By Rabbi Joshua (streamingly known as The Hoffer) Hoffman [z"l]
In memory of my maternal grandmother, Shaindel Leah bas Shmuel Mordechai Shapiro, whose fortieth yahrtzheit occurs on the twenty-ninth of Sivan. She was the matriarch of our family, linking us to the past and guiding us toward the future. May her memory be a blessing
The Torah tells us that after Miriam died, there was no water for the assembly (Bamidbar 20:2). Rashi, citing the Talmud (Ta’anis 9a) says that we learn from here that the nation received its water during the forty years in the wilderness through the well that came in the merit of Miriam. The Talmud also tells us that the manna came in the merit of Moshe, and the divine clouds of glory came in the merit of Aharon. Why was it specifically water that Miriam contributed to the nation? Rav Moshe Sternbuch, in his Ta’am Vo'Da’as, explains that water is something for which there is a constant need, and without which life could not continue. Similarly, in the Jewish home, the presence and influence of the woman is all-pervasive. She is the “akeres habays,” the mainstay of the household, constantly caring for the children and seeing to the needs of the house, making sure that they conform to the requirements of a traditional Jewish home. In this way, her function is similar to that of water, and that is why it was water that was chosen to be the gift that Miriam brought to the people. Perhaps we can suggest an additional reason for water being the medium through which Miriam bestowed a blessing upon the Jewish people, based upon some comments made by Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik zt”l, in his eulogy for the Talner Rebbetzin, Rivka Twerski (see Tradition, Spring, 1978).
Rav Soloveitchik zt”l, said that there are two mesorah communities in Judaism, two traditions, that of the fathers and that of the mothers. The fathers transmit the content of Torah, how to comply with the halacha, for example, how to keep the laws of Shabbos. The mothers teach us how to experience Shabbos and all of the other aspects of Jewish life. This, said Rav Soloveitchik, is what he learned from his mother. Most importantly, he said, she taught him to feel the presence of the Almighty. Without her, he said, he would have grown up to be a soulless being, dry and insensitive.
Based on Rav Soloveitchik’s remarks we can understand the symbolism behind Miriam’s contribution of the well of water to the people. A well combines the elements of a spring, which begins at a source and flows naturally, perennially, while a well has the added feature of human intervention. In fact, there is a discussion among halachic authorities as to the status of a well in regard to the laws of Mikvah, due to their different features (see Meshech Chochmah to Parshas Chayei Sarah). The well, via the element of human intervention, connects to the source and leads into the present and beyond. So, too, Miriam, as one of the great women in Jewish history, linked the generations, reminding the people of their origins, and showing them how to carry it into the future.