The Challenge of a New Beginning

Ya’an lo he’emantem bi l’hakdisheini (Bamidbar 20:12)

After the death of Miriam, the well that supplied the Jewish people with water during their travels in the wilderness in her merit disappeared, and the Jews had nothing to drink. They began to complain to Moshe and Aharon, questioning why they had brought them to die in the wilderness. Moshe and Aharon went to seek guidance from Hashem, Who instructed Moshe to speak to a rock, which would produce water for the thirsty people to drink. Although Moshe did indeed bring forth water from the rock, Rashi writes (20:12) that he sinned by hitting the rock instead of speaking to it as he had been commanded. As a result, Hashem informed Moshe and Aharon that they would not be permitted to enter the Land of Israel.

Harav Simchah Zissel Broide, zt”l, who was the head of the Chevron Yeshivah, points out that Rashi writes (20:1) that although Parashas Chukas begins by describing events that took place during the second year of the Jewish people’s sojourn in the wilderness, the parashah then skips 38 years to discuss episodes that occurred during the last of their 40 years of wandering in the desert, including the aforementioned incident with Moshe and the water. In other words, all of the tests to which the Jewish people subjected Hashem occurred either in the first 18 months after the Exodus from Egypt or in the final year just prior to their entry into Eretz Yisrael. What happened during the 38 years in-between?

Rav Simchah Zissel explains that the entire nation remained perfect during that period. This is evidenced by the fact that the Mishnah in Avos (5:4) teaches that on 10 occasions our ancestors tested Hashem during their sojourn in the wilderness, and the Gemara (Arachin 15a) enumerates the 10 challenges, all of which occurred during the first 18 months, with the exception of the incident involving Moshe bringing forth water from the rock, which happened in the final year. The obvious question is: If the entire nation was able to remain pure and unsullied for 38 consecutive years, what happened during the first two years and the final year that caused them to repeatedly challenge and test Hashem?

Rav Simchah Zissel’s answer is based on a powerful insight into human psychology. The first year and a half and the final year were periods of transition, as the Jewish people were switching from one stage of life and spiritual development to the next. Their initial entry into the wilderness came just after they had been redeemed from 210 years of back-breaking slavery in Egypt and rescued from the 49th level of spiritual impurity. A mere seven weeks later they received the Torah at Mount Sinai and cemented their status as Hashem’s Chosen People. Similarly, during their final year in the wilderness, they recognized that they were about to enter the land of Israel, leaving behind an idyllic existence of eating mann and drinking water from a rock to live a more natural lifestyle that would require them to farm the land in order to sustain themselves.

The common thread is that both the first year and the last year were periods of tremendous upheaval and transition in their lives. When a person is in a state of flux, he is by definition unsettled and not at peace, and he is therefore vulnerable to errors and oversights that he would never make under stable and serene conditions. Therefore, when a person is about to transition into a new situation in life, whether it is a new job, a new home, getting married or becoming a parent, it is essential to be cognizant that upheaval — even for a good cause — inherently reduces a person’s tranquility and sense of balance, and at such moments, he must exercise additional caution and vigilance to prevent himself from stumbling. This message is particularly appropriate as we transition into the summer months and the potential for renewal and growth — and unique challenges — that they present.

Q: After the death of Miriam, the well, which had supplied the Jewish people with water during their travels in the wilderness in her merit, disappeared and the Jews had nothing to drink (20:2). Where is this well located today, and is it possible for people to drink from it?

A: The Kol Bo writes that Miriam’s well was hidden in the Sea of Galilee, and every Motzoei Shabbos it travels through all of the wells in the world. For this reason, women are accustomed to draw water upon the conclusion of Shabbos to get some of this water, which has mystical healing qualities.

He adds that there was once a man whose entire body was covered with boils. One Motzoei Shabbos his wife took longer than usual to return, as she happened to catch the water of Miriam’s well. When she returned, he became angry over her delay, causing her to drop the bucket. The few drops that landed on him healed the part of the skin that they touched, but his anger caused him to lose out on a full cure.

The Shem HaGedolim writes that the Arizal knew the precise location of the well in the Sea of Galilee and gave some of the water to his student Rav Chaim Vital to drink, which caused him to be blessed with tremendous wisdom. Harav Aharon Leib Steinman, shlita, points out that every Jew in the wilderness drank from this well, which allowed them all to reach tremendous levels and accomplishments in spirituality.


Originally from Kansas City, Rabbi Ozer Alport graduated from Harvard, learned in Mir Yerushalayim for five years, and now lives in Brooklyn, where he learns in Yeshivas Beis Yosef, is the author of the recently-published sefer Parsha Potpourri, and gives weekly shiurim. To send comments to the author or to receive his Divrei Torah weekly, please email