Chukat 5761

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 5761 and can be found in its archives.

Chukkat (Numbers 19:1-22:1)


One could characterize the overall theme of parshat Chukat as 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 pertaining to providing water for the people. Aharon dies, and the people have to fight off attacks as they travel through the land.


“Moshe sent emissaries from Kadesh to the king of Edom, [saying], ‘So said your brother Israel: You know all the hardships that have befallen us. Our ancestors went down to Egypt and we dwelled in Egypt many years, and the Egyptians acted terribly to our ancestors. We cried out to God, Who heard our voice, and sent an angel and took us out of Egypt. . . . ‘ ” (Numbers 20:14-16)


The Israelites are camped at a place called Kadesh, and they want to take a shortcut through another kingdom, called Edom, on their way to the land of Israel. Edom is associated with the descendants of Esav, Yaakov’s brother (cf. Genesis 32:4, for example)- thus Moshe apparently hopes to gain some sympathy from the king of this country of “brothers.” This hope is rebuffed, and the Israelites have to take another route.


A key word in our little story is malach, which can mean a messenger or an emissary. Sometimes this messenger is a human being with a straightforward task, such as in verse 14, above: Moshe sends messengers to the king. However, what makes this word so interesting is that the word can also describe an “emissary” from God, what in English we would call an angel. Sometimes the Bible very clearly describes a malach as a heavenly being, as in the story of the birth of Samson:

    A certain man of Zorah, named Manoah, from the clan of the Danites, had a wife who was sterile and remained childless. The angel [malach] of God appeared to her and said, “You are sterile and childless, but you are going to conceive and have a son. . . (Judges 13:2-3)

On the other hand, consider this passage from Exodus:

    See, I am sending an angel [malach] ahead of you to guard you along the way and to bring you to the place I have prepared. Pay attention to him and listen to what he says. Do not rebel against him . . . (Exodus 23:20-21)

Is this emissary a human or divine figure? It’s not clear from the text, though most commentators think that it means a supernatural angel.

In our verse, in Numbers, Moshe tells the king of Edom that God sent a malach to lead the people out of Egypt. The medieval commentator Ibn Ezra says that this was a heavenly angel, sent by God to lead the people. On the other hand, Rashi says that this malach was Moshe himself. Rashi bases this on a text from the second book of Chronicles, which describes the reign of king Zedekiah, to prove that prophets are called “messengers” of God:

    Adonai, the God of their fathers, sent word to them through God’s messengers again and again, because God had pity on his people and on his dwelling place. But they mocked God’s messengers, despised his words and scoffed at his prophets until the wrath of God was aroused against his people and there was no remedy. (2 Chronicles 36: 15-16)

What I like so much about Rashi’s description of Moshe himself as the “angel” sent by God to take the people out of Egypt is the idea that God works through human beings to accomplish holy purposes. What we know of Moshe from the Torah shows us a very real human being, a man who had real human faults, like anger, impatience, and a sharp tongue. Moshe also had incredible loyalty and compassion for his people- these, too, are the real human traits he displays in our texts.

So by saying that Moshe was the angel whom God sent, Rashi seems to be hinting that human beings, with all their imperfections, are capable of being representatives of God’s purpose in the world. I think this idea is very central to contemporary Jewish theology- human beings must strive to accomplish the redemption of the world. We don’t wait for an angel from heaven, we become the angel here on earth. We don’t necessarily wait for a supernatural being to appear, but we can instead seek to find the holy spark within ourselves, and within each person. The angel you’re waiting for might already be right in front of you.

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