One Jewish Midrash fills in the gaps found in this tersely written Bible account of her death with the following story:
“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. He got up from the ground and went out and saw the well without a drop of water (in it). He began to argue with them….” (Otzar Midrashim)
Whether a rock followed them, providing water, or Adonai gave them water wherever they went through other means, He did show mercy for their thirst, telling Moses to speak to the rock to bring forth water.
Nevertheless, before following through on God’s command to give them water, Moses responded in anger to their complaining, or perhaps anger at Adonai for Miriam’s death, saying, “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” (Numbers 20:10)
There is a play on words in this verse. The Hebrew word for rebels (morim מרים) is spelled the same as the name Miriam (מרים) in Hebrew.
It seems that Moses is thinking of his sister Miriam and had not yet properly mourned. He may have misdirected his anger about her death toward the people.
In his anger or frustration, Moses struck the rock twice and water gushed out giving the people water to drink — but God had told Moses to speak to the rock, not to strike it.
Moses failed to model obedience at a time when all of Israel was looking to him for leadership.
Therefore, the name of the water was called Meribah (which means to argue, strive or contend).
“Those were the waters of Meribah, because the sons of Israel contended with the LORD, and He proved Himself holy among them.” (Numbers 20:13)
This word, Meribah, can also be connected to Miriam. It can be read Meri-bah, which means Miri[yam] is in it—that is, Miriam is in the waters of contention.
Although Miriam’s name means bitterness, it can also be read Miri–yam (Miri of the sea). So, in yet another way, this “woman of the sea” is connected to the waters flowing out of the rock after her death.
This elaborately decorated Aron HaKoshesh
(Torah ark) houses and protects the Torah scrolls
Tending to Our Emotions
Although Moses never mentioned Miriam again after her death, and although she seemed to have been buried quickly, without great public ceremony, the memory of her has been irrepressible.
Like Moses’ anger that caused him to disobey God and strike the rock,whatever we repress instead of dealing with will ultimately demand attention. And it might be expressed in ways not pleasing to God. For instance, we must take the time to properly come to terms with our feelings of loss.
We must take the time to grieve, just as the people did at the end of this Torah reading for Aaron — six months after the death of Miriam.
Perhaps Moses did not take the time or did not have the luxury of that time because of his role as leader or because the people were thirsty.
Furthermore, it seems that Moses might not have brought his pain and disappointment to the Lord. In not doing so, he missed an opportunity to model his trust and faith in God’s love. Instead, he raged and disobeyed God.
If Moses cannot model faith during such times of loss, then it is only natural that many of us will suspect that we cannot. But we can and must.
We can bring to Him our deepest pain, our darkest despair, and our broken hearts. He will cleanse us spiritually from our contact with loss and death, and He will heal us.
May we likewise be healers, allowing rivers of living water to flow freely out of our inner being to help bring people back into a restored relationship with Adonai through the purification we experience in Yeshua HaMashiach (Jesus the Messiah).