“The People of Israel are Taught to be More Independent”
by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Chukat, opens with the laws of the פָּרָה אֲדֻמָּה, Parah Adumah, the Red Heifer that was used in ancient times to cleanse the people from impurity. The parasha, however, also contains a host of other themes, including Miriam’s death and the subsequent lack of water, the punishment of Moses and Aaron for hitting the rock, the death of Aaron, the battle with Amalek, the people’s complaint and the attack of the fiery serpents. The parasha concludes with Israel’s victory in battle over Sihon and the Amorites.

After the deaths of Miriam and Aaron and the loss of those great leaders, the people needed to prepare for the future. Life for them would be very different after their leader Moses will no longer be with them. Until now, the people of Israel have been living a supernatural lifestyle, wandering through the wilderness on Divine clouds. According to the Midrash, these clouds leveled out the terrain so the people would not have to endure the challenging mountains or valleys. Their clothes were washed by the clouds and their garments grew along with their bodies. Water suddenly appeared in the wilderness when Moses spoke to the rock.

Now Miriam and Aaron were gone. Moses was soon to pass away as well. The people of Israel could not continue to live in this supernatural manner for much longer. They need to prepare for a more normal life that they would experience after the death of Moses, who passed away immediately prior to their entry into the land of Canaan.

When the Canaanite kings heard of the deaths of Miriam and Aaron, they regarded the people of Israel as extremely vulnerable and, one by one, began to attack. The first Canaanite king to attack is identified in the Torah (Numbers 21:1), as the king of Arad. Rashi citing the Midrash, maintains that the attackers were actually Amalekites, who had disguised themselves as local Canaanites (from Arad) in order to confuse the people of Israel. This tactic would hopefully render the Israelites’ prayers for salvation ineffectual because they were intended to defeat the Canaanites and not the Amalekites. According to the Midrash, the king of Arad and his troops (the disguised Amalekites), captured one Canaanite slave girl, leading the Israelites to do battle with them, in order to redeem the unfortunate captive. The deception did not help, and when the people of Israel took an oath to G-d, the Al-mighty delivered the king of Arad and his people into their hands.

The Ha’Emek Davar notes that Moses did not play a role in this battle, or in the later battles with Sihon and Og, the Amorite kings. While, according to the Talmud Brachot 4b, Moses does personally kill Og the giant king of Bashan, it was because it was impossible to defeat Og naturally. Through prayer and battle, the nations of Sihon and Og were defeated by Israel, as was the king of Arad. As we learn in Numbers 21:24, וַיַּכֵּהוּ יִשְׂרָאֵל לְפִי חָרֶב, and Israel smote him [Sihon] by the edge [literally “by the mouth”] of the sword, meaning that Israel defeated the enemies utilizing both prayer and battle, which continued to be the method employed in the later conquests of the land of Israel as well.

Unfortunately, the People of Israel once again fail to acknowledge how their lack of faith affects their security. When the people begin to speak against Moses and G-d, the Al-mighty strikes the people with fiery serpents who begin to bite the Israelites.

The Akeidat Yitzchak points out that with this attack, the supernatural life, which the Israelites had experienced for 40 years, comes to an end, and the natural pattern of life for the Israelites begins. The Akeidat Yitzchak notes that even though the Torah, in Deuteronomy 8:15, describes that the people had traveled for 40 years through “an arid desert of venomous serpents and scorpions,” not a single creature had ever harmed them. But, when the people lash out at G-d and Moses, declaring, Numbers 21:5, וְנַפְשֵׁנוּ קָצָה בַּלֶּחֶם הַקְּלֹקֵל, “our souls are disgusted with this insubstantial food,” G-d brings the serpents to show them what happens when they renounce G-d’s protective powers. The serpents, that were always there but never harmed them, begin to attack. The supernatural protection of G-d vanishes, and nature begins to run its course. The serpents, says Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, show how dangerous nature really is, and that it is only G-d who protects the people from harm.

The Israelites, who will soon enter Canaan–the Promised Land, will have to readjust to their new unprotected reality. Moses, Aaron and Miriam will no longer be there to perform miracles for them and protect them. The Divine clouds, upon which they rode, will disappear and they will have to wash their own garments and tailor new garments as their bodies grow. The “new normal” has arrived, and the Israelites will have to face the consequences of life as it runs its “natural” course.

The mercies of G-d can always be evoked, but only for a people who live a life devoted to G-d and His Torah.

May you be blessed.