Miriam, Water, and Song: Parashat Chukat-Balak

Miriam with a timbrel (a kind of tambourine)
celebrating the crossing
of the Red Sea

This image is from the "Golden Haggadah" (1320-1330), so called due to the gold-leaf background of its miniatures. The entire codex has been digitized and can be viewed on this British Library webpage.

The image depicts the following verse in Exodus:

(כ) וַתִּקַּח֩ מִרְיָ֨ם הַנְּבִיאָ֜ה אֲח֧וֹת אַהֲרֹ֛ן אֶת־הַתֹּ֖ף בְּיָדָ֑הּ וַתֵּצֶ֤אןָ כָֽל־הַנָּשִׁים֙ אַחֲרֶ֔יהָ בְּתֻפִּ֖ים וּבִמְחֹלֹֽת׃

(20) Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her in dance with timbrels.

Miriam

Red heifer, seraph serpents, and a talking donkey: Oh my! In the combined portions Chukat-Balak, there are numerous themes to study and contemplate (see the summary and even a comedic video at the bottom of this sheet), but the death of Miriam is significant. Miriam is the first of several biblical women to be honored with the title of "prophet" (see Exodus 15:20), and the mention (although brief) of the time (first new moon) and place (Kadesh) of her death, places her status as exalted as her siblings Moses and Aaron:

(א) וַיָּבֹ֣אוּ בְנֵֽי־יִ֠שְׂרָאֵל כָּל־הָ֨עֵדָ֤ה מִדְבַּר־צִן֙ בַּחֹ֣דֶשׁ הָֽרִאשׁ֔וֹן וַיֵּ֥שֶׁב הָעָ֖ם בְּקָדֵ֑שׁ וַתָּ֤מָת שָׁם֙ מִרְיָ֔ם וַתִּקָּבֵ֖ר שָֽׁם׃

(1) 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.

Although no formal period of mourning upon Miriam's death is mentioned as for Aaron (30 days, Numbers 20:29), Miriam is said to have died by the "kiss" of death, as did her brothers, in a privileged status of a prophet:

Bava Batra 17a:3 בבא בתרא י״ז א:ג׳

The Sages taught: There were six people over whom the Angel of Death had no sway in their demise, and they are: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Moses, Aaron, and Miriam....Isaac, and Jacob, as it is written with regard to them, respectively: “With everything,” “from everything,” “everything”; since they were blessed with everything they were certainly spared the anguish of...the Angel of Death....Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, as it is written with regard to them that they died “by the mouth of the Lord,” which indicates that they died with a kiss, and not at the hand of the Angel of Death.

Moed Katan 28a

With regard to that same verse Rabbi Elazar said further: Miriam also died by the divine kiss, just like her brother Moses...With regard to Moses it says: “So Moses the servant of the Lord died there in the land of Moab by the mouth of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 34:5). For what reason was it not explicitly stated with regard to her, as it is stated with regard to Moses, that she died “by the mouth of the Lord”? It is because it would be unseemly to say such a thing, that a woman died by way of a divine kiss, and therefore it is not said explicitly.


FUN FACT: There is a more contemporary Miriam worth remembering: Miriam Michelson. In celebration of the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in the U.S. this year, Rabbi Carole Balin, Ph.D., is sharing eight chapters of an "alternative Book of Numbers” designed to tell the stories of Jewish women who combined civic engagement with Jewish values in a 40-year struggle “in the wilderness” to pass the 19th Amendment.​ Learn about Miriam Michelson in this article:

Another Miriam Worth Remembering

By Rabbi Carole B. Balin, Ph.D.


Water

The prophet Miriam is closely associated with water: As a young girl, she watched as her baby brother was saved from drowning in the Nile (Exodus 2:1-9 and Sotah 9b:8), she celebrated in song at the Sea (Exodus 15:20-21), her well accompanied the Israelites during their wanderings in the desert (Shabbat 35a:6 and Rashi on Numbers 20:10:2), and after Miriam's death, the water of the well dries up, but the Eternal instructs Moses to "assemble the people that I may give them water. (Numbers 21:16-17).

The image below depicts the well attended by Moses with water flowing to all 12 tribes of the Israelites:

Fresco depicting Miriam's Well from the Dura Europos Synagogue, Syria.

Connections and Commentaries

מיתיבי ר' יוסי בר' יהודה אומר שלשה פרנסים טובים עמדו לישראל אלו הן משה ואהרן ומרים וג' מתנות טובות ניתנו על ידם ואלו הן באר וענן ומן באר בזכות מרים עמוד ענן בזכות אהרן מן בזכות משה מתה מרים נסתלק הבאר שנאמר (במדבר כ, א) ותמת שם מרים וכתיב בתריה ולא היה מים לעדה וחזרה בזכות שניהן

The Gemara raises an objection from a baraita: Rabbi Yosei, son of Rabbi Yehuda, says: Three good sustainers rose up for the Jewish people during the exodus from Egypt, and they are: Moses, Aaron and Miriam. And three good gifts were given from Heaven through their agency, and these are they: The well of water, the pillar of cloud, and the manna. He elaborates: The well was given to the Jewish people in the merit of Miriam; the pillar of cloud was in the merit of Aaron; and the manna in the merit of Moses. When Miriam died the well disappeared, as it is stated: “And Miriam died there” (Numbers 20:1), and it says thereafter in the next verse: “And there was no water for the congregation” (Numbers 20:2). But the well returned in the merit of both Moses and Aaron.

אָמַר רַבִּי חִיָּיא: הָרוֹצֶה לִרְאוֹת בְּאֵרָהּ שֶׁל מִרְיָם יַעֲלֶה לְרֹאשׁ הַכַּרְמֶל וְיִצְפֶּה וְיִרְאֶה כְּמִין כְּבָרָה בַּיָּם — וְזוֹ הִיא בְּאֵרָהּ שֶׁל מִרְיָם. אָמַר רַב: מַעְיָן הַמִּיטַּלְטֵל טָהוֹר — וְזֶהוּ בְּאֵרָהּ שֶׁל מִרְיָם.

Because of its similarity to Rabbi Ḥanina’s statement, the Gemara cites that which Rabbi Ḥiyya said: One who wants to see Miriam’s well, which accompanied the Jewish people throughout their sojourn in the desert, should do the following: He should climb to the top of Mount Carmel and look out, and he will see a rock that looks like a sieve in the sea, and that is Miriam’s well. Rav said: A spring that is portable, i.e., that moves from place to place, is ritually pure and is regarded as an actual spring and not as drawn water. And what is a movable spring? It is Miriam’s well.

אין לך גדול מאהרן ומרים, שהבאר עולה ומשקה בזכות מרים עליה השלום, וענני כבוד מקיפים לישראל בזכות אהרן; וכיון שנתנו רשות לפיהם ודברו במשה – מיד נפרעו (במדבר יב).

There is no one greater than Aaron or Miriam — through Miriam's merit a well sprang up and gave drink, and clouds of glory would surround Israel through the merit of Aaron. But inasmuch as they gave permission to their mouths and they spoke against Moses, they were at once punished (Num. 12).


Song

For the "Song" portion of this source sheet, we read in Numbers 21:16-18, that the thirst of the wandering Israelites is finally quenched at the well of Beer (the name itself means "well") after Aaron died (Numbers 20:24-29) and the Israelites suffered attacks of the seraph serpents! (Numbers 21:5-6). (See the image of the miraculous well from the Dura Europos Synagogue above.) The grateful Israelites celebrated in song with this verse:

(טז) וּמִשָּׁ֖ם בְּאֵ֑רָה הִ֣וא הַבְּאֵ֗ר אֲשֶׁ֨ר אָמַ֤ר יְהוָה֙ לְמֹשֶׁ֔ה אֱסֹף֙ אֶת־הָעָ֔ם וְאֶתְּנָ֥ה לָהֶ֖ם מָֽיִם׃ (ס) (יז) אָ֚ז יָשִׁ֣יר יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אֶת־הַשִּׁירָ֖ה הַזֹּ֑את עֲלִ֥י בְאֵ֖ר עֱנוּ־לָֽהּ׃ (יח) בְּאֵ֞ר חֲפָר֣וּהָ שָׂרִ֗ים כָּר֙וּהָ֙ נְדִיבֵ֣י הָעָ֔ם בִּמְחֹקֵ֖ק בְּמִשְׁעֲנֹתָ֑ם

(16) And from there to Beer, which is the well where the LORD said to Moses, “Assemble the people that I may give them water.” (17) Then Israel sang this song: Spring up, O well—sing to it— (18) The well which the chieftains dug, Which the nobles of the people started With maces, with their own staffs.

Commentaries trace the well and the song back to Miriam due to the fact that verse 17 parallels the lead-in to the Song of the Sea (Shirat ha-Yam שירת הים) in Exodus 15:1: "Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song..." As explained in The Torah: A Women's Commentary, Tamara Cohn Eskenazi, Andrea L. Weiss, URJ Press, c. 2008, pp. 387ff: Contemporary scholars have concluded (based on literary, historical, sociological, and musicological evidence) that the Song of the Sea is attributed to Miriam and the title The Song of Miriam is used by contemporary scholars. Evidence shows that the genre of "victory songs" were typically composed and performed by women to greet troops after battle.

Although the passage (Numbers 21:7) does not associate the well at Beer with Miriam, one of the ancient Aramaic translations of the Torah, the Targum Yerushalmi for Numbers 21, indicates the association:

And when the Kenaanite, king Arad, who dwelt in the south, heard that Aharon was dead, that holy man on account of whose merit the Cloud of Glory had protected Israel; that the pillar of the Cloud had been taken up; and that the prophetess Miriam was dead, on whose account the well had flowed, but had (since) been hidden;


For another example of "song," we turn now to Parashat Balak, in which Balak, the king of Moab, hires the seer Balaam to curse the Israelites in order to subdue them, as they had become so numerous as to "hide the earth from view" (Numbers 22:11). After several episodes of conversations with the Eternal, an angel, and a talking donkey, Balaam and Balak eventually come to the peak of Peor. Upon seeing the encampment of the Israelite tribes, Balaam blessed (rather than cursed) them, saying:

(ה) מַה־טֹּ֥בוּ אֹהָלֶ֖יךָ יַעֲקֹ֑ב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶ֖יךָ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

(5) How fair are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel!

This blessing, with its origin in a curse, is, to this day, typically recited or sung in the daily morning liturgy. In his d'var Torah, Mah Tovu—From Torah to Prayer, Rabbi Yoel H. Kahn explains that the Mah Tovu prayer is "a tapestry of biblical verses and fragments." The 9th-century Seder Rav Amran Gaon mentions that one should recite Mah tovu ohalecha. . .V'ani, b'rov chas'd'cha upon entering a synagogue. Other verses are taken from Psalms and the order of verses have changed over time.

Musical arrangements of Mah Tovu are ubiquitous! I offer two versions here that are perhaps lesser known: The first by the art music composer Miriam Gideon and the second, a jazz arrangement, by Jonathan Klein.

Shirat miriam l’shabbat (Miriam’s Song of the Sabbath), Miriam Gideon's first musical expression of the kabbalat shabbat (welcoming the Sabbath) and Sabbath evening liturgies as a unified artistic statement, was commissioned by Cantor David Putterman for his 1974 Sabbath Eve Service of Liturgical Music by Contemporary Composers. For more information about this album, visit the Milken Archive of Jewish Music page.

To learn more about Miriam Gideon and other composers, visit the Women Composers of the Milken Archive page.

Fans of jazz may enjoy this version of Mah Tovu by Jonathan Klein and the Jonathan Klein Jazz Ensemble on the album Hear O Israel: A Sabbath Service in Jazz from the Milken Archive.

Translation of Ma Tovu by the Jonathan Klein Jazz Ensemble

How lovely are your dwellings, O House of Israel.
O Lord, through Your abundant kindness I enter Your house
and worship You with reverence in Your holy sanctuary.
I love Your presence in this place where Your glory resides.
Here, I bow and worship before the Lord, my Maker.
And I pray to You, O Lord, that it shall be Your will
to answer me with Your kindness and grace,
and with the essence of Your truth that preserves us.


Chukat חקת - Balak בלק

Numbers 19:122:1, 22:225:9

Chukat is the 39th parashah in the annual cycle of Torah reading. It tells stories of the Israelites in the desert, including Miriam's death, the laws of the Red Heifer, Moses striking the rock, Aaron's death, and wars with King Og of Bashan.

Balak is the 40th parashah in the annual cycle of Torah reading. It tells the story of the Moabite king Balak and the prophet Bilaam, who tries to curse the Israelites but blesses them instead.

SUMMARY:

  • The laws of the red heifer to purify a person who has had contact with a corpse are given. (19:1-22)
  • The people arrive at the wilderness of Zin. Miriam dies and is buried there. (20:1)
  • The people complain that they have no water. Moses strikes the rock to get water for them. God tells Moses and Aaron they will not enter the Land of Israel. (20:2-13)
  • The king of Edom refuses to let the Children of Israel pass through his land. After Aaron's priestly garments are given to his son Eleazer, Aaron dies. (20:14-29)
  • After they are punished for complaining about the lack of bread and water, the Israelites repent and are victorious in battle against the Amorites and the people of Bashan, whose lands they capture. (21:4-22:1)
  • Balak, the king of Moab, persuades the prophet Balaam to curse the Israelites so that he can defeat them and drive them out of the region. However, Balaam blesses the Children of Israel instead and prophesies that Israel's enemies will be defeated. (22:2-24:25)
  • God punishes the Israelites with a plague for consorting with the Moabite women and their god. The plague is stayed after Pinchas kills an Israelite man and his Midianite woman. (25:1-9)

You can read the Chukat Torah Portion here and you can listen to the reading in Hebrew below.

You can read the Balak Torah Portion here and you can listen to the reading in Hebrew below.

JUST FOR FUN: Enjoy comedian Zvi Hershcovich's "This week's Torah portion in a Cholent bowl"!