Toras Avigdor for Chukat-Balak: The enigmatic well

What happened that made the Israelites in the desert sing a song of praise to a well - and to which well were they singing?

Rabbi Avigdor Miller ,

Ancient well
Ancient well
Antiquities Authority

Let us go to a scene in the desert, the midbar, an episode that we read about every year when Parshas Chukat comes around, but it’s something we don’t study enough. If you have a chumash, you can look inside together with me and you’ll see something surprising. Open up to chapter 21, verse 16 and we’ll read it together:. וּמִשָּׁם בְּאֵרָה – And they arrived at a well (Chukat 21:16) There was some sort of well, a fountain of clean drinking water, near which Am Yisroel was encamped.

Now pay attention; the verse continues: הִוא הַבְּאֵר – This is the well, אֲשֶׁר אָמַר הַשֵּׁם לְמֹשֶׁה– about which Hashem said to Moshe, אֱסֹף אֶת הָעָם – “Gather the people together, וְאֶתְּנָה לָהֶם מָֽיִם – and I’m going to give them water” (ibid.). Tell the people that I have a gift for them; fresh water for drinking, bathing and everything else.

Old Well, New Song

Now, Rashi holds – it’s a saying by our Sages, a maamar Chazal too (Bamidbar Rabbah 19:25) – that this well was the well of Miriam, the be’er Miriam, the same well that had traveled with them in the Wilderness for forty years. And so the next passuk: אָז יָשִׁיר יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת הַשִּׁירָה הַזֹּאת – Then they sang the following song, עֲלִי בְאֵר עֱנוּ לָֽהּ – “Come up O’ well, cry out to it,” means they sang a song of gratitude to Hashem: “Call out to Hakodosh Boruch Hu that the well of Miriam should continue to produce water like it always has.”

It means that even if you have a gift for many years, you have to always turn to Hashem and thank Him and ask Him to continue to give it to you. It’s like a man who comes home from shul in the morning and sees his wife, and thanks Hashem: “Thank You Hakodosh Boruch Hu for the gift of a wife,” – many bachelors wish they had such a gift – “and please keep her healthy.” That’s what a wise man does and that’s one way to understand this verse.

New Well, New Song

But we should pay attention now to something that most people don’t know. The Ramban (ibid. 31:17-20) says: “While in the opinion of some of our sages this well refers to the be’er of Miriam, it could refer to a different be’er – the literal meaning, pshat, of the verse is speaking about a different well altogether.” The Ibn Ezra says that too: V’einenah habe’er hanikreis be’er Miriam l’fi da’ati – “According to my opinion this well is not the well of Miriam.” It means that Am Yisroel sang a song of gratitude to Hakodosh Boruch Hu for a new well of water.

A song for a well? It pays for us to understand what this song was all about.

So we look a bit further in the verse: אֲשֶׁר אָמַר הַשֵּׁם לְמֹשֶׁה – Hashem said to the Moshe, אֱסֹף אֶת הָעָם – “Gather the people together, וְאֶתְּנָה לָהֶם מָיִם– and I will give them water.” It means, nobody asked for it. Nobody complained that they were thirsty. In other places when the people complained, Hashem gave them water, but here they were satisfied with the water they had. This well was given to them without their asking. Hashem said, “אֱסֹף אֶת הָעָם – Bring the people together and I’ll give them a matanah. I’ll give them a gift of water even though they didn’t ask for it.”

We’re talking about a new kind of a be’er here; a well that was given to them as a special gift from Hashem.

Now when this happened, it was a surprise. The Jews were very much surprised. For the first time, without their requesting it, Hashem presented them with a well of good water. It was a big fountain; like a flowing river, enough for a whole nation. Such a thing is a big gift when you’re traveling in the wilderness; and so they began singing a song at that time.

The Critical Father

Now that song is one you have to study. It’s a pity that people hear the ba’al korei (Torah reader) read it and don’t know what it’s all about. אָז יָשִׁיר יִשְׂרָאֵל – Then they began to sing, אֶת הַשִּׁירָה הַזֹּאת – this following song. At that time they began singing this song and they continued to sing it always; they sang and sang these words as they journeyed in the midbar.

Before we go on, we must know that thirty eight years had passed since the story of Korach. In the chumash, Chukat follows the Torah reading of Korach, but actually many years had passed. And for thirty eight years all they heard was that Hashem was displeased with them; אַרְבָּעִים שָׁנָה אָקוּט בְּדוֹר “For forty years I quarrelled with this people”. It was always rebuke, tochachah, and biting criticism.

It’s a remarkable thing. He’s constantly belittling His people! Moshe Rabeinu too: שִׁמְעוּ נָא הַמֹּרִים – “Listen up you rebellious ones.” Moshe criticized us – he was speaking for Hashem – and we felt very much ashamed of ourselves.

Reason To Sing

And now suddenly Hakodosh Boruch Hu showed us that He was favoring us! Hashem loves us! We thought we had found no favor in the eyes of Hashem, and suddenly it’s been shown to us that finally we have become perfect enough, that Hashem is satisfied with us! He gave us a gift, a well of pure water, without us having asked for it!

And they were intoxicated! They became so full of happiness when they saw that, they began to sing this song! עֲלִי בְאֵר – Come up, o’ pit. And they said, “This well is not only a well of water. Water, that’s good too. But this is better than water. It’s a well of G-d's Will, of rotzon Hashem! It’s a demonstration that we have found favor in the eyes of Hashem.” Now that’s something to sing about!

Shiru lo, zamru lo! We shall sing to Him.

Now how did it happen that this change came about? What happened? Pay attention to the following words and you’ll see. The answer is in part of the shira they sang and that’s what we’ll study now. When the people started seeing that Hashem was favoring them they sang like this: בְּאֵר – This well that demonstrates the ratzon Hashem upon us, חֲפָרוּהָ שָׂרִים — was dug out by princes, כָּרוּהָ נְדִיבֵי הָעָם – it was hewed by the generous hearted people of our nation (ibid.)

Identifying The Princes

Now actually, you can’t dig a well in the desert. It’s a figure of speech; the Torah is telling us that this gift of Hashem was brought to us by the merit of certain human benefactors. Who are these princes and generous hearted ones who caused this change in Hashem’s attitude towards us?

In Micha (6:4) the prophet, navi, states in the name of Hashem וָאֶשְׁלַח לְפָנֶיךָ אֶת מֹשֶׁה אַהֲרֹן וּמִרְיָם – I sent before you Moshe, Aharon and Miriam. Moshe, Aharon and Miriam were sent by Hakodosh Boruch Hu to change the character of the people. They were the ones tasked with this job of making the Bnei Yisroel a nation worthy of the favor of Hashem.

And though the Bnei Yisroel were already an excellent nation when they went out of Mitzrayim; Hashem loved them already then – they had been through so many privations; they had been perfected by the tzaros of Egypt – and they had remained loyal. And then they had seen so much of the greatness of Hashem! Yetzias Mitzrayim (the Exodus) ! Kriyas Yam Suf (The Splitting of the Red Sea)! The Manna falling! The nation was very great!

Pushing For Greatness

Nevertheless, Hakodosh Boruch Hu wanted still more of them. At Mount Snai,Matan Torah, He told them how much He was demanding of them. מִֽי יִתֵּן וְהָיָה לְבָבָם זֶה לָהֶם לְיִרְאָה אֹתִי ... כָּל הַיָּמִים – I want the attitude they had at Kabolas haTorah to continue always (Devarim 5:25).

Now, that’s almost impossible. That the nation should always be in the state of inspiration that they were at Matan Torah?! Yes, that’s what Hashem said. Kol hayomim means, “That’s what I want forever. I’m always pushing for that level of greatness.”

And so Moshe, Aharon and Miriam got busy working on us, making us better. Va’eshlach – I sent them for that, said Hashem. And they changed us! They improved us!

Perfecting A Nation

For forty years we were under the supervision of these great personalities! Moshe’s leadership alone would have been enough to change the nation but there was Aharon too who was helping him. And Miriam had a tremendous influence on the women. Remember at the Red Sea, shirat hayam, that Miriam went out and the women began to sing together with her, Ashira laHashem, I will sing to Hashem. It means that it wasn’t a one time thing. It was something Miriam always did. She was the teacher of the women.

And these three together worked for forty years – almost forty years – and they changed the nation! These great souls dug out that well by means of their perfection of character, their shleimut hamiddot and shleimut hada’at, and the nation began to become greater and greater in the eyes of Hashem. The people were changed from top to bottom until the entire nation gained the favor of Hashem!

And Hashem expressed that by the means of a gift that we didn’t even ask for. The waters of the well rose as a demonstration of Hashem’s love for them! It was a gift that meant the forty years wandering in the wilderness were a great success for our nation; they were the greatest years in the history of our people.

Rabbi Avigdor Miller zts"l was the renowned mashgiach ruchani at Chaim Berlin Yeshiva during the period that Rabbi Hutner led the yeshiva, and a prolific writer and speaker on Torah issues.



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