Rabbi Dr. Wendy Zierler on Naomi Shemer's “To the Water Cisterns”

Wendy Ilene Zierler headshot

By Rabbi Dr. Wendy Zierler
Sigmund Falk Professor, Modern Jewish Literature and Feminist Studies

Written in response to Naomi Shemer’s “To The Water Cisterns” (1982). Read the lyrics (in Hebrew) and hear it sung.

I’ve decided to take a short break for the next week from Tchernichowsky to return for bit to Naomi Shemer, to two poem/songs that hopefully will help us spiritually prepare for Pesach. The first will deal with the element of yetsi’ah  in yetsi’at mitzrayim, of leaving the cities and civilizational structures and lighting out for the wilderness. The second, which we will read next week, will take us into a specific passage from the Haggadah.

In this first poem/ song, the speaker describes going out from her love, or on the strength of her love, or because of her love, to the desert paths and to the water cisterns. The language used to describe this journey is resonant of the Israelites’ loving pursuit of God into the unsown wilderness in the aftermath of the Exodus, as described by Jeremiah 2:2. The desert paths in this case of this song, however, are located within the boundaries of the land of Israel. Indeed, one way to read the song is as a story of walking its length and breadth (like the three asses of Tchernichowsky’s poem from last week) to replenish and reinvigorate one’s love of the Land of Israel.

Shemer adds builds on Jeremiah’s comparison of the Israelite Exodus to a young bride lovingly pursuing her beloved into uncharted territory. She describes herself walking in her beloved’s footsteps in a kind of wild pursuit –פרועה נהייה – the word “peruah” subtly playing, I would argue on פרעה – Pharaoh.  The going out into the wilderness is transformed, however, in this case from escape from Pharaoh to a quest for the Land, from a going out from slavery to a passionate Zionist pursuit.

In the desert, by definition, water is scarce; it is restricted to certain, almost miraculous places. Over the course of the Israelites’ wanderings the lack of water becomes a repeated source of contention. The legends of Miriam’s well, which followed the people from place to place,  come to account for how it was even possible for the people to survive all that time in the desert.  In contrast, the speaker in Shemer’s poem goes out to the wilderness and finds a surfeit of water of various kinds: spring waters, tehom waters from a deep primeval source, and flowing river waters, too. Shemer’s song thus imagines away all of the sources of contention and conflict, portraying the opportunity of a backroads tiyyul as a way of drinking deeply from one’s love of the land.

Over the course of the song, love of the land merges with the traditional biblical image of the love shared between God and the People of Israel. According to the Exodus story, God lovingly takes the people out of Egypt from the shelter and structure of wealthy Egypt, provides them “tsel uvayit,” shade and temporary shelter in the desert, and sets them on a new course. In this poem, Zionism provides a wellspring to rejuvenate that ancient love story. By the end of the song, the speaker has moved from the desert paths back to the city and house, and to images of the flowering fruits of Erets Yisra’el, depicting, in modern Zionist terms, what one might identify with the fifth and ultimate Exodus verb of salvation –והבאתי – and I brought you to the land. The image of the feminized land as drunk by not from wine comes from Isaiah 51:21-22, where God promises the afflicted, feminized people, who is drunk but not from wine, that God will plead the cause of the people, and take away her poison cup; never again will she have to drink the cup of divine wrath. Shemer’s modern-day Zionist revision of this verse from Isaiah offers this consolation to the land itself. There, in that final moment of the song, the speaker’s love, a femininely personified Erets Yisrael, drunk but not from wine, can slowly close her eyes and rest, a kind of Zionist Shabbat.

Over the past few weeks, we have seen thousands of Israelis leave their homes and jobs, and take to the street in protest, out of love for the land and commitment to the modern, pluralistic State of Israel. They have left the structures and houses of their everyday lives; they have shut down universities and services, occupied the roads and highways, to drink deep of the values that they hold dear. And at least for now, they have succeeded in their goals, provoking the current Prime Minister to halt his plans to ram through legislation that threatens the independence of the Israeli judicial branch. For a least a few weeks, the land, drunk but not from wine, can close its eyes and rest.

Over the next week we’ll be laboring hard to get ourselves ready for Pesach. We’ll fill our houses and our agendas with myriad supplies and strategies to so as to embrace the possibilities, freedoms, springtime renewals of the wilderness. Together with family and friends we will leave the regular structures and eating patterns of the rest of the year to visit the cisterns of our past and to draw out living waters of meaning and sustenance. My blessing for all of us, because of and on the strength of these recent events, is that we go out with love and encouragement, filling our cups, not with wrath but with hope for all that we love about our tradition and Eretz Yisra’el, too.