Rabbi Norman Cohen of Hebrew Union College began class by reminding students that Biblical texts and midrashim are meant to mirror our own lives and who we aspire to be. As in the case of other Biblical women, reconstructing Miriam’s story depends on sewing together shards of information into a portrait of a life journey to sustain, teach and challenge us.
Mentioned only 4 times in the Bible, Miriam first appears as Moses’ watchful guardian, which cements the continuity of the Jewish people. Her life is caught up with water and in fact, her name reflects that. We meet her next as a prophetess and equal to Moses when she joins (or perhaps leads) Moses in the Song of Songs. According to midrashim, she foresaw Moses’ birth and the miracles that led to Jewish redemption therefore elevating her status in the text.
The next time we see Miriam is 35 years later when she makes light of gossip against Moses and his Ethiopian wife. We learn an important lesson about confronting people we love. Miriam is afflicted with leprosy and yet, Moses pleads for her health pushing us to overcome the chasms that drive our familial relationships apart. And finally, joined with the announcement of her passing is a note that the Israelites ran out of water to drink. Little is mentioned about her, but clues in the text tell us that Moses was so consumed with grief, he cries out to her as he strikes the rock, momentarily confounding God’s commandment out of deep frustration.
Scholars have tied Miriam both in mind and body to the well that satiated the Jewish people from creation onwards. The lesson here is that Miriam’s well stands as a source of redemption for all of us to seek out and internalize. Every one of us can draw water from the metaphorical well to lead humanity from slavery to freedom so that we may all join Miriam in song.