Miriam - The Life Giver
Chukat (Numbers 19:1-22:1 )
How Miriam saved the Jewish people.
In Chukat the Torah tells us about the death of the righteous Miriam. Immediately after her death, we are told that suddenly there was no water for anyone to drink. The Talmud teaches us that we learn from here that the well which provided the Jewish people with water throughout their tenure in the desert was in Miriam's merit.(1) What is the connection between Miriam and the water that kept the Jewish people alive for forty years?(2)
The Kli Yakar explains that Miriam excelled in the trait of gemilut chasadim (bestowing kindness), as will be demonstrated below. As a result of this trait Miriam merited to be the source of the well (named Be'er Miriam after her) that provided the people with water, the most basic necessity that humans need to survive.(3)
It is possible to expand on the Kli Yakar's explanation: Miriam's kindness was specifically directed towards the saving and maintaining of the lives of the Jewish people. This trait was expressed by Miriam from a very young age. For example, the Midrash tells us that after Pharaoh decreed to kill every Jewish newborn baby, Miriam's father, Amram decided to separate from his wife, Yocheved, in order to prevent the inevitable death of any future sons. As Amram was the leader of the Jewish people, the other men followed his example and separated from their wives. Upon hearing this, the five year old Miriam rebuked her father, saying: "your decree is harsher than that of Pharaoh for he only decreed on the boys, but you have done so to the boys and girls." (4) Amram accepted the rebuke and publicly remarried Yocheved and in turn everyone else followed their example and remarried. In this sense Miriam was the ultimate creator of life. If not for her, then untold numbers of Jewish children would never have been born, and Moshe Rabbeinu himself could never have come to life. As a result, Miriam is given an alternative name in Divrei HaYamim(5) (Chronicles); that of Ephrath, (whose root form is "peru" which means being fruitful) because, the Midrash tells us; "the people of Israel multiplied because of her." (6)
A further example of her remarkable efforts at saving lives is her brave refusal to obey Pharaoh's commands to kill the newborn baby boys. Instead, along with her mother, she did not kill the babies, in fact they assisted the mothers in giving birth to healthy children, and provided them with food and water. The Torah gives her another name, that of Puah, which, the Midrash also tells us, was in recognition of her great live-saving achievements; it is connected to the word "nofat", "for she gave wine and restored (mafiya) the babies to life when they appeared to be dead." (7) Thus we have seen that Miriam's greatness lay in her incredible kindness, and particularly with regard to the most fundamental gift, that of life. This is why the life-giving waters of the Be'er Miriam (the well of Miriam) were in her merit. Because she risked so much to provide life to others, she was rewarded with her desire being fulfilled through the miraculous supply of water that sustained the Jewish people in the desert for forty years.
Miriam's appreciation of the value of life is all the more remarkable given the world that she was born into. The Yalkut Shimoni tells us that her name is connected to the word, 'mar' which means bitter because at the time of her birth the Egyptians embittered the lives of the Jewish people.(8) It is a well known tenet of Jewish thought that the name of any person or item teaches a great deal about their essence Evidently, the fact that Miriam was born during such a terrible period in Jewish history played a central role in defining the person that she became. She could easily have been bitter, unhappy about the desperate situation that she was born into. It certainly would have been understandable if she did not develop a great love of life given the pain and suffering that life seemed to offer. Yet her opposite reaction to her situation teaches us a new dimension in her greatness. She recognized the inherent value of life and kept faith in God that He would save the Jewish people from their dire situation. It was this persistent optimism that enabled her to persuade her parents to remarry, and the resultant birth of the Jewish people's savior, Moses.
The example of Miriam teaches us a pertinent lesson: There is an increasingly popular perception that it is wrong to bring 'too many' children into a world that is full of pain and suffering. According to the proponents of this outlook, life is not something that is of intrinsic value rather it is dependent on the 'life satisfaction' that a living being can derive. Given the numerous challenges that face the world such as the dire economic situation, these people believe that it is morally wrong to bring yet another mouth to feed into life. Needless to say, this view is diametrically opposed to the Torah approach epitomized by Miriam. She saw life as indeed being inherently valuable. Accordingly, the most horrific situations did not justify giving up on bring more life into the world, and on sustaining the already living.(9) May we learn from Miriam's incredible appreciation for the value of life and emulate her achievements in bringing life to the world.
1. Taanis, 9a. The Gemara also tells us that the manna fell in the merit of Moshe Rabbeinu whilst the Clouds of Glory were in Aaron's merit.
2 .For other approaches to this question see Bamidbar Rabbah, 1:2 and Rabbeinu Bechaye, Bamidbar.
3. Kli Yakar quoted by the Anaf Yosef, Taanis, 9a. Of course the Manna and Clouds of Glory also provided for the needs of the people, but the Kli Yakar explains that water is the most important of all needs. A person can survive without food for several weeks, but he cannot last without water more than a few days.
4. Sotah, 12a; Shemos Rabbah, 1:17.
5. Divrei HaYamim 1,2:19.
6. Shemos Rabbah, 1:17.
7. Shemos Rabbah, 1:13.
8. Yalkut Shimoni, Shemos, 165.
9. It is important to note that there are situations when Jewish law does mandate limiting the amount of children one has. The point made above reflects the general Torah attitude to life and procreation. Any specific questions in this delicate realm should be directed to an Orthodox Rabbi.