“And from Mattanah to Nahaliel”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Chukat, after a series of battles and confrontations with hostile nations, the Torah records a lyrical, but esoteric, poem concerning the well of Miriam.

Numbers 21:17 reads: “Ahz yah’sheer Yisrael, et hah’shee’rah ha’zoht: Ah’lee v’ayhr, eh’noo lah.” Then Israel sang this song:

“Spring up, O well, sing to it.
The well which the princes dug;
which the nobles of Israel excavated with the scepter, and with their staffs;
and from the wilderness to Mattanah.
And from Mattanah, to Nahaliel;
and from Nahaliel, to Bamoth.
And from Bamoth to the valley that is in the field of Moab, by the top of peak which looks down upon the wilderness.”

According to our commentators, this poem is part of a series of verses describing famous battles that were recorded in “The Book of the Wars of G-d,” a volume that some speculate originated with Abraham and was lost along with other early historical documents.

Nachmanides (Ramban, Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270, Spanish Torah commentator) claims that the names of cities mentioned here are all places that Israel captured from Sichon, the king of Emor. They are recorded here to confirm Israel’s right to possess these lands.

However, Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible) interprets these verses according to the Midrash, which claims that these places, as well as those mentioned in the preceding verses, are locations where great miracles occurred as Israel traveled through the wilderness.

So, for instance, when Numbers 21:15 states: “And the slope of the valleys that inclines toward the seat of Ar, and leans upon the border of Moab,” Rashi cites the Midrash that states that the Emorites hid in the mountains in order to attack Israel after they passed through the valley. However, once the people of Israel passed through the valley, the mountains began to tremble and moved closer to the mountains of Moab, crushing the Emorites who were hiding in the hills.

Rashi interprets the word “Mattanah” found in Numbers 21:18: “And from the wilderness to Mattanah,” not as the name of a location, but rather that G-d gave the Jewish people the well of Miriam as a gift (mattanah) to supply the people with water during their 40 years in the wilderness.

The Talmud in Nedarim 55a-b, turns the phrase “Oo’me’midbar Mattanah,” found in Numbers 21:18, into a lesson of ethics and educational philosophy.

Ravah [the Talmudic sage] was asked, What is meant by the verse “and from the wilderness, Mattanah”–-he replied: When one makes himself as the wilderness, which is free to all [meaning prepared to teach the Torah to all] the Torah is presented to him as a gift [“mattanah“], as it is written: “And from the wilderness, Mattanah.” And once he has it as a gift, G-d gives it to him as an inheritance [“nahaliel“], as it is written, Numbers 21:19: “And from Mattanah, Nahaliel.” And when G-d gives it to him as an inheritance, he ascends to greatness, as it is written: “And from Nahaliel, Bamot [heights].” But, if he exalts himself, the Holy One blessed be He casts him down, as it is written, Numbers 21:20: “And from Bamoth, to the valley.” Moreover, he is made to sink into the earth, as it is written, Numbers 21:20: “Which looks down upon the wilderness.” But should he repent, the Holy One blessed be He will raise him again, as it is written (Isaiah 40:4): “Every valley shall be exalted.”

From a literary perspective, the Torah simply seems to be stating that the Jewish people traveled from the wilderness to Mattanah, and from Mattanah to Nahaliel, and from Nahaliel to Bamoth. Nevertheless, our rabbis make a point of emphasizing that the Torah, within the process of recording the historical itinerary of the people’s travels, is teaching much more than the names of places. Consequently, the great sage, Ravah, declares unequivocally, that Torah, like a wilderness, is not only the legacy of all Jews, but that Torah may not be taught through hubris. In fact, whoever exalts himself, the Holy One blessed be He casts him down. There is no room for arrogance on the part of the teacher, no matter how brilliant the Torah scholar. An instructor may not insist that, because of his erudition, he can only teach students of superior intelligence. Neither may one turn away a foolish question, if asked sincerely. Sincerity must be the determining factor, not endowed intelligence, which is purely a Divine gift, completely unearned.

Unfortunately, not everyone feels this way. Today there are yeshivot, schools established from kindergarten on, that are limited only to the children of clergy or scholars, so that these children will not be “contaminated” by the presence of children in the class whose parents may work for a living. One wonders from how many yeshivot would Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Meir have been excluded. The same holds true for schools whose tuition is so exorbitant that only the children of the most affluent can attend. The Talmud (Nedarim, 81a) warns us to be careful with the children of the poor, for from them will Torah come.

The “mattanah,” the gift of Torah, will indeed come from those who have traversed the wilderness, who appreciate what deprivation means, whether material or intellectual, and are prepared to share their Torah with all sincere students.

That is the bold message of this seemingly innocuous poem. That is why it is so special, and so sacred.

May you be blessed.