Classic Questions

What miracle occurred at Arnon? (v. 21:14-16)

Rashi: The mountains were high and the valley [between them] was deep and narrow. The mountains were so close to each other that a person standing on the mountain on one side [of the valley] could speak to his friend standing on the mountain on the other side.

The route [of the Jewish people] passed along the valley. The Amorites said, "When the Jewish people enter the valley to pass through, we'll come out of the caves in the mountains above them and kill them with arrows and catapult stones."

There were caves in the rock on the Mo'avite side [of the valley], and directly opposite the caves there were protrusions on the mountain on the Amorite side... When the Jewish people were about to pass through, the mountain... moved toward the mountain of Mo'av. The protrusions entered the caves, killing [the Amorites].

This is the meaning of the words, "it turned to settle at Ar" (v. 15): The mountain veered from its place and moved toward the side of the Mo'avite border, and attached itself to it. It was thus "leaning against the border of Mo'av" (ibid.).

The Jewish people passed on top of the mountains, and they only became aware of the miracles through the well [water] that entered [the valley. As the Torah continues]: "From there to the well" (v. 16)...

How did this occur? G‑d said, "Who will inform My children of these miracles?"—as the proverb goes, "If you give a small child bread, inform his mother." So, after they passed through, the mountains returned to their places and the well water went down into the valley. It brought the blood of the people who were killed, and their arms and their limbs, and carried them around the camp. When the Jewish people saw this, they burst into song (v. 17-20).

Midrash: The Amorites, knowing that the Jewish people would have to pass through the valley, assembled in innumerable multitudes. Some of them hid in the many caves on the slopes of the mountain, while another group of them awaited the Jewish people in the valley below, hoping to attack and destroy them unexpectedly from above and from below when they passed through the valley.

G‑d, however, arranged that the Jewish people did not go down into the valley at all, but stayed above. He sent an instruction to the mountains, and the protrusions of one mountain entered the caves of the other, and all the people hiding there died.

Then, the well water went down through the valley and, becoming stronger in force, destroyed all the people that were there, like the Egyptians who were destroyed by the sea. That is why the Torah compares the two events (v. 14).

Since the Jewish people had passed over the mountains, they were not aware of all these miracles, so G‑d said, "I'm going to make it known how many people I destroyed for them!" Thus, the well water went into the caves, washing so many skulls, arms, and feet that they could not be counted. And when the Jewish people returned to find the well, they saw it shining like the moon within the valley that was full of limbs (Tanchuma 20; Bamidbar Rabah 19:25).

Sforno: G‑d made a fierce storm (סופה) which caused water to flood the entire area, preventing the Jewish people from being attacked. Nevertheless, when the waters reached Ar, close to where the Jewish people were located, they did not flood the area, but rather, they "turned to settle at Ar, leaning against the border of Mo'av" (v. 15); i.e., the waters did not spread out to inundate the Israelite camp.

The Rebbe's Teachings

The Miracles at Arnon (v. 14ff.)

Rashi cites the Midrash at length to describe the miraculous occurrences at the valley of Arnon. His comments prompt the following questions:

  1. Rashi's commentary was written to explain the literal meaning of scripture. Why, then, does Rashi offer here the apparently non-literal interpretation of the Midrash, that a mountain actually moved to crush the Amorites, rather than a more simple explanation, such as that of Sforno?
  2. According to the Midrash, two miracles occurred: 1.) The Amorites that hid in the caves at the top of the mountains were crushed when the mountains came together. 2.) Other Amorites who were in the valley were killed by the flooding well water.

Why does Rashi only mention the first miracle?

In fact, being that the Torah compares the miracles at Arnon to the drowning of the Egyptians at the Reed Sea (v. 14), it would appear that the second miracle of the Midrash, where the Amorites were drowned, is indicated here by scripture at the literal level.

  1. The Midrash states that, in order to inform the Jewish people of the miracle, the well water went into the caves within the mountains and washed out the remains of the slain Amorites. Why does Rashi write that the well water did not flood into the mountains, but only into the valley?
  2. The Midrash states that the water washed out "so many skulls, arms, and feet that they could not be counted," whereas Rashi writes that it "brought the blood of the people who were killed, their arms, and their limbs." Why does Rashi add a reference to blood, and omit the specific reference to skulls and feet?
  3. The Midrash states that the Jewish people discovered what had happened when "they returned to find the well... full of limbs." But Rashi writes that a further miracle occurred—the well actually transported the remains of the Amorites all the way to the Jewish camp: "The well water went down into the valley. It brought up the blood of the people who were killed, their arms, and their limbs, and carried them around the camp." What led Rashi to conclude that, at the literal level, this additional miracle occurred? And why would G‑d have performed this seemingly unnecessary miracle, which could have been avoided by the Jewish people returning to the valley, as the Midrash writes?
  4. Why does Rashi add the proverb, "If you give a small child bread, inform his mother," which is not cited here by the Midrash at all? And what, exactly, does the proverb add that we do not already know?

The Explanation

  1. Previously in the Torah, we find that the Jewish people merited numerous miracles, many of which saved their lives, and yet it is only at the splitting of the Reed Sea that the people actually burst into song. So Rashi was troubled: What was unique about the miracles at the Arnon valley in comparison with so many other miracles of the past, that these miracles inspired the Jewish people to sing together (in verses 17-20)?
    The unique quality of the miracle at the Sea of Reeds was that the Jewish people did not merely receive Divine assistance in the war that they had to fight, but rather that G‑d destroyed the Egyptians without the Jewish people having to do anything at all—"G‑d will fight for you" (Shemos 14:14). Therefore, Rashi cited the Midrashic account of the miracle at Arnon, for this Midrash also describes how G‑d eliminated the enemy without the Jewish people having to fight at all, thus explaining why, at the literal level, this led them to sing together. 
  2. Whenever Rashi offers a Midrashic solution, he is careful to cite only "Midrash which clarifies the text of scripture" (Rashi to Bereishis 3:8), i.e., those parts of the Midrash which have some basis in the verse itself.
    Thus, in our case, Rashi cited the account of the mountain moving to crush the Amorites, as this is hinted to by the words of the verse, "it turned to settle at Ar, leaning against the border of Mo'av." However, the second miracle which the Midrash describes (that the Amorites who were located in the valley were killed by a flood of well water) is not referred to by scripture here. Therefore, even though it indeed resembles the miracle that occurred at the splitting of the Reed Sea, Rashi did not cite it, as it does not "clarify the text of scripture." 
  3. Likewise, scripture gives no indication here that the well water went up from the valley to enter the caves within the mountains. Rather, the Torah indicates the reverse, that the blood was "spilling into the valleys" (v. 15), and "from there to the well" (v. 16). Therefore, Rashi omitted this detail.
  4. Since the Torah itself states that Amorite blood was, "spilling into the valleys" (v. 15), Rashi writes that the well "brought the blood of the people who were killed" (even though this detail is not mentioned by the Midrash). Furthermore, Rashi stresses that "their arms" were also carried by the well, since seeing the very muscular arms of the warriors would have added to the miracle, as it would have made the Jewish people realize that a powerful army had been defeated. But since it would be a most unnecessary miracle if only arms had been carried by the well, Rashi adds that other "limbs" were carried too.
  5. Rashi maintains that a second miracle occurred, where the well water brought the remains of the Amorites "all around the camp," in order to explain how the song arose here in the same circumstances as it did at the Sea of Reeds. At the Sea of Reeds, Moshe led the Jewish people in song "when they saw the miracle" (Rashi to Shemos 15:1), so Rashi concluded that likewise in our case, the Song of the Well must have arisen when they actually saw a miraculous occurrence.
    According to the account of the Midrash, this was not the case, since the Jewish people only saw at the well the aftermath of the miracle: "They returned to find the well... full of limbs." So Rashi concluded that a further miracle must have occurred: "the well water... brought... their limbs and carried them around the camp," and it was upon seeing this miracle that the Jewish people burst into song. And this also explains, at the literal level, why the song focuses on the well in particular.
  6. Rashi cites the proverb, "If you give a small child bread, inform his mother," as this brings to light a remarkable quality of the miracle at Arnon, in which it surpassed the splitting of the Reed Sea. For while both miracles were unique in that G‑d eliminated an enemy without the Jewish people having to fight at all, the incident at Arnon was even more remarkable in that the people were not even aware that the miracle had taken place. Thus G‑d performed a further miracle, bringing the blood and limbs of the Amorites via the well water, so that the Jewish people should know what had occurred. And this is comparable, writes Rashi, to informing a mother that one has given her child bread; i.e., the well, which supported the Jewish people in the desert (like a mother who supports her child) was "informed" of the life-saving miracle (comparable to the staple food of bread) when the remains of the defeated enemy passed through the well water and all around the Jewish camp.

And then, realizing that G‑d had saved their lives miraculously without them even knowing, "Israel sang this song: 'O well, arise...'"

(Based on Likutei Sichos vol. 23, p. 148ff.)