By Rabbi Dorit Edut
Modern Israeli songs and poetry are filled with sharp contrasts such as the famous song “Al Kol Eleh” — “For All of These,” which begin as follows: “For the honey and for the stinger,
For the bitter and for the sweet …”
This embracing of life’s dualities can be seen even in the pages of the Torah and the poetry it contains.
In this week’s portion, for example, we have two excerpts of two very different poems that interrupt the narrative, adding new tones and special insights to what is otherwise an account of the travels of the Israelites as they come to the borders of the Promised Land.
In the first poem, in Numbers 21:17-18, we have what is called “The Song of the Well” (it begins like the “Song of the Sea” of Exodus 15:1). It seems to be a plea for the waters of the well to come forth from the Earth as they had previously done during Miriam’s life, enabling the tribal leaders to dig or use their rods to mark such spots. One of the commentators (Tosefta, “Sukkah 73”) explained that each tribal leader would draw a line from the well with his staff to the area of his tribe and the waters would begin to flow there so that there were actually small rivers flowing between the location of each tribe in the encampment.
Later commentators (Midrash Aggadah) even saw in this whole poem an allegorical reference to the Torah as the wellspring of all wisdom and success, transforming the entire nation into one of nobility that knew how to properly serve God in their lives.
Can we relate to this as we face the problems of numerous droughts, floods and the dramatic changes in the Arctic ice shelves and our oceans’ water levels because of global warming? Will we even be able to sing the praises of the beautiful life-sustaining waters of our Earth if we don’t use our knowledge and political acumen to bring about widespread changes in our lifestyles that will preserve our precious but limited resources? On a spiritual level, are we not also faced with the potential drying up of the wells of Judaism if we do not continue to dig deeply ourselves and ask our children, friends and neighbors to do so, too?
In Numbers 21:27-30, we hear of the triumph of King Sihon of the Amorites who captured the Moabites’ lands and gloried in this victory. Yet the last four lines are a total reversal of tone and of fortune, telling of the Israelite victory over Sihon and the capture of these same lands. Our Talmudic sages (Tractate “Hullin”) took these lines as a warning for Israel and the world that first, God can help change the course of events of all nations for His own purposes; and second, that we consider whether we are using our resources wisely to perform mitzvot and succeed in life or living without self-control, gratifying our desires but ultimately leaving destruction behind us and meaninglessness in our future.
We Jews have a responsibility to speak up and act to help guide our world to live with a clear and positive vision of the future, to redirect those forces that have steered us off this path and to overcome those who would gratify their own selfish desires without regard to the lives of the people around them.
We can restore the living waters of the well of sanity and abundance for all humanity; we need not rely on the fires of forces that would destroy or conquer others because those same flames can turn against us. Instead, let us give thanks for the blessings that God gives us and courageously do what it takes to bring peace and hope into every corner of our world.
Rabbi Dorit Edut teaches, counsels and runs the Detroit Interfaith Outreach Network