Parshat Korach relates the deaths of Miriam and Aaron, the two siblings of Moses. The Midrash teaches that Israel was graced with miraculous gifts in merit of these three siblings, the “royal family” of the wilderness era. Miriam was responsible for the presence of water; Aaron’s merit brought the clouds of glory surrounding the camp and protected the people from the perils of the wilderness; and the manna fell daily from heaven for the sake of Moses.
In Miriam’s merit there was always plenty of water in the wilderness. A spring of water flowed from the earth near the camp, known as the ‘well of Miriam.’ Wherever the nation camped the spring flowed nearby. Immediately after Miriam’s death the people complained that they had no water. The spring stopped flowing, and Israel panicked. Moses was then instructed to speak to a rock and bring forth its water.
Why indeed did the water cease to flow upon Miriam’s death? The Kli Yakar, an early 17th century commentary written by Rabbi Ephraim Lunschitz, explains that the people did not eulogize Miriam properly when she died. They didn’t stop to value the qualities that Miriam had shared with the nation, thereby failing to learn from her loss. The water then ceased to flow, making the extent of the loss from Miriam’s death blatantly obvious.
Let us try and understand why water was the reflection of Miriam’s life in the first instance. Rabbi Soloveitchik explains that water is plentiful in most places, and we tend to take water for granted. Water is a basic human need and every city council provides a water treatment service. With our modern infrastructure water flows effortlessly through our taps; it is always available on demand. We don’t give it much thought unless there is a problem with the water supply.
We need water for everything, from drinking to bathing to tending our gardens. Water enables life to thrive and vegetation to grow. Miriam was a similar force in the Israelite camp. She nurtured and cared, helped people to grow and to thrive. Although she held no formal office Miriam gave to the nation no less than Moses and Aaron. Miriam’s care is most evident in her concern for her younger brother Moses, looking after him from cradle to grave. She enabled his birth, saw that he would survive as an infant, and even made it her business that he would have a fulfilling family life as an adult. Miriam did the same on a national scale, always there to give encouragement and gentle guidance. Like a flowing stream of water that quietly brings its benefits to the local ecosystem, Miriam nurtured the nation through a generation in the wilderness.
The commentaries always find relevance in the order of the narrative, drawing lessons from the juxtaposition in the text of one episode to another. The death of Miriam follows the Mitzvah of the the red cow, and the placement of these has significance. The commentaries note that just as the ashes of the red cow provided purity and atonement to those ritually contaminated, the death of the righteous similarly provides atonement for the people. Miriam’s death was a huge loss to Israel, but they failed to capitalize on her death. In her lifetime they respected her. When Miriam was afflicted with tzra’at the people did not travel until she was able to rejoin the camp, illustrating the prestige she held. But by the time she died the people had grown accustomed to her contributions, taking them for granted. The water, ever plentiful during Miriam’s lifetime, therefore ceased to flow for a time.
That the loss of the righteous brings atonement for the generation is a well-known principle in Jewish lore. There are several different explanations for why that is so. The simplest approach is the fact of the loss itself. Suffering always brings atonement, and the demise of a righteous person is a loss on a national level. A more nuanced approach, however, sees not the loss of the righteous as the atoning factor, but the reaction of the nation. “We don’t appreciate what we have until its gone.” Rash”i, at the beginning of Parshat Vayetze, comments that the departure of a righteous person always makes an impression. It leaves a vacuum in its wake, and the absence is felt although the earlier presence wasn’t overtly noticed. People are more apt to step up and fill this vacuum as a result. This reaction – others stepping up and picking up the slack – is what brings atonement upon the loss of a righteous person.
We don’t know what was done in the generation of the wilderness after the death of Miriam. She lived with great modesty and the Torah preserved her modesty even after her death. We do, however, have instructions for how we should ideally react upon losing someone righteous, someone precious who has done much for others. We need to pick up the slack and compensate for what he or she used to do.