July 2, 1998
Parashat Chuka (Numbers 19:1-22:1)
Water and Women: The Sustenance of Life
By Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben
I grew up the only boy in a family with three girls. Although this definitely didn't make me an expert on women, it did give me a firsthand knowledge of how women live. So what exactly is it with women and liquids? I mean, with three sisters and a mother in the house, there were so many bottles of strange-colored, unidentifiable elixirs that Elizabeth Arden herself wouldn't have been able to identify them. They had liquids to put on their faces, and different liquids to get the same stuff off again. They spread liquids on their bodies before going out in the sun, and different liquids for getting out of the sun. There were liquids for cleaning, liquids for softening, liquids for shining, liquids for smoothing, liquids to go under some liquids, and liquids to go over other ones.
So with this perpetual female fascination with liquids of all kinds, is it any wonder that throughout Jewish history, water and women have had a close, powerful and even magical association? When Abraham banishes Hagar, she encounters an angel by a well in the wilderness and then hears God's voice by a spring. Rebecca meets her husband, Isaac, through her actions at a well, then Jacob meets his beloved Rachel at a well, and even Moses is united with his wife, Zipporah, at a well.
OK, so perhaps the connection is obvious -- just like water, the very sustenance of life that bubbles up from the depths of the earth, so, too, women's bodies become the nurturing well from which all human life emerges. Women and wombs, women with their menstrual flow as a symbol of life's essential creative power flowing through human beings, women with their innate ability to provide sustenance and nourishment to babies through the milk that flows through their bodies.
And in this week's Torah portion, we find the source of an ancient midrash that tells the legend of Miriam's Well. When Miriam dies and is buried, the very next sentence in the Torah says, "The community was without water." Since the rabbis believed that every single word in the Torah (and every single letter) was put in its specific place for a reason, they reasoned that Miriam herself must have been the source of the water that allowed the Israelites to live through all those years of wandering.
The legend taught that as long as Miriam was alive, there was a well of water that miraculously accompanied the Israelites wherever they might go on their desert journey. After she died, the well vanished, although, according to legend, it has resurfaced from time to time in Jewish communities throughout the world as a symbol of Miriam's status as a prophet in her own right, and her protective power over the community.
In fact, a beautiful midrash claims that Miriam's well fills all wells at the end of Shabbat each week, and that this water has miraculous curative powers over diseases of all kinds. Miriam merited this miraculous well because it was she who saved the life of her brother Moses, she who led the women in song at the Sea of Reeds, and she who became a model of the woman as prophetess for all future women to emulate.
None of my sisters ever saved me from an evil Pharaoh's decree, but I must admit that, given my own slightly over-the-edge behavior from time to time as a child, every one of them came to my rescue in more ways than I can possibly enumerate here.
So in honor of Miriam's lifesaving well, this might be a good week to thank all the women in your life whose wellsprings of love and nurturing have given you sustenance, blessings and love.
Steven Carr Reuben is senior rabbi of Kehillat Israel, the Reconstructionist congregation of Pacific Palisades.
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