Parashat Chukat presents the start of a new era in biblical history. The Netziv in his introduction to Sefer Bemidbar distinguishes between Divine guidance in the desert and in Eretz Yisrael. The first is characterized by daily miracles that were visible to all and obviously supernatural. In Eretz Yisrael, on the other hand, Divine providence takes on a more natural guise. Though it includes miracles, many of them appear as natural occurrences, only occasionally being of a more obvious nature. This change, states the Netziv, began in a gradual manner during the fortieth year of the travels of Bnei Yisrael in the desert. It is in Parashat Chukat that we find the beginning of this process.
The Netziv's statement is based on the premise that Parashat Chukat relates to events that take place in the fortieth year of the desert journey from Mitzrayim to Canaan. Though the Torah does not state openly that these events occurred during the fortieth year, Chazal teach us that this parasha takes place in the final year before entering Eretz Canaan. In the Seder Olam Rabba on the pasuk "Vayavo'u Bnei Yisrael" (20:1), we find that the day of Miryam's death was the first of Nisan in the fortieth year. Similarly in the Midrash Asefa on the words "Vayeshev ha-am be-kadesh" (20:1), it is stated, "The entire first generation died and they (the second generation) came at the end of forty years to Kadesh."
As has been said, the Torah does not state explicitly that it was the fortieth year. It may be that the midrashim are based on the oral Mesora alone. On the other hand, certain indications to this Mesora can be found in the pesukim. Wherever a date is given in the Torah it includes the year, month and often the day of the month. In Shemot 40:17 the Torah states, "Vayehi ba-chodesh ha-rishon ba-shana ha-sheinit be-echad la-chodesh hukam ha-mishkan." The Mishkan was erected on the first day of the first month in the second year. At the same time, we find that Am Yisrael is commanded to bring a Korban Pesach. In that case, the Torah tells us "ba-shana ha-sheinit le-tzeitam mei-eretz Mitzrayim ba-chodesh ha-rishon," omitting the particular day of the month.
Yet, when the Torah tells us, in our parasha, of the arrival to the desert of Tzin and Kadesh, we find no mention of a year. The lack of a year as part of the date would seem to indicate that it is a well-known, well-defined year. This could only apply either to the first or last year. Since it is clearly not the first, we can assume it is the last.
Another indication that it is the fortieth year is the repeated encounters with other nations, first Edom, then the Canaani, and finally the Emori (Sichon). During the forty years, God kept the Jewish people away from other nations. He feared, as we read in Parashat Beshalach, "pen yinacheim ha-am bir'otam milchama ve-shavu Mitzrayma" (lest the nation encounter war and turn back). Now, in the fortieth year, a new generation is about to enter Eretz Yisrael. They are able to encounter war and hold their own.
It seems that Chazal accepted that our parasha pertains to events that occurred in the last year of Am Yisrael's travels in the desert; in fact, they see this as a turning point where a new set of rules in God's conduct with the Jewish people comes into effect. Using this idea, they attempt to explain several points in the parasha.
The first of these answers the question, what is the purpose of the words "kol ha-eida" in the pasuk "vayavo'u kol Bnei Yisrael KOL HA-EIDA Midbar Tzin" (20:1). Why does the Torah state "kol ha-eida" when it has said "kol Bnei Yisrael"?
Rashi, based on a Midrash, explains that the words "kol ha-eida" indicate that this population consisted entirely of those not included in the punishment for the sin of the Meraglim. This explanation is based on a Midrash Ha-gadol on the pasuk (20:22), "Vayavo'u kol Bnei Yisrael KOL HA-EIDA Hor Ha-har." The Ramban rejects Rashi's explanation, since it is sufficient to inform us once that it is a completely new generation. He therefore explains that the words "kol ha-eida" are an introductory code to all places where there the people are dissatisfied. The first instance refers to the complaints of lack of water, while at Hor Ha-har it refers to the grief over the death of Aharon.
Borrowing the Ramban's idea that the words "kol ha-eida" are an introductory code, we may suggest that Chazal saw it as an introduction to places where a change in God's conduct with Am Yisrael is about to occur. In both cases major changes take place. In the first, at Midbar Tzin, Am Yisrael lose the water well that accompanied them throughout their travels in the desert (Miryam's death). At Hor Ha'har, they lose the protection of the Ananei ha-kavod (Aharon's death).
This can underly Rashi's explanation as well. These stories all relate to a new generation, historically and organically distinct from the Am Yisrael of the previous parashot. This generation experiences a different sort of Divine guidance as it begins the process of preparing to enter Eretz Yisrael.
In Massekhet Ta'anit (9a) we learn that three gifts of a miraculous nature were given to Am Yisrael in the desertý: the mann, the ananei ha-kavod (clouds of glory), and the well that traveled with them, supplying all the water they needed. These miraculous gifts are correspondingly associated with the merits of Moshe, Aharon, and Miryam.
Miryam personifies gemilut chasadim (true charity). The Midrash Asefa explains the proximity of Miryam's death to Para Aduma on that basis. As the ashes of the Para Aduma purify the impure, so does gemilut chesed give merit to the public. It is Miryam's special virtue of charity that entitles Am Yisrael to the roving well. Chesed is a way of giving help and life to others from the depth of the heart; so too the well gives life to the public from the depth of the earth.
The relationship between Miryam's personality and the well explicates why the Torah juxtaposes Miryam's death with the story of a shortage of water in Kadesh. The gemara derives from this that it was Miryam's virtues that entitled the nation to the well. Now that Miryam is no longer with them, they are expected to adapt to a more natural way of life.
The midrash learns from the words "Miryam died there" (20:1) that Miryam was the only woman among those who left Mitzrayim to die in the desert. Why of all women did Miryam not enter Eretz Yisrael? One of the answers given by the midrash is that as long as Miryam lived, the well would not be taken from Am Yisrael. According to this midrash, not only was the loss of the well caused by Miryam's death, but it was for the purpose of removing the well that Miryam had to die. It would seem that phasing out miracles and adjusting to natural life is of such centrality at this time that it justifies the death of such a pious person as Miryam.
In a similar manner, Chazal explain the proximity of Aharon's death to the war with the Canaanites. The Torah tells us "vayishma ha-canaani" (21:1), the Canaani heard and came to fight Am Yisrael. What was it that they heard that gave them incentive to go to war with Am Yisrael? The above-mentioned gemara in Taanit explains that since the ananei ha-kavod were due to Aharon's virtues, when he died they were removed. The purpose of the Ananei ha-kavod was to clear away any and all obstacles in the path of the Jewish nation. The Canaanites assumed that since Bnei Yisrael no longer had the ananei ha-kavod, they no longer had the protection of God.
In actuality, they no longer had the miraculous, supernatural protection of the ananei ha-kavod but still had the providential support of God. This is exemplified by the course of events which follow the Canaani attack. The Canaani have initial success - "vayishb mimenu shevi," but they are beaten after Am Yisrael prays to God. Am Yisrael no longer can depend on the miracle of "Hashyilachem lakhem va'atem tacharishun" (Shemot 14:14 - "God will fight your battle and you will be silent"). They can, however, depend on a more natural support of "vekhi tavo'u milchama be'artzekhem ... u-teka'atem bachatzotzrot venizkartem lifnei Hashem elokeikhem venosha'atem me'oivekhem" (Bemidbar 10:9 - "When you will call out to God then you will be saved from the hands of your enemies").
A final application of the idea that the events of our parasha should be understood in light of a change from one form of God's presence to another can be found in the Netziv's explanation of Moshe's sin at Mei Meriva. (This is obviously a major topic on its own, which was discussed in last year's shiur by Rav Menachem Leibtag.) The Netziv is of the opinion that after the loss of Miryam's well, God wanted to teach the nation the normative ways of prayer and fasting. As in a halakhic public fast, the people are gathered and the head of the nation speaks of wrongs that need be corrected. This in turn is followed by repentance and prayer. Hashem wanted Moshe to teach Bnei Yisrael this procedure as a model for generations. That is why when the people complain, God tells Moshe to gather the people and speak to them. Moshe failed when he got angry and did not speak in a manner that could bring about teshuva. God was attempting to teach Bnei Yisrael how to cope with problems and distress according to the new way of life. Moshe's anger did not enable this lesson to be learned.
By the fortieth year, most of the people had been born in the desert and were accustomed to a life of miracles and direct intervention from God. That is not the way life in Eretz Yisrael will be conducted. Our parasha is the start of a year-long adjustment to a way of life appropriate to the natural life in the land of Israel.
QUESTIONS ON PARASHAT CHUKAT
1. The Torah teaches us that Miryam was buried in Kadesh - "va'tamot sham Miryam va'tikaver sham."
A. Why does the Torah tell us that Miryam was buried in the place she died?
B. Why was Miryam not taken for burial in Eretz Yisrael?
2. After Bnei Yisrael complain about the mann, God sends the snakes to punish them. In response, Moshe prays to God asking that the snakes be removed. God does not accept Moshe's prayers fully and commands him to make a snake and place it on a pole.
A. Why is the punishment for their complaint a snake attack?
B. How would the fact that Moshe's prayers are not sufficient to remove the snakes be explained with the idea presented in the shiur?