Parsha Potpourri: Parshas Chukas

(Friday, June 14th, 2013)

V’dibartem el ha’sela l’eineihem v’nasan meimav v’hotzeisa lahem mayim min ha’sela v’hishkisa es ha’eida v’es be’iram (20:8)

Although Parshas Chukas begins by describing events which took place during the second year of the Jewish people’s sojourn in the wilderness, Rashi writes (20:1) that the parsha then skips 38 years to discuss episodes that occurred during the last of their forty years of wandering in the desert. By that point, all of those who were destined to die in the wilderness had already passed away, leaving an entire nation of righteous Jews who merited entering the land of Israel. The parsha finishes with this new generation conquering the lands of Sichon and Og, which became part of Eretz Yisroel.

My esteemed brother-in-law Rabbi Yonah Sklare suggests that Parshas Chukas serves as one of the bookends to the period in Jewish history which began in Parshas Beshalach with the Exodus from Egypt and concluded with the new generation beginning the transition to the land of Israel. For this reason, Parshas Chukas contains the deaths not only of the generation that left Egypt, but also the physical deaths or the death decrees of the leaders of that generation: Moshe, Aharon, and Miriam.

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Because Parshas Beshalach serves as the other bookend to this era in national history, the events described in the two Torah portions show remarkable parallel structure. Parshas Chukas begins with the mitzvah of parah adumah – the purification process involving the red heifer – a mitzvah which Rashi writes (Shemos 15:25) was first given to the Jewish people at Marah, in Parshas Beshalach.

Later in Parshas Chukas, the Jewish people are attacked by Amalek (Rashi 21:1), just as they were at the end of Parshas Beshalach. After the battle against Amalek, the Jews began to complain about a lack of adequate food, just as they did in Parshas Beshalach (Shemos 16:3). Hashem responded by sending fiery serpents to punish them. After the people acknowledged that they had sinned, Moshe made a copper serpent and placed it on a pole, so that anybody who was bitten by one of the serpents could look at it and be healed. The Mishnah in Rosh Hashana (3:8) equates this incident with Moshe raising his hands during the battle against Amalek in Parshas Beshalach, explaining that both episodes serve as examples of subjugating our hearts to Hashem in order to accomplish our objectives.

Parshas Chukas proceeds to record the miracle in the Arnon Valley, in which the cliffs in the gorge moved together, thereby crushing the Amorites who were waiting in caves to ambush the Jews as they passed below (Rashi 21:15). The Torah specifically compares this miracle to the splitting of the Sea of Reeds in Parshas Beshalach, and the Jewish people commemorated their miraculous salvation by singing a song of praise to Hashem which began Az Yashir (then they sang), the same words which are used to introduce the song that they sang at the Yam Suf in Parshas Beshalach.

Finally, after the death of Miriam, the Jewish people complained to Moshe about a lack of water, just as they did in Parshas Beshalach. In both cases, Hashem commanded Moshe to respond to their protests by extracting water from a rock. However, there is one subtle difference between the two episodes. In Parshas Beshalach, Hashem told Moshe to strike the rock with his staff, whereas in Parshas Chukas, Hashem told him to speak to the rock in order to produce the water. This distinction was so subtle that Moshe erred and hit the rock as he had done in Parshas Beshalach.

What is the difference between speaking to the rock and striking it? Rabbi Sklare notes that Rashi explains (20:12) that a rock which follows Hashem’s spoken instructions teaches the people the importance of obeying Hashem’s commandments. A rock which is hit, on the other hand, represents the concept of disobedience which must be overpowered by Hashem’s might. After forty years of maturing in the wilderness, Hashem expected the Jewish people to be on the level of realizing that there is no opposition to Him, as symbolized by the command to speak to the rock.

The original metamorphosis from speaking to hitting occurred during the ten plagues, when the ten utterances through which Hashem created the world were transformed into ten blows. At the time of Creation, the obedient Earth manifested Hashem’s spoken Word, but the heretical Egyptians transformed their country into a place of defiance, leaving Hashem no choice but to force them into submission through the ten plagues.

In Parshas Beshalach, the Jewish people had just departed from Egypt after Hashem finished striking it, and it was therefore appropriate for Moshe to hit the rock. Parshas Chukas concludes the period of wandering in the wilderness as the Jewish people prepared to enter Eretz Yisroel, which is described by the Torah (Devorim 11:10-12) as the antithesis of Egypt, a country upon which Hashem’s eyes are constantly focused. At that time, the appropriate approach was therefore one of speaking to the rock. In this light, Moshe’s mistake in striking the rock instead of speaking to it was not merely an oversight which took place in a vacuum and was punished arbitrarily, but rather a symbolic demonstration that he was still connected to the Exodus from Egypt and not the entry into Eretz Yisroel, in which case the appropriate punishment was that he forfeited his right to lead the nation into the land of Israel.

Al kein yomru ha’moshlim bo’u Cheshbon tibaneh v’sikonein ir Sichon (21:27)

On a literal level, our cumbersome verse discusses the battles between two of the non-Jewish peoples who lived at this time and commemorates the victory of one over the other. However, the Gemora (Bava Basra 78b) homiletically reinterprets our verse as coming to teach an important life lesson in values and priorities.

The Gemora explains that the verse can be read as quoting not rulers over kingdoms, but rather rulers over their own base instincts and evil inclinations. What is the message of these masters of self-control? They advise that a person make a reckoning of the reward for performing a mitzvah versus the loss incurred by doing so, and the potential gain from sinning relative to its downside.

The Gemora concludes that these individuals promise that somebody who makes the appropriate calculation will be built in this world and well-established in the World to Come. While it is certainly understandable that a person who righteously makes such a reckoning will be well-compensated in the next world, in what way does he tangibly benefit from doing so in this world?

Rav Shalom Schwadron was once giving a speech on this very topic when a man approached him at the end of the lecture and related a story which answers our question. The man was an old Russian Jew, and his story took place just before the rise to power of the Communists. At that time, the Jews in Russia felt secure, and the man had a lucrative job in the jewelry business.

One day he was going to work a bit early when he heard somebody calling for a tenth man to complete a minyan so that a person could say the Mourner’s Kaddish on the yahrtzeit of one of his relatives. Because he had a few minutes to spare, he agreed to be the tenth man. Much to his chagrin, when he entered the room, he saw only five other men. When he turned to leave, the man with yahrtzeit begged him to stay a few more minutes until the minyan could be completed.

After much time, the real tenth man was found, but the jeweler was fuming at the thought of all of the money he was losing in missed business deals. Still, he assumed that there would be one quick Kaddish and then it would be all over. He was left speechless when the man with yahrtzeit proceeded to start from the very beginning of the prayer service. As they had only an exact minyan, the jeweler had no choice but to remain hostage, growing more livid by the moment.

When the service was finally over, he angrily ran toward his office. When he got there, he was informed that that very morning the Bolsheviks had attacked and ransacked the building, killing most of the Jews in the process. If he hadn’t stayed to allow another Jew to say Kaddish, his kids would be saying Kaddish for him.

Many times in life we are confronted with dilemmas between what we known deep down is the right thing to do and what we want to do to get ahead and have what appears to be more fun in this world. The next time we are faced with such a choice, we should follow the advice of the rulers to make a calculation and to realize that by making the right decision, we stand to gain not only in the next world but also in this one.

Answers to the weekly Points to Ponder are now available!
To receive the full version with answers email the author at oalport@optonline.net.
Parsha Points to Ponder (and sources which discuss them):

1) The Medrash Pliah explains the juxtaposition of Parshas Chukas to Parshas Korach by stating that Korach was motivated to rebel against Moshe when he learned about the mitzvah of the red heifer. How is this to be understood, and in what way did the parah adumah inspire Korach to challenge the authority and leadership of Moshe? (Roshei Besamim, Chemdas Tzvi)

2) Who is on a higher level of purity: a person who remains ritually pure his entire life, or one who becomes impure but subsequently re-purifies himself? (Peirush Mishnayos L’Rambam Parah 3:3, Gilyonei HaShas Berachos 22b, Shu”t Ben Poras 2:2, Chavatzeles HaSharon, Bishvilei HaParsha)

3) The Medrash teaches (Vayikra Rabbah 11:7) that wherever the word V’haya appears, it connotes joy. In describing the fiery serpents which attacked the Jewish people, the Torah states (21:9) V’haya im nashach ha’nachash es ish – and if the serpent bit a man. Why is the word V’haya used in conjunction with something that caused suffering and not joy? (Meshech Chochmah, Mishmeres Ariel)

© 2013 by Oizer Alport.

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