“The Ultimate Value of Human Life”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

On this Shabbat, throughout the diaspora, a double Torah portion, Chukat-Balak, is read. In Israel, however, only the single portion of Balak is read. For several weeks now, since Shavuot, the communities of the diaspora have been one Torah portion behind Israel. This is due to the fact that in Israel this year, Shavuot was celebrated only on Friday, and the regular weekly parasha, Naso, was read on the Shabbat that immediately followed Shavuot. In the diaspora, however, Shavuot was celebrated on both Friday and Saturday. Consequently, the regular weekly Torah portion was not read on that Shabbat, leaving the diaspora communities one week behind. Starting this week, both the communities of the diaspora and Israel will be reading the same weekly Torah portions.

In the first of this week’s two parashiot, parashat Chukat, we find a brief, three verse interlude at the start of Numbers 21. In Numbers 21:1, we read: “Va’yish’ma ha’K’na’ah’nee melech Ah’rahd, yo’shayv ha’neh’gev, kee bah Yisrael derech ha’ah’tah’reem, va’yee’lah’chem b’Yisrael, va’yishb mee’meh’noo sheh’vee,” the Canaanite king of Arad, who dwelled in the south, heard that Israel had come by the route of Atarim, and he made war against Israel and took a captive from it. In the following two verses, we are told that the people of Israel made a vow to G-d saying that, if He will deliver this [enemy] people into our hands, we will destroy their cities. We are then informed that G-d heard the voices of the people of Israel and delivered the Canaanites. Israel destroyed their cities and named the place Hormah.

The Midrash builds an elaborate narrative, connecting the previous Torah portion concerning the death of Aaron with the attack of the Canaanites. The final verse of the previous chapter (Numbers 20:29) tells us that all the people of Israel saw that Aaron had passed away and wept for Aaron for 30 days. The rabbis suggest that the extensive mourning of the people for Aaron was not only because he was very much beloved, but because the “Ananei Hakavod,” the Clouds of Glory, departed from Israel after Aaron’s death, just as the well departed from Israel after Miriam’s death. Without the clouds, the people felt vulnerable and unprotected, and they cried in fear.

The opening verse of Numbers 21 states that the Canaanite king of Arad heard that Israel had come through the route of Atarim. Since the Torah states that the king of Arad “heard” rather than “saw,” the rabbis of the Midrash suggest that the Canaanite king concluded that this was a good time to attack because he had heard that Aaron had died and that the Clouds of Glory no longer protected Israel.

The rabbis are also troubled by the reference to the Canaanite king of Arad “who dwells in the south.” The Canaanites did not live in the south; rather, they dwelled along the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan river. It was the fearsome nation of Amalek that dwelt in the south. Why then are these people called Canaanites, rather than Amalekites?

The Midrash explains that the children of Esau sent emissaries to their cousins, Amalek, pleading with them to attack Israel, especially in light of their own unsuccessful attempts to vanquish Israel. The Amalekites refused, noting how powerful Israel was.

Persisting, the children of Esau suggested a strategy. Dress up as Canaanites, they told their Amalekite cousins, and declare war on Israel. When Israel sees you, they will pray to G-d to save them from the hands of the “Canaanites” who are attacking them. Since you are not Canaanites but Amalekites, their prayers will be of no avail, and you will undoubtedly defeat Israel in battle.

The Amalekites, who were actually eager to do battle with Israel, were pleased with this strategy. Dressing up as Canaanites, they even learned to speak the Canaanite language. With swords hidden, they approached the people of Israel, feigning to comfort them, saying, “We have heard the great tragedy of the passing of Aaron and wish to express our condolences.” When the Israelites saw their dress and heard their language, they assumed that they were Canaanites. But, when they looked at their faces, they recognized them as Amalekites. Therefore, the Israelites prayed to G-d (Numbers 21:2): “Im nah’tohn tee’tayn et ha’ahm ha’zeh b’yah’dee,” if You, [G-d] will deliver this people (not specifying the name of the enemy) into our hands, we will destroy their cities. G-d heard their pleas and delivered the Amalekites into the hands of Israel.

While this Midrash explains why the Canaanites were described as living in the south, the rabbis are still troubled by another reference. When the Canaanite king of Arad warred against Israel, the verse states (Numbers 21:1): “Va’yishb mee’meh’noo sheh’vee” that he [the enemy] captured a captive. The verse does not say that they captured people or that they captured women and men. Rather, they captured “Sheh’vee,” a single captive. Our rabbis conclude that this implies that the captive was someone who had previously been a captive, namely a slave woman, who had now been taken captive by the Canaanite king of Arad. They also come to this conclusion, because, during the lifetime of Moses, Israel did not suffer any military defeats. In fact, we do not find that a single Israelite is ever captured while Moses is alive. Thus we see that even though the only person captured in this battle was a non-Jewish maidservant, the people of Israel were prepared to place their lives on the line to save her.

According to Jewish understanding, a Canaanite maidservant is a woman who had been captured in war, or bought on the slave market, and given an opportunity to convert to monotheism. Only if she agrees to this conversion is she permitted to live among the Jewish people. And although she lacks her freedom, she is still required to observe all basic Jewish observances and rituals. It could very well be that, because she had made a commitment to ethical monotheism, the Jewish people were prepared to risk their lives to retrieve her and make certain that she would not return to her previous idolatrous, and probably barbaric, ways.

The practice of Jews putting their lives on the line for their own brothers and sisters is well known. It is based on the fundamental Talmudic dictum (Shvu’ot 39a), “Kol Yisrael arayvim zeh ba’zeh,” every Jew is responsible for one other. And even though most Jews today are not observant, whenever it comes to saving other Jews’ lives, they become extremely “religious.” So it is not at all surprising that vast communal efforts were made to help the Jews of the Soviet Union, Ethiopian Jews, and Syrian Jews. Similarly, whenever Israel’s security is challenged, Jews the world over rise to her defense.

We see clearly that Jewish concern for human life goes far beyond their own fellow Jews. It is a far broader concern for morality and ethics. The ancient Israelites were prepared to go to war to save one human being who had made a commitment to live an ethical and moral life. It goes to show how far-reaching our Torah is and how profound our people’s commitment to ethical and moral living.

This remarkable eternal lesson is what we learn from a very brief reference to a woman who was taken captive in a rather obscure battle.

May you be blessed.