The Song of the Well – Chukat 5773

This morning, we read the famous story of Moses hitting the rock. But there is another brief passage in this morning’s Torah portion that also deals with water bubbling up from the rocky desert ground.

Towards the end of the parshah, the Israelites set out again on their journey, marching ever closer to the Promised Land. From Kadesh to Mount Hor, where Aaron the High Priest dies. From Mount Hor, an unsuccessful attempt to enter Canaan form the South. They turn right and head off to the East. Ovot, Iye Abarim, Wadi Zered, the River Arnon. They pass by the borders of Edom, and Moab. They are now East of the Dead Sea, in what is the modern day country of Jordan. Then, to a place called Be’er, where God suddenly instructs Moses to gather the people together.

“Assemble the people that I may give them water,”*1* God declares. Something is a little strange. Twice already in this parshah alone, the Israelites have complained about not having water to drink. The first time led to the disaster with the staff and the rock, and Moses and Aaron getting banned from the land of Israel. The second time resulted in a plague of fiery serpents.

Now, all of a sudden, God is calling the people together for a water break without any whining. Why the sudden change?

According to the Spanish commentator Abarbanel, God said “I don’t want to hear their complaints.” God is tired of the whining, and has just given in.

Perhaps.  In any event, the assembled Israelites suddenly burst into song. Az yashir yisrael et-hashirah hazot. “Then Israel sang this song.” I’m sorry, I don’t know the melody.

Spring up, O well – sing to it –

The well which the chieftains dug

which the nobles of the people started

with maces, with their own staffs.*2*

Then the Torah continues on with its story, describing the next stops in the Israelites’ journey.

This short episode is rather perplexing. According to the song, it does not seem to take a lot of effort to find these wells. The chieftains are digging them with a staff. One gets the impression that all they have to do is scratch the surface of the gravel a little bit, and water will come gushing forth.

But we know that water in the desert is no trifling thing. It is life and death. The book of Genesis contains stories of fighting over the rights to wells. Discovering a new well is momentous enough that the Torah goes out of its way to mention it. The discovery of a well is often considered to be miraculous. We know wells are important to the the Israelites, because they start complaining whenever they run out of water.

An Aramaic translation and commentary of the Torah expands on the obscure references in the song and fills in the gaps:

Then Israel sang this song of praise, when they settled and the well stayed, and when the when they moved on [so did the well] by the merit of Miriam: “Rise up, O well, rise up, O well!” They would sing and it would rise. This is the well of the forefathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; the Great of the ancient past dug it; the leaders of the nation, Moses and Aaron, scribes of Israel, drew it out with their staffs.*3*

The song is not just a one time performance. For forty years, whenever Israel travels, the well travels with them. Some people are mentioned. It is on account of the merit of the Prophetess Miriam that the miraculous well stayed with them throughout their journeys. That is why, as soon as she dies in this morning’s parshah, the people are immediately without water.

But it is not only Miriam’s well. The well’s history extends back to the Patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  Then Moses and Aaron are brought in to the story. They, with their staves, are able to draw water out of the ground.

But this is not just about water. Two terms in this song are metaphors that further expand the meaning.

First is the well itself. Water is understood to be a metaphor for Torah.

The second term is m’chokek. The original meaning is staff, or scepter. But already in the Bible, m’chokek takes on an sense . M’chokek also means ruler, or lawgiver. In ancient artistic depictions, rulers often hold a staff in their hands. Think of the symbolism of Moses’ staff.

And so, applying these metaphors to the song of the well, we have the following message: the chieftain who uses his staff to bring water out of the ground to quench the people’s thirst is likened to the teacher who brings out the Torah to quench the people’s spiritual thirst.

It is not only Moses, Aaron, and Miriam who draw out the water of the Patriarchs for the people. It is true of every teacher of Torah. Whoever interprets the ancient teachings of our tradition and shares that knowledge with the world is like that chieftain who can use the staff to find water in the desert.

While we, thankfully, can get water simply by turning on the tap, we do find ourselves in a different kind of wilderness. We live in a world in which it is very easy to lose our direction. We live far apart from each other. Traditional communities have broken down. We spend less time in face to face conversations and more time in front of screens. And we consume, consume, consume. Despite all of that consumption, I fear that many of us today are thirsty, whether we know it or not.

As Jews, it is the living waters of Torah that sustains us, that enables us to draw on the ancient wisdom of our tradition – a tradition that extends all the way back to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, that nourished Miriam, Moses, Aaron, and the Israelites in the wilderness, and that continues to nourish us to this day. Maybe, like the Israelites, we should sing about it more.

 

*1*Numbers 21:16

*2*Numbers 21:17-18

*3*Targum Pseudo-Yonatan

2 thoughts on “The Song of the Well – Chukat 5773

  1. I really look forward to these emails and just want to thank you for the time it takes you to put it together! Thank you 🙂 Tristen

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