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Parashat Chukat: Acknowledging Our Blessings

The sudden disappearance of water after the death of Miriam reminds to appreciate our blessings while we have them.

Commentary on Parashat Chukat, Numbers 19:1-22:1

In this week’s Torah portion, the people of Israel arrive in the wilderness of Zin after 40 years of wandering through the desert. It is here that Miriam, Moses’ sister, dies and is buried. Immediately following her death, we learn that the community was without water. The rabbis of the Talmud notice this juxtaposition and conclude from it that it was Miriam’s merit that provided the Israelites with a well of water throughout those years in the wilderness.

I wonder if the Israelites knew their water supply was due to Miriam. Did they know or was it something they took for granted because it was always there? 

It’s normal to take our blessings for granted. Only when they disappear, do we realize how lucky we were to begin with. Years ago, I remember someone asking why we thank God when we’ve recovered from illness but not when we’re healthy. The truth is, it’s hard to remember to be thankful when life is easy and without struggle. We get caught up in daily living and often forget to give thanks for our blessings.

Miriam’s well was one of those blessings, providing water for nearly four decades. But when she died, the well disappeared and so did the water. After its disappearance, the Israelites quarrel with Moses and Aaron, begging for more water. God tells Moses to speak to a rock to bring forth the water. Instead, he strikes it, a sin for which he and Aaron are punished and prevented from entering the promised land. 

The end of this story makes me wonder if Moses also took Miriam and her well for granted. Could it be he was saddened and distraught over their sister’s death, that he didn’t appreciate the presence of her well until it was no longer present? Did he strike the rock because he needed a physical way to express his grief at Miriam’s death? 

When we think about our own loved ones who have died, do we feel a sense of sadness, regret or remorse? Are we angry that we did not say what we wanted or needed to say? Did we take our relationship with them for granted? Did we tell them that we loved them often enough? And most poignantly, did we notice and appreciate their gifts while they were with us?

Miriam’s well is a reminder not only of the blessings we often take for granted, but also how to be in relationship with the dead. While we might not be able to speak to our departed loved ones in person, we can speak to their souls, which Jewish tradition teaches are still very much alive. The biblical commentator known as the Or HaChaim notes that when the Torah describes Miriam’s death, it uses the word sham (there) twice. Numbers 20:1 reads: “Miriam died there and was buried there.” The Or HaChaim writes: “When the Torah said sham, it wanted to remind us that Miriam was ‘dead’ only ‘there,’ i.e. on earth, whereas she lived on in another region, the region reserved for the souls of the righteous.” 

This passage also teaches us about the importance of living with awareness, acknowledging the importance of recognizing the wells in our own lives and remembering not to take their blessings for granted. Judaism provides various spiritual technologies to help us cultivate this kind of mindful awareness. Each morning when we awake, Jewish tradition teaches us to recite Modeh Ani, offering gratitude to God for gifting us with another day. We recite blessings over food and rainbows, plants and pleasurable scents, to name just a few. Pausing throughout our day helps us recognize what we have in our lives and prevents us from taking those gifts for granted.

May Miriam’s well remind us to tell our loved ones, whether they are on the physical or the spiritual plane, that we love and appreciate them and value what they have added to enrich our lives, now and forever.

This article initially appeared in My Jewish Learning’s Reading Torah Through Grief newsletter on July 13, 2024. To sign up to receive this newsletter each week in your inbox, click here.

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