Then Israel Sang: Leadership Variation

“Then,” after safely crossing the Sea of Reeds, the Egyptians’ pursuit thwarted, “Moses and the Israelites sang…Miriam took her timbrel…and all the women followed her” (Exodus/Shemot 15:1, 20-21). “Then” — forty years later, after God tells Moses: “Assemble the people that I may give them water” (Numbers/Bamidbar 21:16) and without apparent prompting or leading — “Israel sang this song:”

Come up, O well — sing to it —
The well which the chieftans dug,
which the nobles of the people started
With maces, with their own staffs.
–Numbers/Bamidbar 21:17-18 (JPS translation**)

With and Without Leadership

The Rabbis (Sotah 30a**) suggest several ways of understanding Moses’ role in the Song of the Sea:

1) Moses was like an adult leading Hallel, with others reciting a chorus;
2) Moses was like a minor leading Hallel, with others joining in on every word;
3) Moses was like a school-teacher leading the Shema, reciting words repeated by students.

Bialik and Ravnitsky re-tell the third version, adding:

But after forty years [in the wilderness], Israel grew up and on their own proceeded to chant the Song of the Well, as is said, “Then sang Israel.”
— 74:90, The Book of Legends**

This seems a point worth considering: However the mechanics worked at the Sea of Reeds, the Israelites were relying on their leader in an essential way; forty years later, they are taking the initiative on their own.

The sans-leader approach, lauded by some commentators as showing maturity, is thought limited by others: The Israelites could not have attained, through their own efforts, the spiritual heights available to them with the help of Moses (The early 20th Century mussar commentary, Michtav MeEliayhu, e.g., cited in the Stone chumash,**).

Clearly the overall Bamidbar/Numbers narrative is moving toward a future for the people without their leaders of 40+ years. But this passage in particular also asks an important, age-old question about worship: How do we balance the need for leadership — and the obvious benefits of following gifted worship leaders — with the need to develop individual and communal resources? How can we promote, and make the best use of, both?

Bring Me a Little Water

There is nothing in this portion to suggest that women (alone) are responsible for the Song at the Well. But there is every reason to believe that women in the ancient world did most of the water-hauling work, as they do in much of the world today.

A song like the one quoted briefly here may have been part of a pre-Torah ritual for enticing water up from a well, as some scholars believe. And/or, as others suggest, songs were part of the culture of women gathered at the well, singing as they completed the hard, and often time-consuming, work of raising water to the surface before carrying it wherever it had to go.

Amy Brookman wrote about associating Huddie William Ledbetter’s song, “Bring Me Little Water Sylvie,” with this history. (The internet link in this blog does not work for me; others below.)

Here are some great versions of that song:

Leadbelly’s version
—a Sweet Honey in the Rock version
— a “Teaching Demo” from the musical/body percussion group VOCO

I think the “demo,” particularly, beautifully evokes the men’s work in the field, the women’s hauling effort, and the universal need for life-giving connection, “every once in a while.”

The Talmud tractate Rosh Hashanah says the Song of the Well was part of the minchah liturgy at the Temple every third Shabbat, while the Song of the Sea was divided into two parts, one sung on each of the intervening weeks (31a). The ancient liturgy gave a prominent role to the huge, one-time, landscape-changing miracle at the Sea. It also sang –“every once in a while,” if you will — of the more ordinary-seeming, water-when-needed, miracle.

(The gruesome midrash to Numbers 21 [Tanchuma, Bialik and Ravnitsky], about cliffs moving to crush hidden Amorites intent on evil, seems intended to put the Sea and the Well songs on an equal level [almost as though the two incidents were competing summer adventure movies]. But I think that’s missing the point… or my point, anyway.)

A Bubbling Source

It is true that women, historically and artistically, were associated with water and wells:

BERURIAH THE SCHOLAR TEACHES: Women and wells are often linked in the Torah….And the Rabbis tell of a miraculous well associated with Miriam that sustains the Israelites in the desert.

OUR DAUGHTERS ASK: What connects women to wells?

MOTHER RACHEL ANSWERS: Like water bubbling up mysteriously from the earth, nurturing fluids issue forth from women’s bodies: menstrual blood to nourish life, the waters of birth, breast milk — and so many tears.
— p.227, Ellen Frankel, The Five Books of Miriam,**

And if women are linked at all to Torah by the Rabbis, it is usually through water. “Miriam’s well” was spiritual nourishment according to teachers ancient and contemporary. The ancient liturgical division — one part Song of the Well for every two parts Song of the Sea — thus seems to honor, however obliquely, the feminine in the Exodus story.

I am reminded, here, too, of stories of the U.S. Civil Rights movement: For the most part, pulpit and protest leaders were men; when things got tense, however, women raised their voices to start the community singing, providing a necessary dose of courage and/or diffusing a bad situation. Women in the U.S. Civil Rights movement rarely had the impossible-to-miss leadership roles, like those evident in the crossing of the Sea. Instead, they demonstrated a bubbling-up kind of leadership role — frequently overlooked, but life-saving when most needed — like that at the Well.

But bubbling-up leadership is not exclusively a woman’s attribute, nor is it the only style of leadership open to women today. So, perhaps, the real focus should be on honoring different styles of leadership and on different community needs:

We need strong spiritual leaders who can help communities reach for something they might not grasp — or even reach out to grab — on their own.

But we also need individuals and communities bubbling up with ideas and prayer and song.

And we have to find ways to nurture both.

“Come up, O well, sing to it!
The well which the chieftans dug…

“…Sylvie come running, bucket in my hand.
I will bring a little water, fast as I can.”

** See Source Materials for full citations and more details.

Search-saving links to other posts on the portion Chukat
38-year white space

Another bit of quoted poetry

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Virginia hosts "Conversations Toward Repair" on We Act Radio, manages, blogs on general stuff a and more Jewish topics at and

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