Miriam died and was buried there. – Numbers 20:1

The Israelites arrive at a place called Kadesh in the wilderness of Zin at the beginning of the month of Nisan. Miriam, Moses’ oldest sibling, dies and is buried there, seemingly without further comment. A closer look reveals that the word “water” appears more than 20 times in the chapters immediately preceding and following mention of these events. This might not be extraordinary except that the prophetess’ life and leadership were so closely tied to this precious resource.

In Egypt, Miriam is present when the three-month-old Moses is placed in the river by their mother and confronts Pharoah’s daughter when he is discovered (Ex. 2:2-8). When the Israelites succeed in crossing the Sea of Reeds into freedom, Miriam leads the women in praising God in dance and song on the far shore (Ex. 15:20-21). Later, Miriam is afflicted with tzara’at which causes her skin to turn white as snow (Num. 12:10), provoking such fear of her death that Moses intercedes with God on her behalf. Water features prominently in the purification rituals prescribed in preparation for her return to the encampment after seven days (Lev. 14).

At Miriam’s death, the sequence is reversed. Numbers 19 describes the means by which ritual contamination by a corpse is removed, including multiple uses of water for sprinkling, washing, and immersion. All but the final paragraphs of the subsequent chapter, which concern the loss of Aaron, emphasize water as the foundation for life by focusing on the severe problems the Israelite leaders and people experience when this precious resource is in short supply.

Rabbi Jose the son of Rabbi Judah taught: Three good leaders had arisen for Israel, namely, Moses, Aaron and Miriam. And for their sake three good things were conferred [upon Israel in the wilderness] – the well, the pillar of cloud and the manna; the well, for the merit of Miriam; the pillar of cloud for the merit of Aaron; the manna for the merit of Moses. When Miriam died the well disappeared, as it is said, And Miriam died there (Num. 20:1) and immediately follows, And the community was without water (Num. 20:2).(BT Ta’anit 9a)

We honor Miriam’s memory by acknowledging that water stands between life and death for all of us and using it judiciously.

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