In Parshat Chukat, we discover the importance of Miriam’s role in the Book of Numbers. Although she is one of the most prominent women in the Torah, Miriam's impact in the narrative seemed less significant in comparison to her brothers, Moses and Aaron. Aaron served as the first Kohen Gadol, linking the Israelites to Judaism, and Moses was the Israelites link to God, who was chosen transmit God’s sacred teachings.
Compared to Moses and Aaron, Miriam simply faded into the background of the Torah. We celebrate her victorious song at the shores of the Red Sea in Exodus 15:20-21, but even that poem is minimized by Moses' song in Exodus 15:1-18. Today, we remember Miriam not because of her achievements, but because of her gender.
In the time of Miriam, Moses, and Aaron, and in numerous countries today, being a woman can prohibit one from public recognition. With so few female heroes within the Bible, Miriam’s story stands out. Numbers 20:1 comments on the effect of Miriam’s death had on the Israelites "Miriam died there and was buried there, and the community was without water."
Miriam’s existence revolved around water. She rescued Moses from drowning in the Nile; she celebrated by dancing after crossing the sea of reeds, and was given the gift of the well by God to keep the Israelites alive in the desert. Rashi commented on the strange connection between the death of Miriam and the shortage of water and linked the two occurrences. "From this we learn that all forty years, they had a well because of the merit of Miriam."
We read in Otzar Midrashim: “Miriam died, and the well was taken away so that Israel would recognize that it was through her merit that they had had the well. Moses and Aaron were weeping inside, and (the Children of) Israel were weeping outside, and for six hours Moses did not know (that the well was gone), until (the Children of) Israel entered and said to him: For how long will you sit and cry? He said to them: Should I not cry for my sister who has died? They said to him: While you are crying for one person, cry for all of us! He said to them: Why? They said to him: We have no water to drink.”
Wandering through the wilderness for any amount of time, lacking adequate water would have been fatal. However, God provided a moving well of water, to follow the people until the moment of her death. Without Miriam, there was no more water, no more to drink and none for purification.
The memory of Miriam and her piety will guide us in our own personal journeys. Miriam's prophecy was one of deed, not rousing speeches to the Israelites. Miriam focused on teaching her people how to sing in moments of joy, as she danced with a timbrel in her hand. Miriam's example, paralleled by generations of women after her, is one of action, the act of tikkun olam. No one comments on her well within the Torah, on how important her contribution is to the Israelites until after she has died.
While television specials and newspaper articles cover the achievements of some men, many times women provide wells of support without all the public attention.
Why didn't anyone notice Miriam's well while she was still alive? It may be too late to change Miriam's status among her own generation, although many scholars are now, belatedly, giving her the recognition that her compassion and nurturing character deserved. It is not too late for our generation to re-examine our own values and to reconsider what we call a hero today.