D’var Torah: ‘Spring up, O Well!’

Rabbi Tracy Nathan is a Community Chaplain with Jewish Family & Children’s Service and teaches at B’nai Amoona, Kol Rinah, and Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School.

By Rabbi Tracy Nathan

In Parashat Hukkat, our sages read the absence of water that follows Miriam’s death as alluding to the drying up of the well that traveled with the Israelites throughout their journeys, given as a gift in merit of Miriam (Bavli Talmud Ta’anit 9a).

What is it in Miriam’s life story that connects her with this gift of the well, and what does this express about her leadership? Oral tradition tells us that she was one of the midwives who defied Pharaoh’s decree of death for male Hebrew babies (Rashi on Exodus 1:15; Shemot Rabbah 1:17). When Moses is placed in the river, Miriam patiently waits because she prophesied: “My mother is destined to bear a son who will redeem Israel” (Shemot Rabbah 1:22).

In observing Miriam’s leadership during the Song at the Sea, the sages become curious at the timbrel in her hand and determine that the women were certain that miracles would be performed for them and prepared by bringing instruments out of Egypt to proclaim thanksgiving (Mekhilta 10:84). Although Miriam’s name reflects the bitterness of the Israelite experience of her birth (mar – bitter), she emerges with the capacity to sweeten bitterness and cultivate hope with her vision of a redeemed future.

Taking a closer look at the Song at the Sea, we see another aspect of Miriam’s leadership and how this differs from that of Moses. Moses leads the people in song after the sea’s parting, and Rabbi Avin the Levite describes how the song was sung: “When Israel stood up to sing, Moses did not let them chant it by themselves, but like a teacher who recites a portion in Scripture with a child when he is young, so did Moses recite it with Israel…they being like a child who repeats after his teacher….” (Yalkut, Hukkat 263).

Moses tightly controls the song and its content. When the women join Miriam with their timbrels, she is the one who responds to their song. Miriam plays the role of midwife once again, encouraging the women to lead their own song.


The manna was given in Moses’ merit, for Moses is associated with food from heaven above. Moses is the outsider coming to help and he connects more deeply with God than he does with the people. The manna may have cultivated faith, but it did not cultivate independence and self-sufficiency. 

Unlike the manna, the water of Miriam’s well rose from the ground up. She helped the people discover resources of hope within and among themselves. Oral tradition tells us that from the well sprang rivers that gushed forth to the tribes in different parts of the camp. Women would visit one another in boats, deepening relationships among members of the different tribes. Water then flowed beyond the encampment to a great plain, where every kind of plant and fruit-bearing tree was able to grow (Louis Ginzberg, “The Legends of the Jews, Volume III”). We see here a leader who inspires fellow community members to build relationships and join together in a way that benefits them all. 

When God asks Moses to provide water for the Israelites by talking to the rock rather than using his old staff to strike at the rock, God is sharing with Moses the secret of Miriam’s ability to bring forth water. God says do not react to grief and grievances in the old way — by striking the rock — or lashing out with harsh words. This will not bring this people to a different place. This, unfortunately, is what Moses does, and he demonstrates that he is not fit to lead this new generation into the Promised Land. 

Of all the Divine gifts of the wilderness, Miriam’s well is the only one that returns to the people. In Numbers 21:16-18, we read of Israel’s arrival at Be’er/The Well where they break into a song reminiscent of the Song at the Sea (here, the Everett Fox translation): 

Az yashir yisrael et hashira hazot – Then Israel sang this song:

Spring up, O well, sing-in-chorus to it;

The well that was dug out by princes!

That was excavated by people’s nobles!

With scepter! With their rods!”

What is noticeable in this song is the absence of Moses. The Israelites have learned to bring forth water from the well themselves, digging into the ground with their own tools. Israel now is leading their own song, one that expresses pride in their own capabilities and power. We see how the new generation has moved from a place where they had no power and responsibility (Egypt) to a place of complete dependence on God in the wilderness in the form of manna from heaven, to a new place of communal responsibility and independence. They have learned to dig for their own wellsprings of hope and the resources necessary to sustain them as they build a new, transformed society.