Rabbi Rephael Katz
Former Rosh Kollel in Johannesburg (1997-2000)
Parshat chukat describes some of the last journeys of the exodus. Whilst Bnei Yisrael were in the Arnon River area (differing opinions as to the exact location) they sang a song of praise – the “Song of the Well”:
The Torah records:
“It was then that Israel sang this song.
‘Rise ,O well, respond to [this song].
A well was dug by princes,
Sunk by the people’s leaders,
Carved out with their staffs.’
From the Desert to Matanah ….
and from Bamot to Hagai etc”. [Translation R’ A’ Kaplan.]
Rashi explains this enigmatic passage as follows:
When Israel was in the Arnon River area G-d inflicted a devastating blow to their enemies. Bnei Yisrael, however, were unaware of this miraculous salvation and it only became apparent when The Well “gathered” the blood of the enemy and displayed it to the people.
In the context of giving thanks to G-d for the miracle of their salvation they proceeded to praise G-d for the miracle of The Well itself which had accompanied the people for the last forty years.
The “princes” who dug The Well refers to Moshe and Aharon who forty years ago struck the rock providing water, and who now, after Miriam’s death, again struck the rock – bringing water and The Well.
Rashi notes a peculiarity – Moshe is not mentioned in connection with the ‘Song of The Well’, in contrast to the song recited after the splitting of ‘Yam Suf’, ” Moshe and Bnei Yisrael then sang this song to G-d, saying.”
Rashi quotes Midrash Rabbah, that since the’ Rock-Well’ was a factor in Moshe’s punishment of being denied entry to Eretz Yisrael – it was inappropriate for him to sing praise to The Well. In the words of the Midrash “[Even if one is guilty] one doesn’t extol his executioner!”
Moshe’s conduct reflects an integral, comprehensive system of Divine service.
We recall that he abstained from smiting the Nile River (transforming the water to blood) because the Nile River “sheltered and saved his life”. In Moshe’s view the trait of gratitude extends to neutral inanimate objects as well. In our parsha we see the consistency of Moshe’s relating to neutral inanimate objects – if the inanimate object is a factor not only in saving but also in executing (as the midrash says), then that object cannot be praised despite it being associated with miracles.
Not smiting the Nile is not merely a stringency regarding gratitude but it also reflects Moshe’s greatness ,that his world-view related to the ‘spiritual nature’ of objects generally.