Kol Isha: Miriam's well

Miriam was the one who led the women, with drum, in dance and song.

well desert 248 88 (photo credit: Maayan Leshem)
well desert 248 88
(photo credit: Maayan Leshem)
Last week, the Israelites left Egypt and crossed the Reed Sea with a wall of water on their right and on their left. The Egyptian foe drowned behind them as the sea closed, and the nation broke into song. But now there is no water, only rock and the sandy road ahead. What will they eat and drink? And what will guard them from the blazing desert sun and bone-chilling cold at night? According to the Tosefta, the people were granted three miracles to survive the wilderness: the manna by merit of Moses, the clouds of glory by merit of Aaron and the well by merit of Miriam (T. Sota 11:4). Moses is the advocate for the bread that rains down from heaven, Aaron serves as the liaison between heaven and earth, providing shade by day and firelight by night, and Miriam elicits the water source from underground, itinerant, responsive to song. The aggadic tradition suggests that source of water was contingent on Miriam's presence; when she died in the wilderness of Zin, the well dried up and the community was without water (Numbers 20:1-2, Rashi loc. cit., B. Ta'anit 9a). Later, the Torah records that the people would assemble by the well, where "Israel sang this song: Rise up, O well - sing to it, the well which the chieftains dug..." (Numbers 21:17). Indeed, we associate a well with settlement; the patriarchs dug many throughout Canaan to access water underground. According to midrashic tradition, the itinerant well of the desert was first opened by Moses striking the rock with his staff at Horeb (Exodus 17:6). But ever after, the well provided water through song. Yet the rock did not remain at Horeb; it rolled on with the nation. The midrash describes the well as "a rolling stone, shaped like a beehive or sieve. When the tribes settled and set up camp, the rock would dig deep into the sand, and the princes would come and stand by it, saying: 'Rise up, O well,' and it would rise" (Numbers Raba 1:1). Why is this water source associated with Miriam and song? Because Miriam was the one who led the women, with drum, in dance and song. "And Miriam chanted: Sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously..." (Exodus 15:21). Her music at the shores of Reed Sea is carried on in the song-line of the well as it wanders with the Israelites through the wilderness. In his commentary Maor Vashemesh, Rav Kalonymus Kalman Epstein (circa 1753) observes that expression "in dance" seems redundant. He also asks "why Moses says: 'I will sing to the Lord'" (Exodus 15:1), which is in the future tense, while Miriam speaks in the present, "Sing to the Lord" (v. 21)? It seems that the text wishes to gesture toward the vision of the end of days in the Gemara (B. Ta'anit 31a): "In the future, the Holy One blessed be He, will make a dance of the righteous, and He will sit at the center of them in the Garden of Eden, and each one will point to God with their finger, as it says: '[In that day, it will be said]: Lo, this is our God; we have waited for Him'" (Isaiah 25:9). Rashi understands this as a circle dance as in the circle dance of the vineyard. "And this is the meaning of the Gemara - in the future, the Holy One, blessed be He, will choreograph a dance of the righteous, wherein the Holy One, blessed be He, sits in the center, and each equally apprehends the heavenly light... For the circle, as in the dance of the vineyard, creates an equidistant line from the center to every point on the circle's circumference... In the circle dance, we dance the secret of 'a woman circling a man' (Jeremiah 31:21), creating continuity with the dance of the heavenly light, making no distinction between male and female." This reading is remarkable in linking Miriam's song and circle dance to the dance of the righteous (men and women) in the end of days. The vision of this 18th-century hassidic rebbe provides an ideal of Jewish spiritual equality - the impetus for each individual to become a channel for the sparks of divine light. But to do so, we must make the transition from the circle dance and song around the well outside of us, to the water source which springs up within. I wish to bless you all in your desert journey from the Exodus to Sinai, from Pessah to Shavuot, with a will to find the well within. As Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, in The Little Prince, eloquently penned: "What makes the desert beautiful is that somewhere it hides a well." The writer lectures in Bible and midrash at Matan, the Sadie Rennert Institute for Women's Torah Studies, in Jerusalem, as well as internationally.