Parashat Hukat- The Well of Miriam
This week’s parasha, Parashat Hukat, begins with the laws of the para aduma (the red heifer), and then relates the unfortunate death of Miriam.
The Jewish people arrived at the wilderness of Zin… Miriam dies there and was buried there (Bamidbar 20:20).
The Talmud (Moed Katan 28a) asks why the section which relates the death of Miriam is placed immediately after the section of the red heifer. The gemara suggests that it teaches the following comparison: “What is the purpose of the sacrifices? They effect atonement! So, too, does the death of the righteous effect atonement!”
Immediately following Miriam’s death, the Torah (ibid. 21) relates that “the nation was without water.” The Talmud (Taanit 9a) teaches that the well of Miriam dried up after her death, because “during the entire forty years they had the ‘well’ through Miriam’s merit.” Upon her death, the water disappeared.
The Torah then relates that after the Well of Miriam dried up, the people complained, saying “If only we had perished when our brothers perished at the instance of the Lord.” They asked why God even brought the Jewish people, and their animals, to the desert if they are to die of thirst. In response, Moshe Rabbeinu and Aaron fell upon their faces at the entrance to the Ohel Moed.
God subsequently tells Moshe and Aharon that they should “take the rod and gather the community and speak to the rock in front of all of the people, and it will yield water.” Moshe and Aharon gathered the people by the rock, and said, “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of the rock?” Moshe Rabbeinu then raises his hand and strikes the rock, twice, and out came the water.
This is a very, very troubling story. We might ask why Moshe and Aharon need to gather the people? And why did God tell Moshe Rabbeinu to bring a stick? And finally, why was Moshe commanded to speak to the rock? What is a person meant to say to a rock?
Interestingly, the Targum Yonatan ben Uziel explains that when God commanded Moshe Rabbeinu to speak to the rock and to bring a stick, the intention was that only if the rock did not yield water should Moshe take the stick and hit the rock. In other words, the stick was intended only as a “back-up” plan. Our questions, however, remain.
The Yalkut Shimoni asks a very important question. Why, in Parashat Beshalah (Shemot 17:1-7), is Moshe told to hit the rock, and here he is told to speak to the rock? He explains that the Jewish people, upon leaving Egypt, were ‘young’ and they only understand the demonstrative act of hitting. However, forty years later, they are older and more mature, and therefore Moshe Rabbeinu is commanded to speak to the rock, to pray, to study, and in the merit of Torah blessing will come to the world. In other words, God tells Moshe Rabbeinu that in a time of drought, we should pray, and study Torah, and only then will we merit receiving rain.
If so, God intended to teach the Jewish people a lesson. Just as in a time of drought Moshe Rabbeinu was commanded to learn Torah next to the rock, and the fire of the Torah was meant to destroy and bring forth water from the rock, so too we are supposed to used our words, and turn to Torah study and prayer in times of crisis. Unfortunately, Moshe Rabbeinu was unable to united the people behind this solution, and therefore, he needed to use the second option, i.e. to hit the rock. The incident concludes when God tells Moshe Rabbeinu that since he was unable to perform this miracle, and to teach the Jewish people this very important lesson, in ‘front of the Jewish people’, he would not be the leader who would bring the Jewish people into the land of Israel.
What do we learn from the episode? Those who study Torah have a special merit. It isn’t the horses and chariots which bring victory, but rather the study of Torah. If we only believe that, and internalize this message, then we will merit great blessing.