Spring Up, O Well

This parasha is dedicated to Rabbi Fred Klein and Miriam Rafael in celebration of their recent marriage in Israel.

Then Israel sang this song:

“Spring up, O well—sing to it—

The well which the chieftains dug,

Which the nobles of the people started

With maces, with their own staffs.”

Then from Midbar to Mattanah [or from the desert—a gift!]

(Numbers 21:17-18)

This small piece of poetry/song rarely receives attention in a portion packed with so many other powerful themes. However, it perfectly encapsulates the leitmotif of Parashat Chukkat—WATER. The word water is used over 20 times between Numbers 19-21, a huge number for such a small segment of Torah. And as we shall see, in several of these instances, women are linked with water as well.

First we find water mentioned in the context of mei niddah, the waters of the Red Heifer, a potion made from the ashes of a young red cow that was sprinkled on a person or object who was in a state of impurity from contact with death (Num. 19:9). This water terminology is also the very same for the waters of the mikveh, in which a woman immerses herself after her menstrual period and after childbirth in order to change her status from impure to pure.

The second time we see water broached is in connection with Miriam’s Well. When the people arrive in their wanderings at Kadesh in the wilderness of Zin, Miriam dies and is buried there (Num. 20:1).  Immediately in the next verse, we find the words “the community was without water….” And note that Miriam’s name is composed of a word that means water—yam (sea).

This juxtaposition leads commentators in the Talmud to opine that a well accompanied the Israelites in the wilderness due to Miriam’s merit, but disappeared upon her death (see Shabbat 35a, Taanit 9b).  Thus, the Midrash says that the leaders of the people had to sing the song mentioned above (Num 21:17-18) in honor of Miriam in order to bring back Miriam’s Well after her death.

The third incident involving water centers around mei merivah, the waters of dispute, when Moses strikes the rock to get drinking water for the people instead of speaking to it as God had commanded. For this, he and Aaron are told they will not be able to enter the Promised Land (Num 20:7-13).

The fourth discussion of water takes place when the Israelites promise the Edomites (Num 20:14-21) and the Amorites (Num. 21:21-22) that they would not drink the water as they pass through their kingdoms on their way to the Promised Land.

The fifth episode having to do with water happens when the Israelites complain against God and Moses, saying “Why did you make us leave Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread and no water, and we have come to loathe this miserable food” (Num. 21:5). Thereupon, a plague of serpents breaks out against the people and only by looking at the figure of a copper serpent on a stick are people healed (which is still the same symbol of healing within the medical profession until today).

Over and over, water is associated with giving life, with leading to purification/ rebirth, and with women.

Human beings need water to survive and water is associated with life from the moment “the water breaks” and the labor pains begin the process of birthing a baby. Whenever Jews wished to seek purification and rebirth, they have immersed themselves in the living waters of the mikveh, a ritual appropriated and reframed by Christians who follow the example set by John (a Jew!) in the Gospels.

We see water associated with Miriam and women both at the beginning of the Israelites’ journey as they dance and sing at the shores of the Sea (Exod. 15:20-21) and close to the end of their journey after her death, at what becomes known as her well.

Water in almost every instance in this parsha, and often throughout the Bible, represents transition—moving from impurity to purity, from beginning to end, from  life to death, from death to life, and so on. Even our tears are shed at moments of change, whether joy or sorrow. The Torah itself, our instrument of transformation as a spiritual people, is often likened in Midrash to water—life giving, purifying, sustaining, and revitalizing.

In the past, women were linked to water and water was linked to Torah. In our day, another transformational event is taking place—the linking of women and Torah directly. More women are studying Torah than ever before in our history. Today, women publish commentaries on it that both women and men read and honor. Nowadays, women teach Torah to both women and men. At present, women’s voices are being heard in ever increasing numbers.

Let the wellsprings of wisdom overflow with life-giving water from everyone within the Jewish community and let all who wish to come and drink.

SHABBAT SHALOM

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