Parashat Hukat is about the death of a generation and its leaders. Miriam and Aaron die, and Moshe is informed by God that he, too, will die before entering the promised land. Moreover, the Midrash relates that by the time the Israelites arrive at the wilderness of Zin at the beginning of the parashah, the entire generation that was fated to die in the wilderness has been replaced. And yet the new generation does not seem all that different. As soon as they find themselves without water, they complain to Moshe: “Why did you make us leave Egypt to bring us to this wretched place” (20:4), they wail, even though it was in fact their parents’ generation who had been slaves in Egypt. Their complaints sound strikingly similar to those of their forbears, who cried out to Moshe when they found themselves without water following the splitting of the sea, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt!” (Exodus 16:3). What was the purpose of waiting for the generation of slaves to die out? Has anything changed? Is this new generation any more prepared to enter the promised land?
Towards the end of our parashah we find a hint that perhaps the Israelites have begun to mature at long last. The Torah, in chronicling the people’s wilderness wanderings, relates that they came to a place called Be’er, meaning a well of water. The issue of water has been very fraught for the Israelites, who first cried out in panic to Moshe when the waters of the Red Sea loomed before them and the Egyptians were giving chase; they then proceeded to complain each time they found themselves without sufficient water in the wilderness, as we have seen. And yet this time something has changed. When they arrive at Be’er and God gives them water, the Israelites break out in song: “Then Israel sang this song: Spring up, O well, sing to it, the well which the chieftans dug, which the nobles of the people started, with maces and with their own staffs” (21:17-18). Upon receiving water, they do not just drink it, feed their animals, and move on; rather, they burst out in a song of gratitude.
Moreover, the content of the song at Be’er suggests that the Israelites may have played an active role in procuring this water. They sing about how the well was dug by chieftains and started by nobles, perhaps suggesting that this time, instead of immediately turning to Moshe to complain about the lack of water, the people may have instead taken out their own maces and staffs and begun digging. They then celebrate the well they have dug, indicating that this generation was ready and able to provide for itself—unlike their ancestors, former slaves who expected God and their leaders to cater to their every need. A generation that will dig its own wells is certainly more suited to conquer a new land and begin building a new society.
The Israelites’ song at Be’er, introduced by the words “Az Yashir,” is all the more striking when considered in light of the earlier songs it echoes. These same words were used to introduce the Song of the Sea, which the Israelites sang immediately following the exodus from Egypt and the splitting of the sea. In the Talmud (Sotah 30b), Rabbi Akiva makes it clear that the Song of the Sea was Moshe’s initiative: “How did they sing this song? Like a man who recites Hallel, and the congregation listening merely recites after him the chapter headings. Moshe said ‘I will sing unto the Lord,’ and the people said after him, ‘I will sing unto the Lord.’” Rashi says the man in this analogy is someone who chants for the congregation so that they might repeat and thus fulfill their obligation, since they are unable to sing on their own. Another sage, Rabbi Nehemiah, draws the analogy to a schoolteacher who leads the Shema by reciting each blessing one by one for the congregation to repeat. According to both sages, the Song of the Sea was recited responsively, with the people merely repeating the words sung first by their leader Moshe. In contrast, the song at Be’er was sung by Israel alone, of their own initiative.
The song at Be’er does not echo just the Song of the Sea led by Moshe, but also a subsequent song led by Miriam. Following Moshe’s song, Miriam takes a timbrel and leads the women in song, exhorting them to “Sing to the Lord for He has triumphed gloriously” (Exodus 15:21). Unlike Moshe, who leads the people in responsive chanting, Miriam urges the women to sing on their own. Rabbi Benjamin Lau, in his book Etnachta (Yediot, 2009, untranslated), suggests that perhaps Miriam is training the people to be more independent – they need not merely echo the lines sung by Moshe, but can take their timbrels and sing of their own initiative. If so, then the song at Be’er—which appears towards the end of our parashah, after Miriam’s death—may reflect that the people have finally internalized Miriam’s message. With Aaron and Miriam no longer among them, and with Moshe soon to die, the people realize that they can no longer wait for their leaders to initiate the singing. It has to well up from inside them.
The two words that appear in the Torah immediately following the song at Be’er are “and from Midbar, Matana” (17:18). The Midbar is the Torah’s word for the wilderness, and Matana means gift. Is the Torah merely telling us that the Israelites journeyed from a place called Midbar to a place called Matana? Perhaps. Or perhaps the Israelites, who sing at Be’er of their own initiative, have finally learned to accept that even the wilderness can yield unexpected gifts. The Talmud (Eruvin 54a) teaches that “Matana” is a reference to the Torah, the gift given in the wilderness. As this new generation continues its journey through the wilderness toward the Promised Land, Torah will prove to be a gift that allows the people to find—and to sing—their own song.