So much is happening in Chukat — water shortages, the snakes and the nachash ha-n’choshet, the copper serpent (what’s that all about?), the red heifer — that we forget about two verses known as Shirat Ha-Be’er, “The Song of the Well” [Numbers 21:17-18), seemingly a sideshow. Not at all: these two verses are the turning point in the Book of Numbers. “Spring up, O well — sing to it / The well that the princes dug / Which the nobles of the people started / By the direction of the lawgiver, with their staffs.”
Rabbi David Silber notes that among the important questions that we ought to be asking when studying Chumash is why a particular text is placed where it is. In Chukat, why is “The Song of the Well” positioned where it is? What is this little song, just two verses long, all about? Indeed, what is the function, the purpose, of any song (shirah) in the Chumash?
The function of shirah in Tanach is to be a marker — to set off a section from what precedes it and what follows it.
Where is “The Song of the Well” positioned in Numbers? It comes right before the story of the defeat of Sichon, king of the Canaanite Amorites — one of the most important stories in the entire Tanach. We are now at the beginning of the capture of the Land of Israel. “The Song of the Well” is a transitional moment. Right before the song the narrative is about wandering, minor skirmishes (which the Israelites lose), water shortages. Immediately following the song is the defeat of Sichon — the beginning of the conquest of the Land.
When we study the Torah it is necessary to compare similar texts. The great piece of shirah in the Chumash is, of course, Shirat Ha-Yam (“The Song of the Sea”) in Exodus 15, also a transitional text, separating the leaving of Egypt from the narratives of the desert journeys. The lead-in verses of each song is identical: “Az yashir” (then-or-thus sang), telling us about the function of the song. But in all other respects the two songs are opposites: “The Song of the Sea” is all about Moses (“Az yashir Moshe,” “Thus sang Moses”), and more important, about God, His exploits, how God vanquished the pagan gods of Egypt, how he caused the rulers of the world to quake with fear.
“The Song of the Well” is different. Look at the text — it’s very short. Missing is any mention of God, any mention of Moses. It’s all about “m’chokek” (leader), “n’divim” (nobles), “sarim” (princes). “The Song of the Well” begins “Az yashir Yisrael” (Thus sang Israel), differentiating it from “The Song of the Sea,” which begins Az yashir Moshe — Moses). “The Song of the Well” is about themselves, the Israelites, not about Moses or God. It’s a second-generation story: Miriam dies, Aaron dies. Moses will soon die. The leaders are gone. The second generation are no longer the slaves that left Egypt, the generation that constantly complains to return to Egypt. The second generation can and will capture the Land. As Rabbi Silber suggests, the danger in Bamidbar is one of under-dependency (“It’s all about us”), no dependence on God or Moses.
“The Song of the Sea” in Exodus presents a different message. There is nothing about the people, who are still emotionally insecure slaves. At the “Sea,” the danger is over-dependency on God and leadership. Their slave mentality would preclude their entering the Land. By the time the Book of Numbers comes around, the Israelites are a nation of princes — the “sarim” referred to in “The Song of the Well” — and they don’t need God.
Rabbi Silber suggests that the synthesis of the two songs comes in the third great song — Shirat Devorah, “The Song of Deborah” (which incidentally is the haftarah for “The Song of the Sea”). Shirat Devorah is also a marker, marking off one narrative from another. It comes at the end of the conquest of the Land of Israel — indeed, the final conquest in the Book of Judges. “The Song of Deborah” is where it all comes together: the role of God in the conquest, and the role of the people (“ha-mitnadvim ba’am”), those who stepped up to the plate, and hit the ball out of the park. (Those who did not step up to the plate are singled out for special scorn by Deborah, important to note as well.)
We can now understand where The Book of Numbers fits in the larger sweep of the Torah’s narrative. If Genesis is about family conflict, family reconciliation and ultimately about family-building, and Exodus is about community and nation-building, starting with a people who have no names nor identity (see Chapter 2 of Exodus), ending with the building of the Tabernacle, the physical representation of peoplehood, of identity, then Numbers is about Israel’s coming of age, the second generation, beginning the conquest of the Land they’re now poised to enter.
The two verses of Shirat Ha-Be’er, “The Song of the Well,” far from being just a nice little piece of poetry plopped down randomly in the text, tells us, in two exceptionally concentrated verses, about the transition from wandering community to a nation in its own land.
Jerome Chanes, senior fellow at The Center for Jewish Studies at the CUNY Graduate Center, is the editor of “The Future of American Judaism.” He is the author of four books on Jewish public affairs and history.
Shabbat Candles: 8:09 p.m.
Torah: Num. 19:1-22:1
Haftarah: Judges 11:1-33
Havdalah: 9:09 p.m.