar Torah is sponsored in memory of Neshama Tehila bas Chana v'Yitzchak whose first yahrtzeit was this week. If ever there was a woman, a family, who embodied the message of this Dvar Torah it is the Heller family whom I have been privileged to get to know over the past year. May her exceptional neshoma have an aliyah and may we know no more sorrow.


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Nearly forty years of traveling in the desert have passed. Klal Yisrael has arrived in Kadesh in the Zin desert which borders Eretz Yisrael. It is here that we encounter one of the most perplexing stories in Chumash.

The people discover that there is no water. Fearful of death their response is quite intense.


וַיָּ֥רֶב הָעָ֖ם עִם־משֶׁ֑ה וַיֹּֽאמְר֣וּ לֵאמֹ֔ר וְל֥וּ גָוַ֛עְנוּ בִּגְוַ֥ע אַחֵ֖ינוּ לִפְנֵ֥י יְהֹוָֽה: וְלָמָ֤ה הֲבֵאתֶם֙ אֶת־קְהַ֣ל יְהֹוָ֔ה אֶל־הַמִּדְבָּ֖ר הַזֶּ֑ה לָמ֣וּת שָׁ֔ם אֲנַ֖חְנוּ וּבְעִירֵֽנוּ: וְלָמָ֤ה הֶֽעֱלִיתֻ֨נוּ֙ מִמִּצְרַ֔יִם לְהָבִ֣יא אֹתָ֔נוּ אֶל־הַמָּק֥וֹם הָרָ֖ע הַזֶּ֑ה לֹ֣א | מְק֣וֹם זֶ֗רַע וּתְאֵנָ֤ה וְגֶ֨פֶן֙ וְרִמּ֔וֹן וּמַ֥יִם אַ֖יִן לִשְׁתּֽוֹת:

"The people quarreled with Moses, and they said, "If only we had died with the death of our brothers before the Lord. Why have you brought the congregation of the Lord to this desert so that we and our livestock should die there? Why have you taken us out of Egypt to bring us to this evil place; it is not a place for seeds, or for fig trees, grapevines, or pomegranate trees, and there is no water to drink." (Bamidbar 20:3-5)


Moshe and Aaron turn to God who instructs Moshe to "take the staff, and gather the people, you and Aaron your brother. You shall speak to the rock before their eyes, and it will give its water.” Moshe assembles the people in front of the rock and rebukes them: "Now listen, you rebels, can we draw water for you from this rock?" Moshe then strikes the rock with his staff twice and abundance of water emerges. The people and their livestock drank from the flowing water.

But Hashem is none too pleased by Moshe and Aaron's actions.

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר יְהֹוָה֘ אֶל־משֶׁ֣ה וְאֶל־אַֽהֲרֹן֒ יַ֚עַן לֹא־הֶֽאֱמַנְתֶּ֣ם בִּ֔י לְהַ֨קְדִּישֵׁ֔נִי לְעֵינֵ֖י בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל לָכֵ֗ן לֹ֤א תָבִ֨יאוּ֙ אֶת־הַקָּהָ֣ל הַזֶּ֔ה אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־נָתַ֥תִּי לָהֶֽם:

"The Lord said to Moses and Aaron, "Since you did not have faith in Me to sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly to the Land which I have given them." (Bamidbar 20:12)


Moshe and Aaron will not enter into Eretz Yisrael as a result of their actions. They will die in the desert while others will take over the leadership of Klal Yisrael. This episode is known at the Mei Merivah, the waters of dispute.


As we consider this story several questions arise.

  1. The nature of Moshe and Aaron's mistake is not spelled out in the Torah. In fact, there are no less than ten answers brought by the commentators as to the nature of the sin. What exactly did they do wrong?

  2. When Moshe struck the rock the first time only a few drops of water came out. When he struck the rock a second time the water began to truly flow thus nourishing the people. If Moshe was not meant to hit the rock, why did anything come out? If hitting the rock worked, why didn't it work immediately?

  3. This is not the first time that Klal Yisrael finds itself without water in the desert. In fact it has happened twice before! The first time was at Mara where Klal Yisrael had water but it was too bitter to drink. Moshe davened to Hashem who instructed him how to sweeten the water and Klal Yisrael had water to drink. The second episode was at Rephidim where there was no water at all. The Torah tells us that Klal Yisrael's fear was so intense that Moshe was concerned that Klal Yisrael would stone him to death. In this case Hashem told Moshe to take his staff and hit the rock which brought forth water and nourished Bnei Yisrael. After having led Klal Yisrael for so many years and experienced similar episodes, why does Moshe make this mistake? Why here? Why now?

  4. The Torah tells us that Moshe referred to Klal Yisrael as הַמֹּרִ֔ים, rebels. Klal Yisrael feared death in the desert. Yes, there reaction was inappropriate but are they truly rebels or are they simply reacting to what appears to be their certain death?

  5. The passuk tells us that Moshe lacked faith in Hashem. How so? Even if one were to understand the nature of Moshe's mistake, did Moshe really lack faith in God? Does the greatest Navi who ever lived not have a solid foundation of emunah?

  6. Whatever the nature of Moshe's sin, the consequence does not seem to fit the crime. Even if Moshe did err and did not follow God's instructions precisely, removing him from leadership, not allowing him to enter into Eretz Yisrael, is quite the draconian response. Why such a harsh punishment for such an insignificant crime?


What's In A Name?


In order to answer these questions we must first return to one part of the story that we (intentionally) skipped.


וַיָּבֹ֣אוּ בְנֵֽי־יִ֠שְׂרָאֵ֠ל כָּל־הָ֨עֵדָ֤ה מִדְבַּר־צִן֙ בַּחֹ֣דֶשׁ הָֽרִאשׁ֔וֹן וַיֵּ֥שֶׁב הָעָ֖ם בְּקָדֵ֑שׁ וַתָּ֤מָת שָׁם֙ מִרְיָ֔ם וַתִּקָּבֵ֖ר שָֽׁם:

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. (Bamidbar 20:1)


The death of Miriam at the outset of our story is no coincidence. The Gemara in Taanis (9a) tells us that it was in the merit of Miriam that Klal Yisrael was miraculously accompanied by a well throughout the desert which provided them with water. When Miriam passed away the well disappeared. No wonder Klal Yisrael went into such a panic when they found no water in Kadesh. As long as Miriam was alive, even if there was no water in their place of encampment, they could still drink from the Be'er of Miriam. With the passing of Miriam Klal Yisrael feared that they would die of dehydration.


But what is the connection between Miriam and water? The Gemara (ibid.) tells us that in Aaron's merit Klal Yisrael had the protection of the Ananei HaKavod and in the merit of Moshe the mann fell. The connection between Aaron HaKohen and the Ananei HaKavod is fairly obvious. As Kohen Gadol Aaron officiated in the Mishkan that was perpetually covered by the Ananei HaKavod. Similarly, it was Moshe who told Klal Yisrael that they would be receiving the mann and then patiently guided the people as they became familiar with the food's curious and unsettling properties (see Shemos 15:27-16:36). What was it about Miriam that in her merit we had a traveling Be'er?


In order to answer this question we must first examine the life of Miriam. Let us begin by analyzing Miriam's name which will give us an insight into her essence.


The name Miriam has two meanings: bitter (mar) and rebellion (meri). She was so named because she was born during the bitter golus in Mitzrayim (Shemos 1:14) and Miriam was able to connect to the oppressive existence of Bnei Yisrael. She deeply felt the pain of her brother's and sister's.

At the same time Miriam rebelled against the enslaved mentality that she was born into. Whereas the slave may despair of a better future and reconcile themselves to a life of servitude, Miriam refused to accept that there was no hope for a redeemed future. Hidden within the pain redemption is waiting to be discovered. By connecting deeply to the pain of exile Miriam was able to bring geula into being.


With this duality in mind we can better understand another of Miriam's names: Puah (see Sotah 11a which teaches that Yocheved and Miriam were Shifra and Puah though this is not universally agreed upon). When Pharaoh commanded the Jewish midwives (Yocheved and Miriam) to kill the newborn baby boys she acutely felt the pain of the bitter exile and yet rebelled against Pharaoh by assisting the mothers in giving birth to healthy children. The name Puah indicates that she would coo to the babies (from the root word Pa'ah) and calming the crying infant with her soothing voice (see Rashi, Shemos 1:15). In this way she connected to the bitter experience of the child. At the same time the Medrash (Shemos Rabbah 1:17) says that the name Puah means she revealed her face brazenly (from the root word hofia) against Pharoah saying, "Woe to this man, when G‑d avenges him!" In fact, Pharaoh, infuriated with the rebellious attitude of Miriam, wanted to kill her and it was only because Yocheved intervened and argued that Miriam was just a five year olf child who didn't know better that Miriam's life was spared. We therefore see that both as Miriam and as Puah, she was able to connect to the pain of her nation and to rebel against the slavery that shackled us.


Not only do we see Miriam's rebelliousness against the status quo when it came to the decree of Pharoah but we even see it with regards to her own father. Chazal tell us (Sotah 12a, 13a, see also Medrash Lekach Tov Shemos 2:1, Shemos Rabbah 1:22, Pesikta Rabbati 43:27) that Amram (Miriam's father and the Gadol HaDor) had decreed that because of Pharaoh's decree that Jewish male babies should be murdered, husbands should divorce their wives and have no more children. Amram led the way by divorcing his own wife Yocheved and the people followed suit. Miriam, as a young six year old child, stood up to her father and argued that his decree was even worse than Pharaoh's. Whereas Pharaoh only made a decree against the males, Amram's decree ensured that neither male nor female babies would be born. While Pharaoh only takes away their life in this world, Amram's decree takes away their world to come as well for if a child is never born how can they earn a portion in the world to come!?! While Pharaoh's decree is uncertain because of his wickedness, Amram's decree as a righteous man will certainly be fulfilled.


Miriam's logic moved Amram to reconsider his position. He went to the Sanhedrin and presented recanted his psak. The members of the Sanhedrin told Amram, since it was you who forbade us from marrying our wives, it is you who must now permit it. Amram asked the Sanhedrin, and should we return to our wives quietly? The Sanhedrin responded that if they return to their wives quietly how will the rest of Klal Yisrael know to return to their spouses? In order to encourage other husbands to return to their wives, Amram formally remarried his wife. At the wedding Miriam sang "my mother is destined to give birth to Moshe the redeemer who will redeem us from Mitzrayim." When Moshe was born, the house became full of light and Amram kissed Miriam on her forehead and said, “My daughter your prophecy has been fulfilled”

Once again we see that Miriam rebels against the pain of Klal Yisrael and transforms the bitterness into redemption. Miriam understands that exile only exists so that we can be redeemed. Rather than shrink into the pain, Miriam confronts the inner nekuda of geula that exists within and brings about the redemption.


In keeping with this theme, the Gemara in Sotah (12a) tells us that Miriam also had several other names. She was called Azuvah (abandoned) because initially she was sickly and unattractive so no one wanted to marry her.In fact, Chazal tell us that Calev married her only l'shem shomayim without concern for her appearance. Similarly she was also called Yerios (curtains) because her face was extremely sickly looking like the pale color of curtains. However, eventually Miriam grew to become exceptionally beautiful. The Gemara tells us that Miriam was also called both Chelah (sickly) and Naarah (young) because she was initially a sickly woman who ended up becoming a healthy and beautiful young woman. She was also called Tzeret, Zohar and Esnan. Tzeret means rival and she was so named because other women became jealous of her beauty. She was called Zohar because her face shine like the sun at high noon (tzoharayim) which again indicates that she was exceptionally beautiful. Finally she was called Esnan, which means gift, because any man who saw her would bring gifts to their wives to entice them. Once again, Miriam encompasses both exile and redemption. She experiences the pain of being abandoned as no one is willing to marry her. Her pallid looking features are symbolic of the bitter exile she was born into. And yet ultimately there is a redemption that is expressed in her radiant beauty which is responsible for bringing new life into the world.


With this in mind we can now examine a third aspect of the name Miriam. The passuk in Yeshayahu (40:15) states:

הֵ֚ן גּוֹיִם֙ כְּמַ֣ר מִדְּלִ֔י וּכְשַׁ֥חַק מֹֽאזְנַ֖יִם נֶחְשָׁ֑בוּ הֵ֥ן אִיִּ֖ים כַּדַּ֥ק יִטּֽוֹל:

Behold the nations are like a drop of water from a bucket, and like dust on a balance are they counted; behold the islands are like fine [dust] that blows away.


We therefore see that aside from bitterness and rebellion, Miriam also means water. What is the symbolic meaning of water and how does it fit in with the thesis we explored have thus far?


The passuk in Yeshayahu (55:1) says ה֚וֹי כָּל־צָמֵא֙ לְכ֣וּ לַמַּ֔יִם, Ho! A ll who thirst, come for water.


The defining characteristic of water is that it quenches our thirst. On a spiritual level this means that someone's soul thirsts for God, when they recognize how absolutely vital it is to have a relationship with Hashem, it is the waters of emunah that satisfy our thirst. Our earliest self knowledge is when we were immersed in water. In utero we were one with our mother. One with our environment. When we recognize with a profound sense of emunah that we are intimately connected with Hashem, we experience a nullification before God. In other words, when a person feels distant from God and they cry out in yearning for Hashem they experience a fiery passion. When a person realizes that they are not, nor have they ever been, distant from God, that even throughout all the pain and suffering of their lives God has been as connected to them like a child in their mother's womb, they experience the deep love of water.


This is what the passuk in Yeshayau (12:3) means when it says, וּשְׁאַבְתֶּם־מַ֖יִם בְּשָׂשׂ֑וֹן מִמַּֽעַיְנֵ֖י הַיְשׁוּעָֽה, And you shall draw water with joy from the wellsprings of salvation. Redemption occurs when we draw from water with joy. When we can sense our intimate connection with Hashem even in the midst of a long and bitter exile, we bring about the very salvation necessary to ending our Golus. It is as if God is playing hide and go seek and is waiting to be found. The pain of exile is designed is that God is hidden from us however, He is not truly gone. The game ends when we discover that Hashem, while hidden, has been with us the entire time.


This is in line with the Gemara in Megillah (29a) which teaches:

תניא ר"ש בן יוחי אומר בוא וראה כמה חביבין ישראל לפני הקב"ה שבכל מקום שגלו שכינה עמהן גלו למצרים שכינה עמהן שנאמר (שמואל א ב, כז) הנגלה נגליתי לבית אביך בהיותם במצרים וגו' גלו לבבל שכינה עמהן שנאמר (ישעיהו מג, יד) למענכם שלחתי בבלה ואף כשהן עתידין ליגאל שכינה עמהן שנאמר (דברים ל, ג) ושב ה' אלהיך את שבותך והשיב לא נאמר אלא ושב מלמד שהקב"ה שב עמהן מבין הגליות

It is taught in a baraita: Rabbi Shimon ben Yoḥai says: Come and see how beloved the Jewish people are before the Holy One, Blessed be He. As every place they were exiled, the Divine Presence went with them. They were exiled to Egypt, and the Divine Presence went with them, as it is stated: “Did I reveal myself to the house of your father when they were in Egypt?” (I Samuel 2:27). They were exiled to Babylonia, and the Divine Presence went with them, as it is stated: “For your sake I have sent to Babylonia” (Isaiah 43:14). So too, when, in the future, they will be redeemed, the Divine Presence will be with them, as it is stated: “Then the Lord your God will return with your captivity” (Deuteronomy 30:3). It does not state: He will bring back, i.e., He will cause the Jewish people to return, but rather it says: “He will return,” which teaches that the Holy One, Blessed be He, will return together with them from among the various exiles.


God is with us throughout our exile and remains with us until we are redeemed. And not only is God with us but He experiences our pain so to speak as the passuk in Yeshayahu (63:9) says בְּכָל־צָֽרָתָ֣ם | ל֣וֹ (כתיב לֹ֣א) צָ֗ר, In all their troubles, He is troubled. (Though the passuk is written with the word לֹ֣א which would indicate that Hashem is not distressed, it is read as צר לו - it is indeed painful to Him.)


The Zohar ( vol. 3, 115b) compares our exile to a man who is in love with a woman who lives in a foul smelling place (a street of tanners). If the woman did not live there the man would never go into such a place to avoid the unpleasant odors. Because she lives there it seems to him like a street of spice makers where all the sweet scents of the world are to be found. In Golus we find ourselves in a foul smelling place, one that God would never enter into. And yet because we are there God descends into Golus and it appears to Him like a place of the sweetest smelling fragrance. Simply being with Klal Yisrael is a delight to Hashem that erases the foul odor of exile.


This is the gift of emunah that Miriam brings to Klal Yisrael. In Mitzrayim, Bnei Yisrael were suffering through the hardships of a torturous existence. Enslaved for over 200 years under the tyrannical rule of Pharaoh we were a people in a parched land. To bring us from pain to joy, from exile to redemption, Miriam quenched the thirst of Klal Yisrael by endowing within us the knowledge that God was with us the entire time. God is exiled with us and will be redeemed with us. Our distress is His distress. And even when the stench of Golus is unbearably foul, to Hashem being with His beloved Klal Yisrael is the sweetest smell in the world. Armed with this knowledge Miriam brings Klal Yisrael to their ultimate salvation.


With this in mind we can now better understand Miriam's rebellious attitude. From a young age she shows no fear towards Pharaoh because she has complete emunah. Even in Golus Miriam understands that her connection with God has not been severed in any way. True power belongs to Hashem and this gives her the courage not only to defy Pharoah's orders but to stand up to him as well. Similarly when it came to her own father who was the Gadol HaDor Miriam stood up to her father's psak. Amram's ruling was indeed logical. How can a parent bring a child into the world knowing that the child has a fifty percent chance of being murdered? Miriam's contention is that the psak indicates a lack of emunah. Even in Golus we have a responsibility to continue God's mission. Who will live and who will die is only up to Hashem. In so doing we find God within our pain and bring about our salvation. No wonder that when Amram remarries Yocheved Miriam rejoices that her mother will now give birth to Moshe Rabbeinu who will redeem Klal Yisrael from exile.


Miriam - Grandmother of Kings


With this in mind we are now ready to examine two final name of Miriam, Efrat and Acharchel.


The passuk in Divrei Hayamim (I 2:19) tells us that Azuvah died, and Kalev took Efrat as a wife and she gave birth to Chur.


The passuk also tells us (Divrei Hayamim I 4:8) that Kotz gave birth to Anuv and the Tzovevah and the families of Acharchel son of Harum


The Medrash (Shemos Rabbah 1:17) explains that “Kalev took Efrat as a wife” – This is Miriam. Why was she called Efrat? Because Klal Yisrael was fruitful and multiplied through her efforts. Furthermore, Acharchel is Miriam. Why is she called that? It is based on the passuk, “All of the women went after her …” (Shemos 15:20).


Rashi (Shemos 1:21 based on Sotah 11b) says that Miriam, in her identity as Puah, was blessed with royalty. “Hashem made houses [for the midwives]” – This refers to houses of Kehunah , Leviah, and royalty. “He built the House of Hashem and the House of the king” (Melachim I 9:1). Kehunah and Leviah come from Yocheved (who gave birth to Moshe and Aharon), and royalty from Miriam.


The Medrash (Shemos Rabbah 1:17) explains that the names Efrat and Acharchel indicate that Dovid HaMelech was a descendant of Miriam: How do we know that Dovid was descended from Miriam? For it is written, “Dovid was an Efrati man from Beit Lechem in Yehudah …” (Shmuel I 17:12) … “and the families of Acharchel son of Harum” (I Divrei Hayamim 4:8). “Acharchel” – is Miriam. Why was she called that? It is based on the verse, “All of the women went after her (achareha) …” (Shemos 15:20). What does “families” teach us? That he merited to raise families through his marriage with her. “Son of Harum” – She merited that Dovid came from her, the one whose kingdom the Holy One, blessed be He, raised up, as it says, “He will give power to His king, and raise up the “horn” of His anointed one” (Shmuel I 2:10).


Dovid HaMelech even hints at his grandmother Miriam in Tehhilim (60:9).

לִ֚י גִלְעָ֨ד | וְלִ֬י מְנַשֶּׁ֗ה וְ֖אֶפְרַיִם מָע֣וֹז רֹאשִׁ֑י יְ֜הוּדָ֗ה מְחֹֽקְקִי:

Gilead is mine, and Manasseh is mine, and Ephraim is the strength of my head; Judah is my lawgiver.


The first letters of מָע֣וֹז רֹאשִׁ֑י יְ֜הוּדָ֗ה מְחֹֽקְקִי spell מרים.


On a simple level it makes sense that Miriam would be the grandmother of royalty as she was already involved in uniting Klal Yisrael during her lifetime. Chazal explain (Sifrei Parshas Ki Teitzei Piskah 65) that when the passuk in Michah (6:4) says, "I sent before you Moshe, Aharon, and Miriam” it means that every time the tribes would travel, they would not move until Miriam first preceded them. Miriam guided the traveling of the Shevatim according to the order outlined in Parshas Behaaloscha. Preserving the Divinely ordained order prevented jealousy between the tribes so that they would not argue about who goes first thus preserving unity and peace. Because of Miriam’s special concern for the unity of the Shevatim she merited to become the ancestor of the king who unified the tribes.


On a deeper level we can explain that because it is Miriam who most acutely feels the bitterness of Golus she is also the person who is most primed to find the spark of redemption that lies within. By rebelling against despair in the name of eternal hope, Miriam as Efrat is able to ensure that Klal Yisrael continues to be fruitful and multiply even when facing the most impossible of circumstances. This is how she leads (Acharchel) the righteous women of Klal Yisrael. No wonder that she would merit to have Dovid HaMelech and ultimately Mashiach as her descendants who bring about the redemtpion of Klal Yisrael.


Who Actually Raised Miriam?


Now that we have explained that Miriam transforms the pain and ugliness of exile into redemption and beauty through the medium of water (the emunah that God is always with us) we are ready to examine the relationship between Miriam and Moshe.


Miriam's faith leads to the birth of Moshe Rabbeinu. The Gemara in Sotah (13a) teaches that when Moshe is born the entire house is filled with light and Amram kisses Miriam on head proclaiming that her prophecy has been fulfilled. However, once Moshe could no longer be hidden they they placed Moshe in a basket in the river. (see Shemos Rabbah 1:20 which explains that Moshe was born prematurely, such that Yocheved was able to hide him from the Egyptians who kept record of when each woman was due in order to seize her child.) Amram arose and hit Miriam on her head. saying to her: My daughter, where is your prophecy? (see Shemos Rabbah 1:22 which indicates that it was her mother Yocheved that hit her on the head.)

For this reason the passuk (Shemos 2:4) tells us that that וַתֵּֽתַצַּ֥ב אֲחֹת֖וֹ מֵֽרָחֹ֑ק לְדֵעָ֕ה מַה־יֵּֽעָשֶׂ֖ה לֽוֹ, And his sister stood afar off, to know what would be done to him. In other words, where Amram may have given up hope, Miriam follows Moshe in the river so that she may know what will be the ultimate resolution of her prophecy.


The inner explanation of this story is that whereas Moshe's parents experienced only the pain of losing their son, Miriam rebels against their worldview and sees salvation embedded within that pain. When Moshe is placed in the water, Miriam realizes that Moshe is being held by Hashem like a child in his mother's womb. She knows for certain that redemption is at hand and she follows Moshe to see from where the salvation will come. It is not a question of if but when and how. Once again we see the formula of pain, emunah and redemption.


As we know, Batyah, Pharaoh's daughter, comes to bathe in the Nile River. Seeing the basket floating in the river, she takes the basket and finds a crying baby within which she immediately identifies as a child of the Hebrews. Again, Miriam enters the narrative, offering to bring the baby to a Hebrew wet nurse. Batyah agrees and the child is returned by Miriam to Yocheved. Eventually the child grows up and he is returned to the palace where Batyah names him Moshe because he was drawn from the water.


As we step back and consider this part of the story we see that not only is Miriam responsible for Moshe being born but she is also credited for returning Moshe home where he can be raised to eventually become the Moshiach of Klal Yisrael. It is quite possible that without Miriam, Moshe never would have known who his parents were. It would be appropriate to identify Miriam as the facilitator of Moshe. Even the name Moshe, drawn from the water, can be understood to mean that from the Emunah (water) of Miriam, Moshe was brought into being. Thus we find in the Rambam (Hilchos Tumas Tzaras 16:10) that it is Miriam who is credited with raising Moshe Rabbeinu. Though Miriam was a young girl when she returned Moshe to their home, and Moshe was a very young child when he returned to the palace of Pharaoh, still it is Miriam who is identified with raising Moshe Rabbeinu.

Moshe's Rescue And Kerias Yam Suf - Two Parallel Stories


In light of Miriam and Moshe's relationship we can begin to understand how the story of Moshe Rabbeinu being rescued from the river and Kerias Yam Suf are actually parallel stories.


The Torah describes the child Moshe as being placed into the reeds:

וְלֹא־יָֽכְלָ֣ה עוֹד֘ הַצְּפִינוֹ֒ וַתִּקַח־לוֹ֙ תֵּ֣בַת גֹּ֔מֶא וַתַּחְמְרָ֥ה בַֽחֵמָ֖ר וּבַזָּ֑פֶת וַתָּ֤שֶׂם בָּהּ֙ אֶת־הַיֶּ֔לֶד וַתָּ֥שֶׂם בַּסּ֖וּף עַל־שְׂפַ֥ת הַיְאֹֽר:

[When] she could no longer hide him, she took [for] him a reed basket, smeared it with clay and pitch, placed the child into it, and put [it] into the reeds at the Nile's edge. (Shemos 2:3)


The word reeds also appears in the context of Kerias Yam Suf as the passuk says:

וַיַּסֵּ֨ב אֱלֹהִ֧ים | אֶת־הָעָ֛ם דֶּ֥רֶךְ הַמִּדְבָּ֖ר יַם־ס֑וּף וַֽחֲמֻשִׁ֛ים עָל֥וּ בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם:

So God led the people around [by] way of the desert [to] the Sea of Reeds, and the children of Israel were armed when they went up out of Egypt.


Another linguistic connection between the rescue of Moshe and Kerias Yam Suf is the word וַתֵּֽתַצַּ֥ב, to stand. In the story of Moshe it is Miriam who stands and watches to see what will happen to Moshe. At Kerias Yam Suf Moshe tells Klal Yisrael to stand firm and see how salvation will occur.


וַתֵּֽתַצַּ֥ב אֲחֹת֖וֹ מֵֽרָחֹ֑ק לְדֵעָ֕ה מַה־יֵּֽעָשֶׂ֖ה לֽוֹ:

His sister stood from afar, to know what would be done to him. (Shemos 2:4)


וַיֹּ֨אמֶר משֶׁ֣ה אֶל־הָעָם֘ אַל־תִּירָ֒אוּ֒ הִתְיַצְּב֗וּ וּרְאוּ֙ אֶת־יְשׁוּעַ֣ת יְהֹוָ֔ה אֲשֶׁר־יַֽעֲשֶׂ֥ה לָכֶ֖ם הַיּ֑וֹם כִּ֗י אֲשֶׁ֨ר רְאִיתֶ֤ם אֶת־מִצְרַ֨יִם֙ הַיּ֔וֹם לֹ֥א תֹסִ֛פוּ לִרְאֹתָ֥ם ע֖וֹד עַד־עוֹלָֽם:

Moses said to the people, Don't be afraid! Stand firm and see the Lord's salvation that He will wreak for you today, for the way you have seen the Egyptians is [only] today, [but] you shall no longer continue to see them for eternity. (Shemos 14:13)


In the story of Moshe's rescue we find the daughter of Pharaoh accompanied by her maidservants. At Kerias Yam Suf it is Pharaoh himself accompanied by the Egyptian army.


But for our purposes the most important parallel between the two stories is the role of Miriam. It is Miriam who accompanies Moshe as he floats down the river and as soon as he is taken in by Batyah, Miriam becomes the focal point of the narrative as she completes the redemption by returning Moshe home. Similarly, at Kerias Yam Suf, after the miracle has occurred, Miriam plays a central role in the narrative as she leads the woman in song. Just as Miriam never lost hope that Moshe will be saved from the river, the righteous women of Klal Yisrael were confident that God would make miracles for them, so they prepared tambourines and dances (see Rashi Shemos 15:20). While the men concerned themselves with survival by baking Matzah, the women assured of salvation, prepared themselves to praise Hashem. Just as Moshe was drawn from the emunah of Miriam, Klal Yisrael is drawn from the emunah of the righteous women of Klal Yisrael. Fittingly, Miriam who rebels against despair in the name of eternal hope leads the women in song. (According to the Medrash (Targum Micha 6:4), just as Moshe led the men out of Egypt, so did Miriam lead the women. Similarly, just as Moses taught Torah to the men, so too, Miriam taught Torah to the women.)


The Medrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 1:2) suggests that in the merit of Miriam's leading the women in song she brought the Be’er Miriam to Klal Yisrael and it is this water that sustains Klal Yisrael in the desert. What is the connection between Miriam's leadership and the Be'er Miriam? Both the story of Moshe's rescue and Kerias Yam Suf involve a post script that involves a lack of drinking. When Moshe is rescued by Batyah, the baby will not nurse and needs to be returned to Yocheved for nourishment. After Kerias Yam Suf the Torah tells us that Klal Yisrael arrives at Marah and the waters were too bitter to drink. Since it is Miriam who never loses hope (water) and ensures that Moshe will be able to nurse from Yocheved's milk, in the merit of Miriam whose eternal hope is expressed in the women's song she brings the Be'er Miriam to nourish Klal Yisrael. (see Rabeinu Bachayei Bamidbar 20:2 and Zohar 3:103a which directly connects the Be'er Miriam to Miriam's watching for Moshe's salvation as a child.)


Be'er Miriam Saves Us Once Again

We are all familiar with the song that Klal Yisrael sang at Kerias Yam Suf but far less known (though it is written explicitly in Chumash!) is another song that Klal Yisrael sings in our Parsha.


עַל־כֵּן֙ יֵֽאָמַ֔ר בְּסֵ֖פֶר מִלְחֲמֹ֣ת יְהֹוָ֑ה אֶת־וָהֵ֣ב בְּסוּפָ֔ה וְאֶת־הַנְּחָלִ֖ים אַרְנֽוֹן: וְאֶ֨שֶׁד֙ הַנְּחָלִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר נָטָ֖ה לְשֶׁ֣בֶת עָ֑ר וְנִשְׁעַ֖ן לִגְב֥וּל מוֹאָֽב: וּמִשָּׁ֖ם בְּאֵ֑רָה הִ֣וא הַבְּאֵ֗ר אֲשֶׁ֨ר אָמַ֤ר יְהֹוָה֙ לְמשֶׁ֔ה אֱסֹף֙ אֶת־הָעָ֔ם וְאֶתְּנָ֥ה לָהֶ֖ם מָֽיִם: אָ֚ז יָשִׁ֣יר יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אֶת־הַשִּׁירָ֖ה הַזֹּ֑את עֲלִ֥י בְאֵ֖ר עֱנוּ־לָֽהּ: בְּאֵ֞ר חֲפָר֣וּהָ שָׂרִ֗ים כָּר֨וּהָ֙ נְדִיבֵ֣י הָעָ֔ם בִּמְחֹקֵ֖ק בְּמִשְׁעֲנֹתָ֑ם וּמִמִּדְבָּ֖ר מַתָּנָֽה: וּמִמַּתָּנָ֖ה נַֽחֲלִיאֵ֑ל וּמִנַּֽחֲלִיאֵ֖ל בָּמֽוֹת: וּמִבָּמ֗וֹת הַגַּיְא֙ אֲשֶׁר֙ בִּשְׂדֵ֣ה מוֹאָ֔ב רֹ֖אשׁ הַפִּסְגָּ֑ה וְנִשְׁקָ֖פָה עַל־פְּנֵ֥י הַיְשִׁימֹֽן:

Concerning this it is told in the account of the Wars of the Lord, "What He gave at the [Sea of] Reeds and the streams of Arnon. And the spilling of the streams that turned to settle at Ar and leaned toward the border of Moab. From there to the well; that is the well of which the Lord said to Moses, 'Gather the people, and I will give them water.'" Then Israel sang this song: "Ascend, O well, sing to it! A well dug by princes, carved out by nobles of the people, through the lawgiver with their staffs, and from the desert, a gift. From the gift, to the streams, and from the streams to the heights. From the heights to the valley in the field of Moab, at the top of the peak, that overlooks the wastelands." (Bamidbar 21:14-20)

What is this well that Klal Yisrael is singing about? The Medrash (Tanchuma Chukas 20, Bamidbar Rabbah 19:25) explains that it is a reference to a miracle that occurred with the Be'er Miriam. Chazal explains that the Amorites intended to ambush Klal Yisrael by hiding in the caves of the mountain and in the valley below. In this way, as Klal Yisrael traveled through the valley, they would attack Klal Yisrael from both above and below and destroy them. Hashem guided Bnei Yisrael so that they never traveled through the valley and avoided certain death. Miraculously the mountains on both sides of the valley came together and crushed all the Amorites that were hidden in the mountain. And what about those Amorites who were waiting in the valley? The water from the Be'er Miriam flowed through the valley and drowned them Just as the Egyptians drowned at the Yam Suf, the Be'er Miriam drowned the Amorites at the streams of Arnon.


Only one thing was missing from this story, Klal Yisrael had no idea that the miracle had occurred! To remedy this Hashem sent the well water into the caves to wash out all the limbs. When the Klal Yisrael saw the well flowing with body parts, they realized the great miracle that had occurred and burst out in song.


Why did Hashem choose to bring about this miracle through the Be'er Miriam? Why not open up the ground and swallow them like He did with Korach and his followers? Furthermore, why was it important for Klal Yisrael to know that a miracle occurred for them?


In order to answer these questions we must examine the story that immediately precedes this one.


וַיִּסְע֞וּ מֵהֹ֤ר הָהָר֙ דֶּ֣רֶךְ יַם־ס֔וּף לִסְבֹ֖ב אֶת־אֶ֣רֶץ אֱד֑וֹם וַתִּקְצַ֥ר נֶֽפֶשׁ־הָעָ֖ם בַּדָּֽרֶךְ: וַיְדַבֵּ֣ר הָעָ֗ם בֵּֽאלֹהִים֘ וּבְמשֶׁה֒ לָמָ֤ה הֶֽעֱלִיתֻ֨נוּ֙ מִמִּצְרַ֔יִם לָמ֖וּת בַּמִּדְבָּ֑ר כִּ֣י אֵ֥ין לֶ֨חֶם֙ וְאֵ֣ין מַ֔יִם וְנַפְשֵׁ֣נוּ קָ֔צָה בַּלֶּ֖חֶם הַקְּלֹקֵֽל:

They journeyed from Mount Hor by way of the Red Sea to circle the land of Edom, and the people became disheartened because of the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, "Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in this desert, for there is no bread and no water, and we are disgusted with this rotten bread." (Bamidbar 21:4,5)


For complaining about the Manna and the lack of water Hashem sent venomous snakes who killed many Jews. Ultimately Klal Yisrael and did Teshuva and Hashem gave Moshe Rabbeinu the cure which ended the plague. What is the connection between these two stories? As we have said throughout, Miriam engages the bitter times with hope and emunah which in turn brings about the redemption that is hidden within. When Klal Yisrael complained about their lack of nourishment they failed to maintain their emunah in the face of difficult times. Of course Hashem will provide just as He always does. Though Klal Yisrael had done Teshuva the next story is meant to emphasize to Klal Yisrael that Hashem is always watching out for them. When the Amorites intended to destroy us, Hashem ensured our survival. To drive home the lesson, Hashem uses the Be'er Miriam to destroy the Amorites and to let Klal Yisrael know about the salvation. In this way Hashem is communicating to Klal Yisrael that just as Miriam understood that there is a point of redemption nested within every moment of pain, Klal Yisrael must always remember that even when we do not see it, Hashem is ensuring our survival.


Moshe's Mistake


With the above concepts in mind let us return to our original questions.


What exactly was the sin of Moshe? While there many answers to this question, we will focus our attention on the Rambam (Shemonah Perakim, end of ch. 4) who explains that Moshe's sin was not that he hit the rock but that he he hit the rock in anger. Justifiably Klal Yisrael was distressed over the lack of water. Moshe's anger and his branding Klal Yisrael as “rebels” was wrong. But why did Moshe call Klal Yisrael rebels? The word the Torah uses for rebels here is הַמֹּרִ֔ים which we can understand to be a reference to Miriam (the word הַמֹּרִ֔ים can be understood as rebels but shares the same exact letters as Miriam) . Moshe was attempting to communicate to Klal Yisrael that their complaining about the lack of water was a failure to inculcate the message of Miriam into their lives. In the bitter times when things seem bleak we are meant to engage with hope thereby bringing about redemption.


But in truth, just as Klal Yisrael faltered because Miriam passed away so too did Moshe. With Miriam no longer by his side, Moshe only saw the rebelliousness of Klal Yisrael. Yes, Moshe had faced this particular challenge before in his leadership but he had always had Miriam by his side gently reminding him to maintain his faith in Klal Yisrael just as she had done when she followed him by the river all those years before. Without Miriam, Moshe looked at the bitter exterior and not at the Godliness that burned within. In calling them rebels he too betrayed the legacy of Miriam. Water was in fact hidden within the rock just as there is Godliness within every Jew. Though it may only be a trickle with hope and faith the water will naturally turn into a stream. Had Moshe maintained his hope in Klal Yisrael he would have merited to lead Klal Yisrael into Eretz Yisrael. A leader who no longer believes in his flock is no longer worthy to lead. This was not a punishment but a natural consequence of his actions.


Hope Lies Eternal


The Gemara in Shabbos (35a) teaches that one who wants to see the Be'er Miriam should climb to the top of Mount Carmel and look out [at the Mediterranean Sea], and he will see a rock that looks like a sieve in the sea, and that is the Be'er Miriam.


Other sources (Vayikra Rabbah 22:4, and Koheles Rabbah 5:8; see also Yerushalmi, Kelayim 9:3.) place Miriam’s Well in the Kinneret. The Medrash speaks of a man with a skin disease who immersed himself in the Kinneret and was healed through the Be'er Miriam. Where can it found? Rabbi Chiya bar Abba said: “It is written, ‘And it looks on the face of the Yeshimon (lit. “wilderness”).’For anyone who goes up to the mountain Yeshimon, he will see something like a small sieve in the Sea of Tiberias (Kineret), and that is the Well of Miriam.”


In Nagid U'Mtzaveh by Rabbi Yaakov Tzemach, written 60 years after the Arizal's death, Rabbi Chaim Vital is quoted as saying, "When I, Chaim, came to my teacher of blessed memory [the Arizal] to study this [Kabbalistic] wisdom, my teacher of blessed memory went to Tiberias and took me with him... and when we were on a boat in the water, opposite the pillars of the old synagogue [on the shore of Tiberias], my teacher of blessed memory then took a cup and filled it with water from between the pillars, and gave me that water to drink, and said to me: Now you will attain with this that wisdom, for this water that you have drank is from Miriam's well. And from then on, I began entering the depths of this wisdom." In Shaar Hagilulim (Hakdamah 37) the Arizal gives a more exact location for the Be'er Miriam. “As you walk along the shore of the Sea of Tiberias towards the hot springs of Tiberias, at the exact midway point, in a place where there are many palm trees on the sea shore, parallel to the tower that is atop the mountain, that is where the Well of Miriam is.”


(note: it is interesting that Chazal offer the Kineret as a possible place where we can find Be'er Miriam considering that the Gemara in Sotah (11a) identifies Miriam as an ancestor of Dovid HaMelech. See Shmuel I 17:12 where Dovid HaMelech is called the son of Efrati and as we mentioned above one of Miriam's name is Efrat. Dovid HaMelech played the harp and the Kineret is so named because it is in the shape of a harp.)


There is a minhag brought down in halacha (See Kol Bo 41; Rama, Shulchan Aruch, Orech Chaim 299:10 who says that he has not seen anyone practice this minhag) to draw and drink water from a well or natural spring on Motzai Shabbos). This is because the waters of Miriam’s Well flow through all the wells and natural springs every Motzai Shabbos and “anyone who encounters it and drinks of its waters will be immediately healed from all his afflictions." (Interestingly, the Shulchan Aruch HaRav excludes phrase of the Rama that he has not seen anyone following this custom.)


What is the significance of the fact that Chazal tell us that the Be'er Miriam can still be accessed today?

As we mentioned at the outset of this article, Miriam was the facilitator of Moshe and indeed all of Klal Yisrael in the desert. Without her Be'er we never would have survived. From Miriam Klal Yisrael drew both their physical and spiritual nourishment. But just because Miriam passed on does not mean that the Be'er is gone. With her passing they no longer knew how to find it but the purpose of Moshe hitting the rock was to show Klal Yisrael that they have not, nor will they ever be, forsaken. Miriam's influence continues to live on as Klal Yisrael leaves the pure spiritual environment of the desert and journeys into the mundane life that accompanies building Eretz Yisrael. On Motzai Shabbos, as we begin the mundane pursuits of our week, we once again find the Be'er Miriram in every natural spring in the world. Drinking from those waters reminds us that while there will be bitter times we must rebel against the notion of despair. Exile only exists so that there may be redemption. Redemption is not just an optimistic worldview but it is something we ought to be expecting. We must prepare for it as the righteous women of Klal Yisrael did when they packed their tambourines on the way out of Egypt. Those who feel the pain of exile most acutely are the ones who are positioned to find the spark of redemption that lies buried within a bitter golus. To bring about Geula we must remember the teaching of Miriam, never give up hope. May we merit to see redmeption speedily in our days.


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