Between the Shore and the Sea

By Rabbi Mindie Snyder

Laws regarding purification rituals after contact with a corpse, begin this parsha’s example of a chok, or a statute. Immediately following the significant role of the red hefer for purification purposes, death becomes personal to B’nai Yisrael when the end of Miriam’s life is announced.

Thinking of the name “Miriam”, two people come to my mind. One is a dear friend and the other is the Biblical Miriam, who belongs to us all.

I confess that I know more about my friend, Miriam than the Biblical Miriam, although I have known Biblical Miriam much longer. My friend was highly intelligent, humorous in clever ways, a remarkable poet, musician, costume designer and all-around Renaissance woman. It has been said, “to whom much has been given, much will be required.” Indeed, much was required of Miriam in her lifetime. She responded to her call by defying gravity, rising above multiple, vigorous afflictions that even the bravest among us could not bear. Her husband, parents, siblings, extended family, and friends surrounded her with love enough to continue the fight for life. Ultimately, it was her resilient neshamah that kept her here and released her from earthly suffering when it was time to go.

The name Miryam is unique in the Hebrew Bible (TaNaKh), referring only to the older sister of Moses and Aaron. She is revered as a Prophetess, who had the special gift of manifesting water for the wandering Hebrews. Investigations into the name’s origins have yet to be conclusive. However, it has been suggested that the name Miryam may have been created from a combination of ancient Egyptian and Cannanite terms, respectively: mrj (to love) and yam (sea), or a reference to the Cannanite sea god, Yamm. Among common translations for Miriam are “Beloved of Yamm”, or “Lover of Yamm”. However, some researchers direct us to the Egyptian term, mr (Loving One, or Loved One), exclusively, as its root.

From a different vantage point, another possible translation for Miriam could be “Beloved of the Nation” (Heb. am). Biblical scholars have also observed a strong relationship between Miriam and mayim, the Hebrew word for water. Furthermore, it has been observed that in Shemot/Exodus 15:22, the terms for bitter (marah), water (mayim), and days (yamim) lean into the articulation of Miriam. Any way you look at it, Miriam is a beautiful name with many opportunities for meaningful interpretations.

Parshat Chukat presents a pivotal moment where our Biblical Miriam dies and the core narrative of our people begins to shape shift. Miriam’s death precedes that of her brothers, initiating the process for a new generation to reach the Promised Land of Milk and Honey. But before that can happen, Miriam’s magical well dries up and the people complain they have lost both their water and their Miriam. Her nurturing presence was gone in multiple ways. Noted Jewish scholar, Dr. Carol Ochs, observed, “Miriam’s legacy models our capacity to care for those more vulnerable than ourselves, to intervene in history, regardless of our position, to dance as well as to sing publicly as a form of worship.” Biblical Miriam met with others where they were, transforming the understanding of sacred space, no longer exclusive to one designated area. Rather, it was wherever people gather and unite in movement, song, sharing ideas and feelings. In essence, she mobilized kavannah (focused sacred intention), elevating personal and communal ritual practices, while expanding inclusivity.

Miriam, my friend, brought people together, too. When she could no longer walk for long periods unaided, she joined others with her wheelchair, or from her computer, honoring and celebrating each precious life minute. In an extraordinary juxtaposition of events, Miriam’s frail health catapulted her strength of spirit, inspiring all who knew her. Her death on July 6th 2021 initiated a new paradigm. We would need to find other ways to seek joy, to support, to conquer adversity for ourselves and each other; while sprinkling in some of the enchanted wordplay that she loved. This Miriam’s well overflowed with words that connected heart, mind, body, spirit, and others, within a decree that was a catalyst for wholeness. (No red hefers were harmed in this holy pursuit.)

Each much-loved Miriam was enjoined to the great flow of life. They activated their purpose and mission to such an extent that after death came, they continue to illuminate the way forward. They remind us that regardless of any obstacle, we will dance again and we will sing again, at the shore of the sea.