The Song of the Well
In the book of Numbers (21:17-20) we are told that Israel sang a song about the well that accompanied them in the desert. The Talmud teaches that this song was part of a tri-weekly cycle of songs that were recited in the Temple over the afternoon offering on the Sabbath. The other two songs in this series were two paragraphs from the song recorded in the book of Exodus (15:1-21).
We need to understand the significance of this song, and how it stands in line with the song that Israel sang when they were saved from Pharaoh and his army.
We are inspired to sing when we see the harmony that arises from a complete picture. Until Israel saw the Egyptians dead at the edge of the sea, the picture of redemption from Egypt was not complete. But when they saw that the Egyptians will never threaten them again, they understood how all of the events were brought together by God in perfect harmony to lead to this moment of complete redemption. And this view of the harmonious whole is the subject of the Song of the Sea.
At the end of forty years of wandering in the desert, Israel looked back at their survival in a place that does not support life. Civilization is established upon rivers and oceans (Psalm 24:2). When we describe a city in a Jewish legal document we speak of the source of water upon which it is based. A desert is not a place for human habitation. But God gave Israel its own source of water upon which it could establish its life, a source that is not tied down to any place. This source of water is given to them as a gift from God. They realized that with this well, God placed Israel’s survival on a separate plane from that of other nations. Israel is a nation apart, a nation that is not tied down to the material world.
Our Sages explain that the Song of the Well is also a song about God’s holy Law. The Law of God is Israel’s life force. With the Torah in their hearts, Israel could survive anywhere. The civilization of Israel is established on the banks of the Torah. And without the Torah, we lose our identity as a nation and we cannot survive.
This is the harmonious picture that Israel saw at the end of the forty years of wandering in the desert. They saw how God had given them a source of life that is tied to nothing but to their loyalty to Him. And they realized that this is the wondrous story of Israel’s future as well.
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Yisroel C. Blumenthal