|Lack of water was a constant problem during the desert trek and a persistent test of the people’s faith. At critical junctures, when the people complained to God about this problem, God consistently responded to the people’s pleas and provided water. Yet, only towards the end of the forty-year trek did the people answer God’s beneficence with a song of praise:
And from there to Be’er, which is the well of which the Lord said to Moshe: ‘Gather the people, that I may give them water,’ Then did Israel sing this song:
Rise up, O well! Sing out to it.
Well, that princes dug,
The people’s nobles dug it,
With a scepter, even with their own staffs.” (Numbers 21:16-17)
The location of this somewhat obscure song in the plot of the book of Numbers preoccupied the sages at least as much as did fathoming its meaning. Midrash Tanhuma (7th century Eretz Yisrael) posed this question:
This song was said at the end of forty years, while the well had been given to them at the beginning of forty years. What did Scripture see to write here on this subject? (Tanhuma Hukat 20)
Curiously, the Sfat Emet, the second Gerer Rebbe, Rabbi Yehuda Aryeh Lieb Alter, when he confronted this question, skipped over a number of the Tanhuma’s answers, instead focusing on the midrash’s interpretation of two verses of the song as the most relevant answer to the question:
‘Well, that the princes dug.’ – Was it dug there? It is simply that it was given through the merit of the ancestors who were called princes. Thus, it is stated: ‘He opened a rock, and water gushed out […]. For he remembered His holy promise and His servant Abraham.’ (Psalms 105:41-42)
‘The people’s nobles dug with the scepter, even with their own staffs.’ The princes stood by it, and each and every one drew [the water] with his own staff for his own tribe and for his own family. (Tanhuma Hukat 21)
Avraham is presented in this midrash as God’s inspiration for blessing the people with water and the leaders of the people are praised for providing for the needs of their dependents, but there is no apparent interface with the question posed by the midrash. However, in the hands of the Sfat Emet’s allegorical reinterpretation of this midrash, the placement of the song in the storyline bears a significant religious message:
The answer to this question can be found in the interpretation of the verses of the song. The ‘well that the princes dig’ – refers to the beginning of the opening of the source of holiness was accomplished by the great ones, namely, they were dug by the ancestors. And my grandfather (the first Gerer rebbe) interpreted that the ‘princes’ were those who controlled their inclinations. ’And the people’s nobles dug’[deeper]’ – refers to the common folks who through generosity [of spirit], will, and the desire to serve their Creator, may He be blessed’. For since the ‘wells’ were opened by the great ones, the regular folks were able to find in them their even deeper connection. And on this account the regular folk were able to dig even deeper and bring God’s light into the world… to the depths of the lower world, where the Tzadikim – the elite righteous cannot reach. This is why Moshe, peace be upon him, was not mentioned in this song, for now began a new generation… (adapted from Sfat Emet Hukat 5638, Or Etzion ed. p. 205)
And here rests the answer to our question. For the Sfat Emet, this song is perfectly placed because it announces a new beginning. The new generation must deepen the wells of God’s spirit and spread it to places where the religious giants of previous generations could not reach. For the Sfat Emet, this is not a mission to be shouldered exclusively by the elite – the “rabbis and professionals”, rather, the real heroes who will carry out the “deepening of the wells and spreading of God’s message are you and me.