Miriam was Moshe and Ahron’s older sister and a great leader and prophetess of her own right. Michah describes her alongside Moshe and Ahron as delivering the Jews from exile in Egypt, and the Midrash says that Moshe led the men out of Egypt, but Miriam led the women.
When she died, the water stopped:
וַיָּבֹאוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל כָּל-הָעֵדָה מִדְבַּר-צִן, בַּחֹדֶשׁ הָרִאשׁוֹן, וַיֵּשֶׁב הָעָם, בְּקָדֵשׁ; וַתָּמָת שָׁם מִרְיָם, וַתִּקָּבֵר שָׁם. וְלֹא-הָיָה מַיִם, לָעֵדָה; וַיִּקָּהֲלוּ, עַל-מֹשֶׁה וְעַל-אַהֲרֹן – The Jewish People arrived at the wilderness of Zin on the first new moon, and the people stayed at Kadesh. Miriam died there and was buried there. There was no water, and they gathered against Moshe and Ahron. (20:1,2)
Rashi cites a Gemara that notes the juxtaposition of Miriam’s death with the lack of water, suggesting the association of Miriam’s merit with water in the desert. So when she died, the water stopped.
You might wonder what the association of Miriam is with water in particular; the Gemara doesn’t say why. But we might also be troubled by taking the association at face value; one of God’s favorite people dies, so everyone has to go thirsty! If it was just a logistics problem, God could have told Moshe to speak to the rock to get the water going again; but that’s not what happened! The water dried up, then the people went thirsty and got scared, and only then did God instruct Moshe how to produce water; which suggests that going thirsty is an essential element in this story.
Why did they have to go thirsty? What did they do wrong?
It’s silly to conclude that God was lashing out at the people because Miriam died. Far more likely, it was a response to something else, or rather, something that was notable in its absence.
The Torah simply records that she died, and the narrative proceeds, like nothing happened, and that’s the problem – וַתָּמָת שָׁם מִרְיָם, וַתִּקָּבֵר שָׁם. וְלֹא-הָיָה מַיִם, לָעֵדָה.
Compare the response to her death to the response to her brother’s deaths:
וַיִּרְאוּ, כָּל-הָעֵדָה, כִּי גָוַע, אַהֲרֹן; וַיִּבְכּוּ אֶת-אַהֲרֹן שְׁלֹשִׁים יוֹם, כֹּל בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל- The whole community knew that Ahron had breathed his last. The entire house of Israel wept over Ahron for thirty days. (20:29)
וַיִּבְכּוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת־מֹשֶׁה בְּעַרְבֹת מוֹאָב שְׁלֹשִׁים יוֹם וַיִּתְּמוּ יְמֵי בְכִי אֵבֶל מֹשֶׁה – And the Jewish People wept over Moshe in the plains of Moab for thirty days, and the mourning period for Moshe came to an end. (34:8)
Sure, Moshe and Ahron were the two most prominent leaders; but Miriam was no slouch! She was indisputably one of the most significant people in the entire story, and the Torah doesn’t record that anyone cried or mourned!
They did not cry to pay their respects to this legendary heroine, so they would cry about something else. If they just had a new water source with no interruption, it would have endorsed the fact that they hadn’t appreciated her contributions and had failed to honor her correctly; so God stopped providing water so that they’d make the connection between Miriam’s contributions and their survival. The water didn’t stop so that we would make the association between water and Miriam’s merit; it stopped so that they would make the association.
Water is a biological necessity and prerequisite for life due to its extensive and unequaled capability to dissolve molecules, helping cells transport and utilize substances like oxygen and nutrients. It is designated as the “universal solvent,” and it is this ability that makes water such an invaluable life-sustaining force. On a simple biological level, water is life.
One of water’s most defining features is that its fluid properties allow it to adapt perfectly to its surroundings; water always assumes the form of its container.
Nothing is softer or more flexible than water, yet nothing can resist it.
Legend tells of R’ Akiva noticing a steady trickle of water hitting a rock. It was only a droplet at a time, but it would not let up – drip after drip, but he realized that the water had carved a hole through the rock, pierced only by drops of water.
Miriam was born during one of the darkest chapters of Jewish history in Egypt. She was named Miriam, associated with the word מרה, bitter, for the bitterness of the Jewish condition.
When she was just a young girl, Pharaoh decreed that all male babies be thrown into the river. Husbands and wives separated to avoid having children who would not survive the edict, but Miriam boldly encouraged her parents to have faith and stay together. As a direct result, her brother, Moshe, the redeemer and lawgiver, was born. She then showed her own hope and faith at troubled waters, watching over the baby Moshe in the river, determined to watch over her brother in the darkest moment when their mother abandoned him at the river rather than face the pain of watching him be discovered and murdered – מר ים. She then became the famous midwife Puah, who soothed the infants when they were born; and led the women through the waters of the Red Sea to the other side, watching their tormentors drown in the waves – רם ים.
Like water, Miriam adapted, first to oppression and the suffering, remaining steadfast in faith and hope, staunchly encouraging the people around her, guiding them through their dire straits, and then leading them on to better times.
Miriam led the women in song, separate from the men who responded to Moshe and Ahron, in a display of private class and dignity. R’ Shlomo Farhi suggests that perhaps in some similar way, the Jewish People thought it would only be fit to mourn in private.
So, in hindsight, the people realized that the miraculous water God had provided them in impossible circumstances had been in Miriam’s merit. It isn’t a surprise that Miriam is tightly associated with water. She was tough, resilient, and able to adapt her steadfast faith and hope under any circumstances, sharing life-sustaining force with everyone around her.
They should have mourned loudly and openly for Miriam – she had been their water all along.