From the Sfas Emes blog
In this week’s parsha the nation sings tribute to the well which miraculously followed them during their forty year sojourn in the desert. “בְּאֵר חֲפָרוּהָ שָׂרִים כָּרוּהָ נְדִיבֵי הָעָם בִּמְחֹקֵק בְּמִשְׁעֲנֹתָם וּמִמִּדְבָּר מַתָּנָה/The well carved by princes, dug out by the generous of the people, by the lawgiver, with their staff. From the desert, it was a gift.” (Bemidbar 21:18)
The Chiddushei HaRim explains that digging a well in search of water is a metaphor for the search to uncover the Godliness hidden in the physical world. This Godliness, or spirituality is the light of the Torah that is in every component of the Creation. The Chiddushei HaRim says that the well represents specifically Torah Shebe’al Peh (lit. the Oral Law). This is because the essence of Torah Shebe’al Peh is our ability to create and produce חִידוּשׁ/novelty through our Torah learning.
The Sfas Emes broadens this idea. According to the Sfas Emes the essence of Torah shebe’al Peh includes not only the novelty we produce through our Torah learning, but any novelty that we produce that involves a revelation of the hidden spiritual light that permeates the Creation. Torah shebe’al Peh, then, represents our effective action in this world. Bringing the Torah’s light into the physical world and uncovering the Godliness in the Creation is one and the same thing. It is the reason we exist.
How do we produce such novelty? How do we reveal the hidden spiritual light inherent in every part of the Creation? Following the metaphor through the pasuk, we can learn how to reveal the hidden light of the Torah.
“חֲפָרוּהָ שָׂרִים/carved by princes” – The princes in the metaphor are those who have succeeded in ruling over their natural inclinations.
“כָּרוּהָ נְדִיבֵי הָעָם/dug out by the generous of the people” – The generous of the nation are those who direct their generosity and desires towards the service of God alone. Because they align their own will with God’s so that all their activities are an expression of God’s will, they reveal God’s will – the hidden light – in everything they do and with everything that they come into contact.
“בִּמְחֹקֵק/by the lawgiver” – The lawgiver represents the boundaries that are built into the Creation. God is infinite and His bounty is infinite. We finite beings and by extension the entire Creation cannot receive God’s infinite revelation. So God restricts His revelation, as it were. He reveals Himself to us in measured doses so that we can experience Him. Everything in the Creation is governed by boundaries. We too, by working within the boundaries that God built in to the world, moderating our actions and practicing balance, can draw out the light of the Torah in the measured doses that we can receive.
“בְּמִשְׁעֲנֹתָם/with their staff” – Even though Torah sheBe’al Peh represents our ability to create and produce novelty, the ultimate effectiveness of our actions is completely dependent on God. The staff alludes to our reliance on God for all things.
“וּמִמִּדְבָּר מַתָּנָה/and from the desert it was a gift” – When we realize that we do not merit anything as a result of our own efforts, rather it is God who helps us in everything we do, we experience His revelation as a gift.