Chukas and Beshalach: Bookends of the Midbar

V’dibartem el ha’sela (Bamidbar 20:8)

Although Parashas Chukas begins by describing events that took place during the second year of the Jewish People’s sojourn in the wilderness, Rashi writes (20:1) that the parashah then skips 38 years to discuss episodes that occurred during the last of their 40 years of wandering in the desert. By that point, all 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.

My esteemed brother-in-law Rabbi Yonah Sklare of Baltimore suggests that Parashas Chukas serves as one of the bookends to the period in Jewish history which began in Parashas Beshalach with the Exodus from Egypt and concluded with the new generation beginning the transition to the Land of Israel. For this reason, Parashas 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.

Because Parashas Beshalach serves as the other bookend to this era in national history, the events described in the two Torah portions show remarkable parallel structure. Parashas Chukas begins with the mitzvah of Parah Adumah, a mitzvah which Rashi writes (Shemos 15:25) was first given to the Jewish people at Marah, in Parashas Beshalach.

Later in Parashas Chukas, the Jewish people are attacked by Amalek (Rashi 21:1), just as they were at the end of Parashas Beshalach. After the battle against Amalek, the Jews began to complain about a lack of adequate food, just as they did in Parashas 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 Hashanah (3:8) equates this incident with Moshe raising his hands during the battle against Amalek in Parashas Beshalach, explaining that both episodes serve as examples of subjugating our hearts to Hashem in order to accomplish our objectives.

Parashas 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 Parashas Beshalach, and the Jewish people commemorated their miraculous salvation by singing a song of praise to Hashem which began with “Az yashir — Then they sang,” the same words which are used to introduce the song that they sang at the Yam Suf in Parashas Beshalach.

Finally, after the death of Miriam, the Jewish people complained to Moshe about a lack of water, just as they did in Parashas 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 Parashas Beshalach, Hashem told Moshe to strike the rock with his staff, whereas in Parashas 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 Parashas Beshalach.

What is the difference between speaking to the rock and striking it? 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 40 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.

Rabbi Sklare explains that in Parashas 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. Parashas Chukas concludes the period of wandering in the wilderness as the Jewish people prepared to enter Eretz Yisrael, which is described by the Torah (Devarim 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 Yisrael, in which case the appropriate punishment was that he forfeited his right to lead the nation into the Land of Israel.

Parashah Q & A

Q:The Midrash teaches (Vayikra Rabbah 11:7) that wherever the word v’hayah appears, it connotes joy. In describing the fiery serpents which attacked the Jewish people, the Torah states (21:9) “v’hayah im nashach ha’nachash es ish — if the serpent bit a man.” Why is the word “v’hayah” used in conjunction with something that caused suffering and not joy?

A: The Meshech Chochmah answers that whoever was bitten and looked at the copper image of the serpent which was placed on a pole was cured not only from the serpent bite, but also from any other illness from which he may have been suffering, which was a source of joy. The Mishmeres Ariel suggests that the fact that they were required to look upward at the serpent on the pole caused them to think about Hashem up in the Heavens, which is a positive benefit of being bitten. Alternatively, he points out that after somebody has been exposed to poison, his body naturally develops immunity, so the fact that they were able to be healed and continue living with new antibodies was considered a source of joy.


 

Originally from Kansas City, Rabbi Ozer Alport graduated from Harvard, learned in Mir Yerushalayim for five years, and now lives in Brooklyn, where he learns in Yeshivas Beis Yosef, is the author of the recently-published sefer Parsha Potpourri, and gives weekly shiurim. To send comments to the author or to receive his Divrei Torah weekly, please email oalport@Hamodia.com.