Well-Deserved Praise

Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg

This week’s Torah portion can only be described as a smorgasbord of different themes, seminal events in our history, and some very cryptic passages. Some of these obscure verses appear to be unexplainable, and it requires an almost herculean effort to tease out some basic concept. An example of this exists in the reference to the be’er, or well, and the fascinating commendation of this water supply composed by the Jewish people to honor God’s kindness. 

In the midst of a description of some of the travels of the Jewish people, a reference is made to a well (Bamidbar 21:16):

From there to the well; that is the well of which the Lord said to Moses, 'Gather the people, and I will give them water.'”

What is this mysterious source of water? 

Immediately after comes a rare moment of exuberant praise, a shira (ibid 17):

Then Israel sang this song: "'Ascend, O well,' sing to it! A well dug by princes, carved out by nobles of the people, through the lawgiver with their staffs, and from the desert, a gift. From the gift, to the streams, and from the streams to the heights. From the heights to the valley in the field of Moab, at the top of the peak, that overlooks the wastelands. ”

Again, what well is being referred to here? What well was “dug by princes”?

The commentaries go to great lengths to help clarify this obscure set of verses. Ultimately, the Ramban helps sum up the two potential wells – either it was the well associated with Miriam, the one that travelled with the Jewish people throughout their forty year sojourn; or it was the well given to the Jews by God without them requesting it. The first well is familiar to us, cited in many instances throughout the Oral Law. However, this second well has no clear historical source in the Torah other than this brief reference. 

The Malbim attempts to shed more factual light on the circumstances surrounding this second well. The Jewish people, on their own initiative, sought to dig wells to find water (he describes a fairly intricate system of labor). As they dug, before the normative point of where water would normally emerge, they discovered water. It was this miraculous discovery that inspired their praise. Other commentaries refer to Moshe and Aharon, the aforementioned “princes” of the verse, as digging for the well themselves. Whoever was specifically involved with the work, we must understand the significance of this “new” well and why it was deserving of a shira. 

Let us not forget the first explanation – the shira was referring to the well of Miriam. Why would this particular miracle be deserving of a shira, any more so then the manna? In fact, when we turn to a famous passage in the Talmud, we see three privileges afforded to the Jewish people during their time in the desert (Taanit 9a):


Three good leaders had arisen for Israel, namely. Moses, Aaron and Miriam, and for their sake three good things were conferred [upon Israel], namely, the Well, the Pillar of Cloud and the Manna; the Well, for the merit of Miriam; the Pillar of Cloud for the merit of Aaron; the Manna for the merit of Moses

These miracles were unique in their deliverance through the merit of each of the leadership triumvirate. What is truly fascinating is a theme that ties these three disparate miracles together. Before delving into this concept, it behooves us to heed the words of Rav Avraham Ben HaRambam, where he writes as follows (The Guide to Serving God 202-203):

They were His people, whom He delivered from Egypt with astounding signs and miracles and led in the desert on a remarkable journey, where He cared for them wondrously. The cloud pillar and the fire pillar showed them the way, and the cloud protected them. Manna was their food, and water gushing forth from a solid rock was their drink.”

This was written concerning the overall concept of placing one’s security in God. As we shall see, it is the very idea of security that is the focus of the first of these explanations. 

 It is sometimes difficult to comprehend the magnitude of the challenge awaiting the Jewish people upon their exit through the Red Sea and subsequent travel through the desert. They were entering into a part of the earth where human beings don’t belong. No doubt, the Jewish people had experienced select moments of the miraculous, such as the plagues in Egypt or the splitting of the Red Sea. However, at the entrance to this barren desert, they were facing a scenario that would require a constant transcending of their natural order. Life there would be one that was miraculous. For the Jewish people to coalesce in their service of God, they had to be in a state where the surrounding physical world offered them a basic foundation in security. This very premise is laughable when discussing a desert. Understanding the basic insecurities of man would be critical in forming an environment in this barren wasteland to help him thrive. Upon entering a desert, a person immediately sees how he is exposed to the surrounding world and all of its elements. There is no protection to be afforded him, and multiple threats abound. Thus, God created the clouds of Glory, offering the Jewish people a true sense of security in this hostile environment. Upon entering a desert, a person realizes his surrounding world offers no means of sustenance. Crops cannot be planted, livestock cannot be raised. God responds with the manna, a food of perfection, where the feeling of sustenance could be achieved. However, above all, the desert itself translates into the extermination of the human. He has no hope of survival. The well, then, establishes one fact for the Jewish people – they will survive the desert. They had to know this and internalize this upon their entrance into the desert. It could be, then, that as their time in the desert was coming to an end, the Jewish people offered praise to God for the miracle of survival, a concept far removed from the reality of the desert. No doubt the security from the clouds and the manna were both critical. But the fact they survived an environment that was defined by extinction was deserving of a special praise.

What of the explanation of the other well? In line with the above concept, there might be one small idea we can extract from this cryptic description. Many of the commentators focus on the fact that this well was dug by man, in contrast to the well of Miriam which appeared miraculously. Along with this novelty, there is the agreed upon explanation that the Jewish people did not actually make a formal request for water; yet once they burrowed, God rewarded their efforts. What could be happening here is another crucial step in the evolution of the Jewish people. The Jewish people lived a different type of existence throughout their travels through the desert, a transcendental state. Yet this was temporary, as mankind was never created to live his life in such a state. Man is a creature of the natural world, and while there may be occasions where there is a breach or aberration, his existence would never be defined as one of miracles. Not only is it unnatural, but it can lead to an over-reliance of a “guaranteed” response from God when faced with adversity. What does this have to do with this second well? The Torah places an emphasis on the fact that it was dug. The message may be that the Jewish people were preparing themselves to transition from the world of the miraculous to the normative natural world. They didn’t have an expectation that water would be provided; rather, they were proactive. They were ready to re-enter the norm, and their physical search for water reflected this reality. God noted this, and responded by having the water emerge preemptively. In many ways, God was introducing the microcosm of what the Jewish people’s lives would be upon their exit from the desert and into the Land of Israel. They would be fully engaged in the surrounding physical world. But due to their level of adherence to Torah and its commandments, the world would “respond” on a much higher level. The people would need to work and plant and plow – but God would ensure their bounty would be more than normal. 

Both interpretations regarding these wells reflect critical and important ideas in the historical trajectory of the Jewish people. The well as a concept reflects the ability to survive, a necessary security for the Jewish people to possess as they began their journey through the desert. Then there is the search for the well, engaging with the physical world and abandoning any sense of necessary expectation. Each of these explanations is, without question, due a unique and appropriate praise.