Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk


            A fascinating phenomenon occurs in our parsha this week.  We have a thirty-eight year leap in the chronology.  The first half of the book of Numbers takes place in that second year after the exodus, as the Jews were theoretically preparing to enter the Land of Israel.  Well, that plan went down the tubes with the sin of the Spies.  However, we continue the story a few more chapters.  Until we reach chapter twenty, when two things happen.  First Miriam dies.  Then the miraculous well which had accompanied the Jews since the beginning of their sojourn in the desert disappears.   These two events take place at the beginning of the fortieth and last year in the desert.  The well disappears for two reasons, one miraculous and one prosaic.  The Midrash says that the well dried up because it existed on the merit of Miriam.  Her demise removed the well, and the nation was moving for the first time in a generation and they were leaving the oasis of Kadesh Barnea (probably Ain el-Qudeirat in the Wadi el-Ain, in the Northern Sinai on the Israeli-Egyptian border) to set out for Israel.  Interestingly, the last material from the first two years of the desert sojourn is the esoteric command to use the red heifer for the purposes of attaining ritual purity.  This strongly hints to the idea that the generation spent in the desert was to achieve a higher spiritual plane. 

            The earlier march was highlighted by a famous poem, the Song of the Sea (Exodus chapter 15).  This latter advance also has its triumphant poem, albeit less famous.  I'd like to analyze two aspects of this song's lyrics.  Here is its entirety:  Then Israel sang this song:  "Rise up, O well!  Sing about it, about the well that the princes dug, that the nobles of the people sank— the nobles with scepters and staffs (Numbers 21:17-18)."  Both songs begin with same two Hebrew words, namely az yashir, and are therefore compared by many commentaries.  There are many questions that we can ask about this short poem, but I'm going to limit myself to two. 

            The Slonimer Rebbe (Reb Shalom Noach Barzovsky, 1911-2000) in his Netivot Shalom asks why there is a poem extolling the miracle of the well, but no similar song for the miracle of the manna.  His answer is simple.  This poem is not really talking about water; it's extolling Torah.  Torah is the well from which all life springs, and the reference to rising or ascent means that this water is from the celestial fount, not the aquifer.  According to this rendition of the lyrics, the princes were the Patriarchs and founders of the nation who discovered God by exploring the hidden recesses of creation.  They found the true elixir of life (forget about Ponce de Leon and Johnny Depp) from which their progeny would drink deeply.  In reality the book of Genesis is filled references to wells and springs during the Patriarchal period.  Rivkah is discovered at a pool, Yitzchak redigs the wells of Avraham, and Ya'akov shows superhuman strength removing a boulder from the mouth of the well for his beloved Rachel.  The nobles in the poem are the heirs to this great tradition who must continue to provide spiritual sustenance to the nation.  These great successors to Moshe are not just passive bearers of the tradition they continue to dig deeply into this massive material for new insights, relevant to each new generation.  Their scepters and staffs are the new and old tools which every era of Torah scholars utilize to uncover the needed decisions for that age.

            The Sfat Emet (Reb Aryeh Leib Yehuda Alter of Gur, 1847-1905), on the other hand, asks a different but equally famous question.  Why isn't Moshe mentioned in this poem?  The other great poem, The Song of the Sea, begins with the fact that Moshe led the singing.  Why is our great shepherd absent from our song?  The Gerrer Rebbe explains that the former poem was a preparation for the receiving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai, in that episode Moshe was featured in the starring role.  However, this poem is the prelude to entering the Land of Israel.  Moshe will be missing from that installment.  So, many lessons are to be learned here.  First, we pave the way for our critical historical milestones by acknowledging our debt and connection to God.  No song, no rendezvous.  Second, every generation has to step up to take the place of those who came before.  Moshe's not mentioned because he's busy handing over the reins to the new leadership.  He's too busy tuning them, to sing himself. 

            But the most important message comes from the Sfat Emet's grandfather, the Chidushei Harim (Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Alter, 1799-1866).  Remember the water is a metaphor for Torah.   The term I translated as nobles is nedivei am, perhaps better rendered the generous of the nation.  The word nediv is often used for philanthropists.  So, the Chidushi Harim observes that if leadership has the proper attitude of working hard to benefit the community, of profound altruism and loyalty to God's laws, then they can find new Torah insights every where they turn.   He claims that Torah enlightenment is hidden throughout the Creation.  To increase and spread healthful, precious and pure Torah, we must see ourselves as heirs to Moshe.  After forty years in the desert the Jews were preparing to live a Torah destiny without Moshe.  We imbibe deeply from our mentors with the aim of furthering their goals, even without them.  This poem can't have Moshe in it.

            Every generation must find their song and sing it with gusto.  With the guidance of our worthy predecessors, we are required to humbly carry that effort forward recognizing the evolving essentials critical to new situations.  We must notice God's supervision and sing of God's glory within our contemporary context.  I just hope that we're not tone deaf to the lessons of the past and the needs of the future.   


You can subscribe to Rabbi Walk's weekly articles at WalkThroughTheParsha-subscribe@egroups.com