WATER FROM THE ROCK (CHUKKAT)
When Miriam died there was no water
the wadis dried up the springs didn't flow
as though the desert were mourning her passing
her living waters blocked by stone
we thirsted for wisdom we drank salt tears
we ripped our robes and wailed for the Black Land
all Moshe could imagine was striking the rock
the water he called forth was chalky and tasteless
not like Miriam's melodies not like her dance
when our feet wove grapevines and our hearts were bells
This week we're reading two Torah portions: Chukkat and Balak. The Torah poem I wrote this week comes out of the first of those portions, Chukkat, which contains the death of Miriam, sister of Aharon and Moshe. The recounting is simple: "Miriam died there and was buried there," Torah tells us, and adds immediately "The community was without water..."
From this juxtaposition, this week's Torah poem was born. Miriam is often midrashically connected with water. A story holds that a well followed the Israelites in their wanderings through the desert. Filled with mayimei chayyim, waters of life, the well renewed all who drank from it. When Miriam died, her well disappeared. Torah is often described with the metaphor of an ever-flowing wellspring. God, too, is sometimes known in this way: as Source of Life (in a desert climate surely this denotes water) or as the Wellspring of all that exists. So it's possible to see Miriam as deeply connected with Torah and with insight.
Because the Israelites have no water, they turn on Moshe and Aharon. God tells Moshe to speak to a rock and it will yield water; Moshe strikes the rock instead. It does yield water, but God is incensed, and tells Moshe that he will not be able to enter the promised land. Generations of commentators have struggled with the question of what exactly Moshe did wrong. Is it that he slightly shifted God's commandment? Is it that he related to the rock with violence instead of with gentleness? One way or another, it's a fascinating literary moment in the Israelites' wilderness story.
So this week we remember Miriam. What does she represent for you?