Miriam’s death in the Torah is sudden and unexplained. Only five Hebrew words tell us that she died and was buried. Five words at the end of a sentence about something else entirely. No one mourns her. No obituary, no weeping, no tearing of clothes. No one pays the least attention. She is simply extinguished.
But sometimes it is in the aftermath of their death that a person’s loss is noticed. Suddenly, the person who said “I love you” every night is absent. The co-worker who greeted you with a joke in the morning isn’t there. The person you always called when you wanted to share a memory, or ask a question about your family story, is gone. Suddenly a hole appears where there was none.
In the Torah portion this week, the hole appeared instantly. After Miriam died, the next words in the Torah are v’lo haya mayim. There was no water.
No well sprang up at the Children of Israel’s new camp. Before this day, everywhere they went there were wells of fresh water. But not this time. Miriam was gone and so was the source of water.
Miriam was always associated with water. She put her baby brother in a tiny ark and floated him down the Nile to Pharoah’s daughter, saving his life. She led the women in song and dance after they crossed the Reed Sea. And when she died, the water disappeared.
Her brothers Aaron and Moses were left to take her place, and if you remember the story, they botched the job. Yes, they managed to provide water, but only after asking God what to do, and then not following God’s command to speak to a rock.
Moses, perhaps in grief and pain at the loss of his sister, his savior, shouted at the people in anger and then struck the rock. Not once, but twice.
Imagine the scene – the people whining and complaining, Moses and Aaron still stunned with grief, Moses losing all sense of his role as a leader and filling with anger, with hot fury. Hitting the rock, and hitting it again, as if his pain could be relieved by transferring it to a stone.
Every person finds their own way through the journey of grief, a journey that seldom has a clear ending. I read recently that we each carry a griefcase with us, much like a businessperson’s briefcase but instead of papers, ours are stuffed with memories, emotions, regrets and longings, and with love.
Of all those feelings it is the love that carries us forward, never erasing the grief, perhaps not even easing our pain, but helping us endure and continue.
My grandfather died when I was 14. He was, and in many ways still is, the most important person in my life. I think of him every time I find myself playing with the tzitzit on my tallis, and remember how I played with the tzitzit on his, running the silky threads through my fingers, spilling from one hand to the other, like water.
I like to think that every time Moses and Aaron took a drink of water, letting the life-giving water flow into their mouths and down their throats, they remembered their sister.
And this weekend, when I say the blessings and welcome Shabbat, I will fill my wineglass with water in Miriam’s honor.