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Chukat | Yearning for the Land

Rav Michael Hattin




            Last week, we read Parashat Korach that detailed the aborted revolt against the leadership of Moshe and Aharon.  That episode unfolded in the wake of a lengthy series of failures and setbacks that had plagued the people almost from the moment that they had journeyed forth from Mount Sinai in the direction of the Promised Land.  The people's unwarranted bout of complaining (11:1-3) was followed by their insatiable appetite for meat (11:10, 31-35), and Moshe's leadership was sorely tested in the process (11:11-30).  Next, Miriam and Aharon spoke ill of their humble brother and the prophetess was temporarily expelled from the camp (12:1-16).  The devastating sin of the spies followed (Chapters 13-14), and after a fleeting interlude in which God extended to the people the assurance of a brighter future (Chapter 15), Korach and his cohorts then arose from their midst to destructively fan the flames of revolt. 


            While throughout all of these episodes the people of Israel pressed forward geographically in their march through the wilderness, there was no sense of progress or of advancement.  The dusty and desolate hills hemmed them in, the foreboding and unforgiving landscape consumed them, and in that windswept wasteland they found their end.


            Parashat Chukat opens with the mysterious ritual of the Para Aduma, or Red Heifer (Chapter 19).  According to the proscriptions of the Torah, one who has come in contact with a human corpse is deemed tameh, or ritually unfit to enter the precincts of the Mishkan or the Mikdash.  In order to emerge from this state of tuma, the said individual must first be sprinkled with the Mai Chatat, or Waters of Purification.  After its slaughter outside of the camp and the ritual sprinkling of its blood, the body of the red heifer is set alight.  As the bonfire burns, cedar wood, hyssop and crimson are added to the flames.  The resulting ashes are collected and are then combined with spring water; a bundle of hyssop is dipped into the mixture and, with it, the individual is sprinkled on the third and seventh days.  After immersion in a mikva at the conclusion of the rite, the person returns to a state of tahara or ritual fitness, and is again able to enter the Tabernacle or Temple area.




            It is in the very next section that the Torah relates that "the entire congregation of Bnei Yisrael came to the wilderness of Tzin in the first month, and encamped at Kadesh. There, Miriam died and was buried…" (Bemidbar 20:1).  As the commentaries point out, at this juncture the Torah abruptly begins to narrate events that took place at the CONCLUSION of the period of wilderness wandering, some thirty eight years after the events of the previous chapter! In fact, as the Ibn Ezra (12th century, Spain) indicates, the Torah records not a single event or prophecy that had occurred in the intervening decades, almost from the time that the people had expectantly marched forth from Sinai until their arrival in the wilderness of Tzin. 


            Thus, we know a lot about the period associated with the Exodus and the arrival and encampment at Sinai, we know a fair amount about the successful second march towards Canaan that provides the narratives for the latter part of Sefer Bemidbar, but we know almost next to nothing about the intervening period – from the debacle of the Spies until the people's arrival at the wilderness of Tzin – a span of almost four decades.  The great majority of the Torah's narratives and commands, the numerous chapters that comprise four of the Five Books of Moses (excepting, of course, Sefer Bereishit), are thus properly compressed into the astonishing time frame of TWO YEARS: the year of the Exodus and the year of the Entry.  The intervening period, during which a generation came of age, lived out its useful years and unceremoniously perished, is thus shrouded in utter gloom. 




            How appropriate, then, that the section concerning the red heifer serves as the transitional narrative, as the Torah seamlessly proceeds from the account of the generation of the Exodus to the story of their children, who now stand ready to enter the Land.  As Rashi (11th century, France) explains, the emphatic expression "the ENTIRE congregation of Bnei Yisrael came to the wilderness of Tzin in the first month" implies that the congregation of which the Torah now speaks was whole and complete, for "the generation of the wilderness had perished, while this new generation had been separated for life" (commentary to 20:1).  In other words, the rite of the red heifer, necessary to effect the change of state of one who had come in contact with the corpse, to allow reentry into the life-giving presence of God, is here presented as the linking passage between the generations.  Those who had left Egypt, condemned to their sad fate in consequence of the sin of the spies, had passed on.  Their children now stood ready to cast off the 'death' associated with their passing, solemnly preparing to perpetuate life in the new land that beckoned.


            But as we read the account of our Parasha, we come across some narratives that sound painfully familiar, so that on surface reading we may in fact wonder whether a transformation of the people has in fact been effected at all.  Though thirty-eight years have passed and the ungrateful generation of the Exodus has expired, their children seem to echo and even to amplify the unappreciative tone of their parents. 


            The particular episode in question concerns the march towards Canaan, as the people skirt the territory of the hostile king of Edom who had refused to allow them passage through his land:


They journeyed forth from Mount Hor by way of the Sea of Reeds in order to circumvent the land of Edom, but the people's patience wore thin enroute.  The people spoke out against the Lord and against Moshe (saying): "Why have you taken us out of the land of Egypt to perish in the wilderness, for there is neither bread nor water and our souls have become disgusted by the insubstantial bread!"  God sent forth the stinging serpents against the people and they bit them, so that a great multitude among Israel perished.  The people approached Moshe and they said: "We have sinned by speaking against God and you, pray to God so that He might remove the serpents from us!" and Moshe prayed on behalf of the people.  God said to Moshe: "Fashion a form of a fiery serpent and place it upon a mast, so that anyone who had been bitten may see it and live".  Moshe fashioned a serpent from copper and he placed it upon a mast so that if a man had been bitten by a serpent he would look at the copper serpent and live…(Bemidbar 21:4-9).


Here, we have all of the elements of a typical wilderness moment: the people suffer some real or imaginary discomfort, they cry out bitterly against God and/or hapless Moshe while invoking fond memories of Egypt, the Divine response is immediate, harsh and corrective, and the people then continue on their scornful way until the next calamity. 


            In fact, our Parasha preserves another example of this pattern, in the very section that had earlier introduced us to this new generation, now poised to enter the Promised Land:


The people of Israel – the entire congregation – came to the wilderness of Tzin in the first month, and the people dwelt in Kadesh.  There Miriam died and there she was buried.  There was no water for the congregation, so they gathered against Moshe and Aharon.  The people strove with Moshe and they said: "If only we had died with our brethren before God!  Why have both of you brought the congregation of God to this wilderness to die there, we as well as our cattle?  Why have you taken us out of Egypt to bring us to this evil place?  This is neither a place of planting, nor of figs, grapes or pomegranates, nor is there any water to drink!"  Moshe and Aharon came from before the congregation to the opening of the tent of Meeting and they fell upon their faces, and the glory of God appeared to them…(Bemidbar 20:1-6).




            For the purposes of comparison, consider the earlier events of Parashat Behaalotkha and Shelach, the sorry episode of the misplaced desire for meat and then the debacle of the spies.  In both situations, the people experienced the distress of the wilderness, became irritated and upset, and lashed out at their leaders and at God.  And in both situations, the results for the people were disastrous:


The mixed multitude that was in their midst acquired a desire, and the people of Israel also cried out and said: "Who will feed us meat?  We remember the fish that we ate in the land of Egypt for nothing, the squash, the melons, the leeks, the onions and the garlic!  But now our soul is dried up, and we have nothing to hope for except the manna!"…The meat was still between their teeth and had not yet dissolved when the wrath of God burned against the people, and God smote them with a very great strike.  They therefore called that place the "graves of the desire" for there they buried the people who had desired… (Bemidbar 11: 4-6; 33-34).


            The entire congregation lifted up their voices and the people cried that night.  All of the people of Israel complained against Moshe and Aharon, and the whole congregation said to them: "If only we had died in the land of Egypt or else in this wilderness, if only we had died!  Why does God bring us to this land to die by the sword, so that our wives and children will become spoils, is it not better for us to return to Egypt?!"  Each one said to his fellow: "Let us appoint a leader and return to Egypt!"…God said: "they will not see the land that I promised to their ancestors, all those who have incensed Me will not see it!" (Bemidbar 14:1-4; 23).




            What then is the fundamental difference between these two generations of Israel?  Why did the generation raised in the wilderness in the shadow of their parents' destructive lack of trust merit to enter the land, even as their hurtful words and deeds so seem to mirror the earlier crimes?  Perhaps the answer is to be found not in a COMPARISON between the episodes, but rather in the CONTRASTS.  Note for instance that while the indiscretions near Edom certainly seemed to recall earlier gripes, the Divine rage that followed – in the form of the fiery serpents – elicited an unprecedented response from the people: they admitted their indiscretion and repented!  As the Torah narrates: "God sent forth the stinging serpents against the people and they bit them, so that a great multitude among Israel perished.  The people approached Moshe and they said: "We have sinned by speaking against God and you, pray to God so that He might remove the serpents from us!" and Moshe prayed on behalf of the people… (Bemidbar 21:6-7).  And while there seems to have been an act of repentance after the episode of the spies as well (see Bemidbar 14:40), the hollowness of that gesture quickly became apparent.  Though at that time the people mouthed the words "we have sinned," their subsequent deeds made it clear that they were prepared to accept neither the Divine judgment nor Moshe's leadership (Bemidbar 14:41-45).  Here, however, Israel approaches Moshe of their own volition, admits their wrongdoing, and then acknowledges Moshe's authority by imploring him to pray on their behalf.


            As for the plaint concerning the lack of water, on the surface it resembles earlier events in which the people bemoaned their wilderness trials.  But reading the text carefully, we note that the sentiments expressed are not so much about wistful hopes of a departure from the wilderness and a speedy RETURN to Egypt, but rather about their growing impatience with that life of wandering, their mounting anticipation to leave it behind forever and their fervent wish to instead ENTER and to settle the new land.  When the people say "Why have you taken us out of the land of Egypt to perish in the wilderness, for there is neither bread nor water and our souls have become disgusted by the insubstantial bread!" they mention their fears of dying in the wilderness like their forebears, who consumed the miraculous manna associated with that place for almost forty years.  How much more would they prefer to be already engaged in the productive pursuit of cultivating their own bread on the slopes of Canaan!  In other words, when Israel complains about the manna this time around, it is not a spiteful and impulsive desire for more tasty cuisine that motivates them but rather an expectant wish to finally enter the land that God had promised so that they might enjoy more tangible fare. 


            And when they cry out for water and exclaim "Why have you taken us out of Egypt to bring us to this evil place?  This is neither a place of planting, nor of figs, grapes or pomegranates, nor is there any water to drink!," they pointedly refer to the land that they so want to already enter, a place of cultivation and abundant produce, a place of luxuriant fruits.  Of course these "figs, grapes and pomegranates" recalls exactly the expedition of the spies so many years earlier, for they too had brought back "a cluster of grapes borne on a pole by two men, as well as pomegranates and figs" (Bemidbar 13:23).  What Israel therefore now demands as they enter the wilderness of Tzin is to finally enter the land that the spies had so glowingly described but ultimately rejected!  Note that in neither of these situations, do the people state any explicit desire to go back to Egypt and to its imagined luxuries, as was the case in the earlier set of complaints.


            In other words, superficial resemblances notwithstanding, Israel has indeed developed and matured over the course of the wilderness wanderings.  Aforetimes, the challenge of traversing the wilderness elicited from them only deep-seated dread and a misplaced yearning to return to the oppressive certainties of slavery and servitude.  "Let someone else make the decisions!," the people seemed to say, "and may God stop troubling us with His incessant demands that we live consciously and purposefully!"  But now, tempered by four decades of having to daily summon forth trust and fortitude, the people of Israel crave to enter the land so that they might finally implement the lessons that they have acquired through so much hard effort.  "Enough of this barren landscape" they now cry out, "let us already enter the land so that we might embrace our God-given destiny!"  What a transformation indeed.


Shabbat Shalom

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