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 absence is noticed. 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 Pharaoh’s daughter, saving his life. She celebrated the miracle of crossing of the Reed Sea by leading the women in song and dance. And when she died, the water disappeared.
But there’s more to the story. Because the entire chapter preceding her death (Numbers 19) had to do with the mysterious red heifer, the perfect animal with no blemishes that was sacrificed and burnt. Its ashes were kept in a special place outside the camp, and whenever anyone needed to be ritually purified, some of the ashes were mixed with water to sprinkle on the person.
In other words, water was necessary for their physical lives and for their spiritual lives. Without it, one could not live. And without it, one could not live in the community. Our physical lives and our spiritual lives are inextricably linked by water.
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 hitting a rock instead of speaking to it, as God had commanded. 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 as always, 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 has no clear ending. It bubbles up when you least expect it. 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, longings, and with love.
Last night when I returned home from my vacation, I stepped on something on my living room floor. Leaning over, I found a guitar pick. I know where it came from — beloved friends had cared for my dogs while I was away, and they are musicians. Holding the small piece of plastic took me back to the two years that Mindy Simmons, Lisa Bohn, and I led services on Zoom from my home. I would often find guitar picks after Mindy’s visits. But this was the first one that ever made me cry.
Of all the many feelings in our griefcases it is the love that carries us forward, never erasing the grief, perhaps not even easing our pain, but helping us endure and continue.
Mindy died just this year. Her loss is still fresh, the hole she left behind still wide, with jagged edges. My grandfather died when I was 14, more than 50 years ago. 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, the fringes attached to a Jewish prayer shawl. They are supposed to remind us of God’s laws. Mine remind me of him, and I 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.
You can find the passage about Miriam’s death in Numbers, chapter 20, verse one. A version of this blog post originally appeared here four years ago.