Parashat Hukat / Water and Wealth in the Wilderness

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'Moses Striking Water from the Rock,' by Nicolas Poussin, 1633-1635.Credit: Wikimedia

In the account of the Children of Israel’s journey through the wilderness to the Promised Land, the Torah describes in some detail one of the places they reached: Be’er (which literally means “well”): “And from thence to Be’er; that is the well whereof the Lord said unto Moses: ‘Gather the people together, and I will give them water.’ Then sang Israel this song: Spring up, O well, sing ye unto it.

“The well, which the princes dug, which the nobles of the people delved, with the scepter, and with their staves. And from the wilderness to Mattanah; and from Mattanah to Nahaliel; and from Nahaliel to Bamoth; and from Bamoth to the valley that is in the field of Moab, at the foot of the mountain from whose peak one looketh down upon the desert” (Numbers 21:16-20).

In their song of praise about this well, in this week’s Torah portion, Hukat (Numbers 19:1-22:1), the Children of Israel describe how it was dug by “princes the nobles of the people” – namely, Moses and Aaron. According to Rashi and other commentators, the next two Hebrew words, bimihokek bimisha’anotam (with the scepter, and with their staves), refer to Moses’ staff, also a symbol of his leadership. In a literal reading, the words that follow – “And from the wilderness to Mattanah” – describe the various stations Israel passes in its journey through the desert: Mattanah, Nahaliel, Bamoth and the valley in Moab. The valley is described in precise geographical detail: It is situated in a field at the foot of a mountain from whose peak one has a breathtaking view of the wilderness, namely, the desert of Moab.

When the sages read this list of places, they interpreted it as part of the song of praise Israel sang about the well. According to their interpretation in the Babylonian Talmud, these are the places that Israel passes, along with the well which is mobile and supplies them with water during their trek: “The well that accompanied Israel in the desert was like a giant rock that was full of holes and from which water trickled . It would climb the hills with them and go down to the valleys with them. Wherever Israel camped, it camped with them on high ground opposite the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. The princes of Israel, the leaders of the Twelve Tribes, would surround the well, holding their staffs, and sing: ‘Spring up, O well, sing ye unto it.’

“The water would bubble up and spring forth heavenward like a pillar and each of the princes would draw part of the flow with his staff for his tribe and for his family, as it is written, ‘The well, which the princes dug, which the nobles of the people delved, with the scepter, and with their staves ...’ The well surrounded all of the Israelite camp, irrigating the earth of the wilderness, as it is written, ‘one looketh down upon the desert,’ and dividing itself into huge rivers, as it is written, ‘and streams overflowed’ [Psalms 78:20].

“The Israelites would sit in small boats and visit with one another, as it is written, ‘they ran, a river in the dry places’ [Pss. 105:41]. Those who wanted to ascend to the right of the camp did so, and those who wanted to ascend to the left did as well. The water flowing from the rock became a mighty stream that flowed into the Great Sea, from which the Israelites would bring all the world’s treasures, as it is written, ‘These forty years the Lord thy God hath been with thee; thou hast lacked nothing’ [Deuteronomy 2:7]” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sukkah, Tosefta 3:11-13).

The well depicted here is as a giant rock full of holes, from which abundant water flows. This rock accompanies Israel as it wanders through the wilderness to the Promised Land. In a wall painting of the well that was discovered amid the ruins of the third-century synagogue in Dura-Europos in Syria, one can see a comprehensive, visual expression of the description of the well that appears in the above midrash: The well emits abundant water opposite the entrance to the Tent of Meeting and this water flows in 12 separate streams, one for each of the Tribes of Israel. The well meanders with the Children of Israel through the wilderness, surrounding their camp and irrigating the arid land of the desert.

In the above midrashic depiction, the Israelite camp becomes a small-scale Venice-like city. This depiction is based on what is said in Psalms about Moses’ sin in striking the rock – instead of speaking to it – in order to extract water from it: “Behold, He smote the rock, that waters gushed out, and streams overflowed” (Ps. 78:20). These mighty streams connect the different parts of the camp to one another and, in order to go from one tent to the next, the Israelites have to use small boats.

Psalms 105 also recounts Israel’s adventures in the wilderness and states that God “opened the rock, and waters gushed out; they ran, a river in the dry places” (Psalms 105:41).

According to a literal reading, the subject of the verb halkhu (went or ran) is mayim (water); in that interpretation, the river flows through the wilderness (batziot). However, the midrash sees the Children of Israel as the subject of the verb; in its interpretation, the Israelites must use boats to go from place to another (in the terminology of the classical rabbinical authorities, the verb heh-lamed-khaf, to go, also meant “to travel by boat/ship”).

They Israelites follow the route running to the right of the camp and then return via the path to the left of the camp (the rivers in this image surround the Israelites’ tents and enable two-directional traffic in the water). The streams merge into a huge river flowing from the Israelite camp to the Great Sea, a reference to the Mediterranean, thereby enabling far-flung commercial ties and – most importantly – the importing of “all the world’s treasures” into the Israelite camp in the Sinai desert.

Why did the sages feel the need to expand the story of the well beyond the wondrous proportions that the biblical narrative presents us with? The midrash ends with a verse that alludes to the source of the midrash’s inspiration: “For the Lord thy God hath blessed thee in all the work of thy hand; he hath known thy walking through this great wilderness. These forty years the Lord thy God hath been with thee; thou hast lacked nothing” (Deut. 2:7).

According to a literal interpretation of this text, God provides his children with food and water during their wandering through the desert on the way to the Promised Land. But the words “thou hast lacked nothing” mean that all the needs of the members of the Israelite camp in the desert were satisfied – at least in terms of the sages’ own criteria. In the their era, life in Palestine, which was at the time a small Roman province on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean, was dependent, to a large extent, on the maritime routes that brought in all of the riches offered by the Mediterranean basin.

The sages, according to Raphael Patai, in his book “Jewish Shipmanship” (in Hebrew), were familiar with the many products that reached them from overseas: dried figs, wines, leeks, wheat, fruit, fish oil, salt, etc.

The sages were not satisfied with the biblical image of the Israelite camp moving through the desert under God’s close supervision, receiving all its needs from him and relying on no external source of sustenance except for the well dug by Moses and Aaron. The well was conveniently used by the sages as a breathtaking image: The well was, as it were, dispatched to the Mediterranean and turned the wandering Israelite camp into a large-scale, economic marvel enjoying a life of abundance thanks to maritime commerce.

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