Shirat HaBe’eir by Netanel Paley


Among the several enigmatic narratives the Torah presents in Parashat Chukat is the Shirat HaBe’eir which Bnei Yisrael sing after the Be’eir (Miryam’s well, a stone) ceases to provide water. As the Netziv explains in his introduction to his Ha’amek Daver on Sefer BeMidbar, the cessation of open miracles, like the Be’eir, the Ananei HaKavod (heavenly clouds), and the Man, is part of Hashem’s plan to help Bnei Yisrael make a smooth transition into life in Eretz Yisrael. There, Hashem’s Presence would not be as obvious as it is during Bnei Yisrael’s sojourns in the desert. Parashat Chukat, the Netziv suggests, is the first Parashah to discuss this year-long transition, which takes place in the 40th year of Bnei Yisrael’s travels in the desert. This is a time for Bnei Yisrael to reflect on their closeness to Hashem and the open miracles which they have experienced in the Midbar. Bnei Yisrael are to utilize those experiences to help them establish Eretz Yisrael as a homeland vibrant with Kedushah. As such, a Shirah is particularly appropriate for the time. Bnei Yisrael have just parted with the miracle that was the Be’eir and now praise Hashem for providing them with it in addition to spiritually uplifting the nation in preparation for entrance into Eretz Yisrael.

Yet it is nonetheless difficult to understand why Bnei Yisrael choose to sing now. Granted, according to some commentaries, the Be’eir has returned after it had departed upon Miryam’s passing. But, this only adds the question of why Bnei Yisrael do not sing Shirah before its departure. Why do they not appreciate it until it is gone?

The answer to this question requires that we examine the nature of Shirah, an exuberant expression of God’s praises that bursts forth directly from the Neshamah (soul) and reflects absolute faith and trust in Hashem. Rav Gedalyahu Schorr zt”l, in his sefer Ohr Gedalyahu, develops a beautiful idea that the highest, purest form of song is one that originates in complete trust in Hashem, particularly after experiencing a difficulty that appears needless and unfair. Regarding Shirat HaYam, for instance, Bnei Yisrael instantly realize that the entire Ge’ulah process, including the exile in Mitzrayim, is part of Hashem’s plan to shape His chosen nation and to promulgate Kavod Shamayim (respect for Heaven). Bnei Yisrael, therefore, erupt in song overflowing with Emunah that Hashem was, is, and always will be with them, even in times of distress. This is the essence of Shirah – the recognition that everything Hashem does is for our own good.

In a way, the same is true when Bnei Yisrael sing Shirat HaBe’eir. As the Netziv points out (BeMidbar 21:16 s.v. Be’eirah), there is a general rule that one does not praise Hashem for a miracle, either with Berachah or Shirah, until that miracle is complete. Why is that so? The Netziv does not elaborate as to the rationale behind this principle, but perhaps we can suggest an answer based on Rav Schorr’s understanding of Shirah. Practically speaking it is not ideal to sing Shirah while a miracle is taking place, simply because one does not know exactly what will happen next. Perhaps, for example, the circumstances will become difficult shortly after and preclude one from expressing his or her gratitude to Hashem to the fullest extent of his or her ability. However, when a miracle or any kind of salvation reaches its culmination, one finally has the peace of mind to reflect on the past and truly express the belief that everything that happened – good and bad – was part of Hashem’s master plan. Only then can he or she properly burst forth in song, cognizant of Hashem’s eternal love and active involvement in his or her life.

When the Be’eir leaves them, Bnei Yisrael realize that Hashem was with them every step of the difficult journey of maturation through the Midbar. Now that they understand, they celebrate their relationship with Him as well as their new spiritual level with Shirah. Indeed, only after finding Hashem in all aspects of their lives can they move on to Eretz Yisrael. There they must look deeper and with stronger Emunah and Bitachon in order to appreciate Hashem’s miracles and kindnesses, no longer as obvious as they had been in the Midbar.

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