Parsha Potpourri: Parshas Chukas


Vayomer Hashem el Moshe v’el Aharon ya’an lo he’emantem bee l’hakdisheini l’einei B’nei Yisroel la’chein lo savi’u es ha’kahal ha’zeh el ha’aretz asher nasati lahem (20:12)

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 Jewish people had nothing to drink. They began to complain to Moshe and Aharon, questioning why they had brought them to die in the wilderness together with their animals. Moshe and Aharon went to the Mishkan to seek guidance from Hashem, and Hashem responded by instructing Moshe to speak to a rock, which would produce water for the thirsty people. Although Moshe did indeed bring forth water from the rock, Hashem informed Moshe and Aharon that they had sinned in not believing in Hashem and sanctifying His name, and as a result, they would not be permitted to enter the land of Israel.

Because the Torah is so vague in describing their sin, commentators throughout the generations have offered numerous explanations as to the precise nature of their error. In his Sefer HaIkkarim (4:22), Rav Yosef Albo offers an original explanation about the nature of the sin. He suggests that as soon as Moshe and Aharon realized that the Jewish people were thirsty, instead of approaching Hashem for instructions, they should have sanctified Hashem’s name by proactively approaching the rock and producing water from it, as Hashem fulfills the requests of the righteous. Their decision not to do so reflected a lack of trust in Hashem, and for that they were punished.

However, the Meshech Chochmah points out that in all of the miracles that Moshe performed, such as splitting the Reed Sea, the Manna, and the quail, he always waited for explicit instructions from Hashem and never initiated them on his own. This stands in stark contrast to other prophets, such as Yehoshua when he ordered the sun to stand still and Eliyahu at Mount Carmel, who did perform miracles without any prior command from Hashem. Why did Moshe conduct himself differently in this regard, and why was he punished here for acting in accordance with his regular approach?

Rav Meir Simcha explains that Moshe’s level of prophecy was unique in that he was able to speak to Hashem with all of his faculties intact, just as one would speak to another person, whereas other prophets were frightened and overwhelmed by the experience (Rambam Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah 7:6). Because it was clear to all that great as they were, the other prophets were still mere mortals and did not possess any abilities to change nature on their own, there was no risk for them to proactively perform miracles. On the other hand, had Moshe done so, there was a possibility that some observers would erroneously attribute G-d-like powers to him. To prevent this from happening, Moshe only performed miracles when he was explicitly commanded by Hashem to do so.

Interestingly, there was one exception. When Korach challenged the leadership of Moshe and Aharon, Moshe responded by designing a miraculous test to demonstrate that he had Divine support. Without any instructions from Hashem to do so, Moshe announced that his legitimacy would be established by the earth miraculously opening up and swallowing Korach and his followers, which is indeed what happened (16:28-34). Once Korach had publicly argued that all Jews were equally holy and there was nothing unique about Moshe (16:3), Moshe was no longer concerned that people would mistakenly ascribe Divine status to him. However, now that Moshe had demonstrated a willingness to deviate from his customary procedure to call on Hashem to miraculously resolve a difficult situation, his refusal to similarly do so when the people were crying out for water left him susceptible to an argument that he was more concerned about his own reputation than he was about the nation’s well-being. This was a tremendous desecration of Hashem’s name, and for this he was punished harshly.

Although being consistent when performing miracles is not an issue with which most of us struggle, this lesson is still relevant to each of us. It is human nature to prioritize our own needs and to address and fulfill them with alacrity. In doing so, we must be cognizant of an obligation to show the identical diligence when the situation requires us to stand up for Hashem’s honor or assist our fellow man.

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

On a literal level, this 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.

The Mesillas Yesharim (Chapter 3) elucidates the Gemora’s explanation by way of a parable. For entertainment, many medieval rulers designed gardens in the form of mazes, with the tall trees constituting the walls. There were numerous paths through the maze, but all of them ended in dead-ends except for one, which led to the ruler’s villa in the center. From the elevated villa, the ruler was amused as he watched people continually getting lost in their attempts to reach their destination.

As all of the paths appeared identical, the only way that one could successfully navigate the maze other than trial-and-error was to ask somebody who had already reached the center and could see the entire maze from above and guide him through it. A person who is fortunate enough to receive advice from somebody who sees the entire maze beneath him would be foolish to ignore it. Similarly, those people who have yet to conquer their yetzer haras (evil inclinations) are lost among the deceiving paths in this world. Their only hope to quickly locate the correct route to the goal is to ask the rulers who have already found it. The Gemora teaches that they advise us that the key to successfully navigating the maze and conquering the evil inclination is to make the aforementioned reckoning.

Rav Ben-Zion Brook questions the comparison of the Mesillas Yesharim. In the case that he discusses, those who have reached the center of the maze offer concrete advice to the people who are still lost inside, telling them where to turn and in which direction. In the Gemora’s case, however, the rulers over their inclinations offer no material suggestions for exiting the maze other than telling a person to ponder the situation. If somebody in dire financial straits approaches his friend for assistance, of what benefit would the friend be if he merely nodded his head and advised, “You should go think about it?”

Rav Brook answers that in comparing the two cases, the Mesillas Yesharim is teaching us a valuable lesson. Why don’t those who have successfully navigated the maze of this world and vanquished their evil inclinations give concrete advice analogous to those who are overlooking the garden maze, such as “Turn right” or “Go straight?” The answer is that while those directions are necessary to find the correct path through the garden maze, all that is necessary to defeat the yetzer hara is to stop and think.

As the Mesillas Yesharim writes earlier, the evil inclination’s modus operandi is to keep a person so busy and distracted that he doesn’t have time to properly contemplate the decisions that he makes in life. Without proper analysis, the yetzer hara is able to convince a person to sin and remain lost in its seemingly complex maze. However, if a person will listen to the advice of those who have won the battle and simply step back to ponder the potential gains and losses he faces as a result of his decisions, the façade of the complicated labyrinth will disappear and he will reach his goal in no time.

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Parsha Points to Ponder (and sources which discuss them):

1) The Torah uses the phrase “this is the chok (decree) of the Torah” in conjunction with 2 mitzvos: the purification of the red heifer, and the laws of koshering utensils (31:21-24). What do they have in common, and why is this phrase used in connection with them? (Darash Moshe)

2) 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? (Kol Bo 41, Shem HaGedolim Maareches Gedolim Ches 21, Ayeles HaShachar)

3) The Mishnah in Avos (5:18) teaches that whoever influences the masses to become meritorious will be protected from sinning. Why wasn’t the fact that Moshe and Aharon had been such positive influences on the Jewish people for so long able to save them from sinning at Mei Merivah? (Chasam Sofer on Avos, M’rafsin Igri)

© 2012 by Oizer Alport.