Chukat 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Chukat

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5760 and can be found in its archives.

Chukkat (Numbers 19:1-22:1)

OVERVIEW

The overall theme of parshat Chukkat might be encounters with danger and death. First we have the mysterious law of the Red Heifer, whose ashes are used to purify those who have become impure because of contact with a corpse; then there are more laws about this severe form of ritual impurity. Miriam dies; the people complain about deadly thirst, and Moshe is sentenced not to enter the Land because he did not follow God’s instructions in providing water for the people. Aharon dies, and the people have to fight off attacks as they travel through the land.

IN FOCUS

“When the Canaanite, the king of Arad, who dwelt in the Negev, heard that Israel was coming by way of Atarim, he fought with Israel and made some of them captives.” (Numbers 21:1)

PSHAT

When the Israelites were somewhere in the Negev desert (south of the main populated areas of the contemporary state of Israel), a Canaanite king heard that they were on the way, and decided to attack them. According to the Plaut commentary, this king engaged the Israelites south of his kingdom, in the middle of the desert. After this battle they headed East again, to continue their wandering.

DRASH

The book of Numbers is full of concise stories, only a few lines long: stories of the complaints of the Israelites, stories of their travels, even stories of their battles. The story in Numbers 21, above, doesn’t tell us much about this king of Arad, other than that he obviously didn’t want the Israelites passing through or near his territory.

That might indeed have been enough to spark a battle in ancient days, but many traditional Torah commentators see here more than just a skirmish over territory. They identify the unnamed king of Arad with the evil nation Amalek, which attacked Israel from behind as they left Egypt (see Exodus 17 and Deuteronomy 25.) One midrash imagines this as another instance of Amalek attacking at a moment of weakness:

    When Aharon died, and the cloud of [God’s] Presence departed on the first of the month of Av, the entire community saw that Moshe came down from the mountain, his clothes torn, crying out: “My woe is upon you! Aharon my brother, the pillar of the prayers of Israel!” They also cried for Aharon thirty days, both men and women of Israel. Amalek heard that the Israelites were encamped in the south of the land, and so they came and disguised themselves and ruled in Arad. Thus, when Aharon died and the cloud of the Presence, which would lead the people because of the merit of Aharon, departed, and when Israel came by way of Hatarim, which was a place that they rebelled against the Master of the Universe [by believing the spies]. . . .Amalek came and fought with Israel and took many captives.
    (from Yalkut Israel, a collection of midrashim from Talmudic times; translation mine.)

This interpretation is more or less followed by several of the classic commentators, including Rashi and Chizkuni. This midrash makes three connections: first, that the story of the king of Arad and the death of Aharon are side by side for a reason; second, that both Amalek and the king of Arad are described as dwelling in the Negev (see Numbers 13:29); and third, that Amalek has a particularly nasty streak, preferring to pick a fight when Israel is distracted and demoralized after Aharon’s death (compare Deut. 25).

The ancient rabbis had several sources in the Bible which described Amalek at the eternal enemy of Israel; it thus makes sense, from their perspective, that Amalek would be the one who attacks Israel for no apparent reason. Yet we can turn the midrash around: not only is Amalek known for taking advantage of Israel’s weak points, but by associating such behavior with the “super-villain” of the Torah, the rabbis are making an extremely strong moral statement. In other words, if Amalek are the kind of people who would attack Israel while they are in mourning for Aharon, then anybody who would take advantage of another in a moment of weakness is like Amalek- considered reprehensible by both humans and God, representing the worst side of human behavior.

Now, one doesn’t have to go as far as the rules of desert warfare to apply this principle to daily life. One could compare Amalek in this midrash to those who defraud gullible people, or use a tragedy to inappropriately sell their services, or even those leaders in society who stir up resentment and prejudice among different groups in order to consolidate power.

Maybe we even sometimes find the spirit of Amalek closer to home, in those moments of anger when we fire off a “cheap shot” at a loved one, using their fears or vulnerabilities against them. After all, in the midrash above, Israel was not only mourning Aharon, but doing so in a place that reminded them of their past mistakes; they were low both spiritually and emotionally.

To me, Amalek not an enemy “out there,” but representative of our most selfish and destructive urges. When we see opportunities for advantage rather than human beings in pain- that’s the spirit of Amalek. When we start regarding the people around us as competitors, rather than manifestations of the Divine Image- that’s the spirit of Amalek. When we start believing it’s a “dog eat dog” world- then we’re worse than animals, we’re back to Amalek again.

Our midrash this week is especially poignant for its comparison of Amalek to Aharon- the “pillar of the prayers of Israel,” described in the Talmud as “loving peace and pursuing peace, loving other people and drawing them close to Torah.” (Pirke Avot 1:12) In this image, Aharon is a worthy role model because he not only did he love the people around him, but helped them grow spiritually (understood by the rabbis as growing in Torah). As the Talmud portrays him, Aharon reached out to those in need with a hand of giving, and as our midrash this week implies, losing such a compassionate person is a loss like the Divine Presence itself departing from the community.

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