We read in Parashat Chukat “shirat ha-be’er” – the song sung by Moshe and Benei Yisrael in praise of the great miracle of the well that accompanied the nation in their travels through the desert. This song concludes with the phrase, “ve-nishkafa al penei ha-yeshimon,” which Rashi (in his second interpretation) explains, based on the Midrash Tanchuma, to mean that the well is still visible in the Kinneret (“the Sea of Tiberias”). Rashi here alludes to the Gemara’s comment in Masekhet Shabbat (38a), “One who wishes to see Miriam’s well should climb to the peak of the Carmel and gaze, and he will see something resembling a sieve in the sea – this is Miriam’s well.” The well, which is traditionally attributed to Miriam, in whose merit this forty-year miracle occurred, can be seen by climbing to the peaks of the Carmel hills and looking down into the sea.
There is considerable discussion among the commentators regarding the geographic aspects of the Gemara’s comment. If the well is supposed to be visible in the Kinneret, on the eastern edge of Eretz Yisrael, it is difficult to understand why the Gemara advises one to climb to the top of the Carmel, which overlooks the Mediterranean Sea. Leaving aside this question, we will focus on the symbolic message which the Gemara seeks to convey. What does the Gemara mean by informing us that the well is still visible? And why does it resemble a sieve? Moreover, why must one climb a tall mountain to view it?
Elsewhere (Sota 12a), the Gemara tells the famous story of Miriam, as a young child, persuading her father to remarry her mother. After Pharaoh enacted his decree that newborn Israelite boys should be killed, Miriam’s father divorced his wife, figuring it was best not to bring more children into the world. Miriam, however, succeeded in changing his mind, noting that by marrying, he at very least could beget girls, even if the boys are killed. Miriam emerges from this story as a young woman filled with optimism and positivity, who is able to find a kernel of hope even amid the direst conditions. This is consistent with the Torah’s account of Miriam standing on the riverbank after Moshe, her three-month-old brother, was placed in a basket in the river to escape the Egyptian authorities. Even when Moshe was abandoned and appeared to have no hope for survival, Miriam stood alongside him so she could somehow assist him, which she eventually did, after the Egyptian princess discovered the infant.
For good reason, then, Chazal associate the miraculous well with Miriam. Her outstanding quality was her ability to produce water in the desert, to maintain hope and optimism even when it seems impossible to find. Miriam could extract hope from a desperate situation, as though extracting water from a rock in an arid desert.
On this basis, we can perhaps understand the Gemara’s advice for viewing Miriam’s well. The Gemara is teaching us how to find water in a desert, how to find hope in dire situations. It instructs that Miriam’s well resembles a sieve, which has the ability to extract small particles that would otherwise be overwhelmed in a mixture. Hope and optimism require a process of “sifting,” searching through the unfortunate circumstances for glimmers of hope and promise, for the “particles” of goodness and blessing that are difficult to identify. Like a small handful of diamonds lost in a bucket of sand, but can be found and retrieved through sifting, particles of hope can be discovered even in the darkest of times.
Secondly, the Gemara teaches us that optimism requires “climbing.” It does not come easily or naturally. Our natural tendency is to wallow in self-pity and despair, to see only the darkness without discerning the sparks of light. If we want to experience the joy and comfort of positivity, we need to “climb” and work to find the jewels of goodness concealed by many layers of anguish.
The image of climbing to the mountaintop also reminds us that optimism requires seeing the broader picture, assessing life and the world from a bird’s eye view. Miriam’s well can only be seen from afar, from a mountaintop, when we look with a broad perspective. Problems and misfortunes which seem devastating in the here and now appear far less significant when viewed in relation to our lives in general.
Like Miriam, we are all capable of finding the kernels of hope and remaining joyful and positive even in difficult times. By working to see the whole picture, and searching for the hidden particles of blessing and good fortune, we can bring the optimism and positivity of Miriam into our lives, regardless of the difficult challenges we face.