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   by Jacob Solomon

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Parashat Chukat contains the 'shirat ha-be-air' - the Song of the Well.

It is an extremely difficult passage to place in context, and for that matter to offer a simple translation. The Israelites were progressing place by place, steadily, towards their final destination in the Holy Land. And en route: 'from there (the River Arnon) to the well - the place of which G-d said to the Israelites: "Gather the people and I will give them water"' (21:16).

Rashi quoting the Midrash, puts the song in the context of a spectacular miracle. The enemy Amorite men of war tucked themselves snugly in a narrow valley, in ambush of the advancing Israelites. Before they could 'open fire' on them down below, the walls of the valley quaked, moved together, and crushed them. The enemy torrents of blood rushed downhill to the well. The Israelites grasped the miracle and salvation on their behalf and spontaneously burst into a song of gratitude: 'the Song of the Well'. (Readers might bear in mind that the geographic region is tectonically unstable.)

However, the context given by the text is 'Gather the people and I (G-d) will give them water'.

Did not the Israelites always have water in the desert, apart from on one or two specific occasions? What is the background to this particular well? What makes it the subject of the short song? (my translation):

'Come up, O well! Respond [to the song].
This is the well dug by princes, cut out by nobles, with the stick of he that gives the law.
It is a gift from the desert.
From that gift are watered dry valleys; indeed that gift [brings water whenever needed, whether] lowland or highland, even to the valley of the field of Moab' (21:17-20).

In explanation, the text states that the Israelites travelled from the far side of the Arnon River (21:13) 'to the well' (21:16). This is an important detail. That river (Wadi Mujib in Jordan) flows some 70 km. down to the eastern side of the Dead Sea, which has a gentle flow in summer and a torrent in the winter. So the Israelites moved from where there was water to the dry wilderness; to where they once more were in immediate need of fresh water to survive.

But they did not complain to Moses, as earlier on in the Parasha. Moses did what G-d told him: 'Gather the people and I will give them water' (21:16). He started to dig - 'cut out by nobles with the stick of he that gives the law' and hit the right spot (where natural underground water supplies were almost at the surface). And that was the 'gift from the desert' whether desert lowland or desert highland - namely springs of water very near the surface, identifiable by those close to G-d who knew exactly where to make an incision on the surface and the water would stream outů Water located and opened up by Moses - 'the lawgiver' himself.

So the weight of the song points to the Israelites' credit. They did not grumble when they went from water to no water. They waited patiently until the source of water was exposed by Moses - and in spontaneous song of gratitude, recognized the Hand of G-d in guiding Moses to the right spot, and gave thanks to Moses for supplying them with that life-preserving fluid.

For those looking for more comprehensive material, questions and answers on the Parasha may be found at and on the material on the Haftara at .

Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.

Parashiot from the First, Second, and Third Series may be viewed on the Shema Yisrael web-site:

Also by Jacob Solomon:
From the Prophets on the Haftara

Test Yourself - Questions and Answers


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