What Happened to Israel in the Desert is a Lesson for all the Generations
Our Torah section of the week, Parsha Chukat, is filled with events that happened to the Children of Israel in the desert, and even though there is perhaps no connection between them, all are symbolic and teach us in every generation how to elevate and better ourselves in the service of G-d. What follows are some examples of what I have found.
Following the sin at the waters of Merivah, Moses and Aaron were not able to enter into Eretz Israel. Why? The Rambam believes that the entire sin of Moses consisted of having said to the Children of Israel, “Listen now, O rebels” (Numbers 20:10), meaning that he spoke ill of them. As for the Ramban, the best interpretation of the text is given by Rabbeinu Chananel, which is that Moses told the Children of Israel, “Shall we bring forth water for you from this rock?” Instead, Moses should have said, “G-d shall bring forth water,” for everything comes from Him, and they (Moses and Aaron) make nothing on their own. This is why they had to strike the rock instead of speaking to it, as He had commanded them (v.8).
In my humble opinion, we may say that there is no contradiction here. Because they had become angry against the Children of Israel and spoken ill of them, they ended up having to rely on their own greatness, not G-d’s. Following that, they had to strike the rock, whereas G-d had commanded them to speak to it, the initial cause being that beforehand, they had become angry at the Children of Israel.
Even though Moses, in his vexation, used the expression na (“please”), which expresses a petition, this shows that his anger was not so great. And yet G-d reprimanded him all the same, for He is extremely demanding with regards to those who are close to Him (Yebamot 121b), and He punished him. Now why did Moses strike the rock rather than speak to it? Because he thought that the Children of Israel had sinned by harshly demanding water, and that as a consequence they did not merit that the water should flow out of the rock through speech, but only by striking it, for speech represents mercy whereas striking represents strict justice. Yet G-d reprimanded him, for He didn’t want the water to be viewed as a manifestation of justice, but rather solely as a manifestation of mercy, and that is why He punished Moses. G-d even added, “Because you did not believe in Me to sanctify Me in the eyes of the Children of Israel” (Numbers 20:12), which means that He reprimanded Moses and Aaron for not have relied on G-d’s greatness, but rather on their own. However G-d did not call this a sin, but only a weakness in their faith. Yet since anger had brought about this disobedience to G-d, they were not allowed to enter Eretz Israel.
If Moses and Aaron would have been allowed to enter, the entire world would have yielded to them, the Temple would not have been destroyed, and the Redemption would have occurred immediately. Since this was not the case, disasters began. The king of Edom, who had positioned himself in front of the Children of Israel to prevent them from passing through his country, immediately told them, “You shall not pass through me – lest I come against you with the sword” (v.18). What is the meaning of the conditional tense “lest I come”? The Sefer Emet says that it refers to the long-term future. In effect, what Edom said is: If in the future I will be able to fight you, it is because there will be an exile, and consequently I can deny you passage through my land as of now. Actually, if Moses and Aaron had entered Eretz Israel, they would have judged Edom and eliminated the Kelipah, which is in fact what will happen in the future: “And saviors will ascend Mount Zion to judge the Mountain of Esau” (Obadiah 1:21), the saviors being Moses and Aaron. This is because if they had entered, it would have been permanently, without exile or destruction. Yet because the time for the Redemption had not yet arrived, they did not receive permission to enter and fight against Edom.
To understand this passage, we must say that Edom knew that Isaac had said, “The voice is Jacob’s voice, but the hands are Esau’s hands” (Genesis 27:22). Esau probably also heard that he had said, “one people shall be stronger than the other people” (ibid 25:23), meaning that there would never be peace between them, which is the reason why Edom didn’t let Israel pass through. And even if in all fairness Edom should have yielded before the Children of Israel, as it is written, “The elder shall serve the younger” (ibid.), he still refused to do so.
In saying, “lest I come against you with the sword,” he alluded to two things:
1. Do not pass through me, since you will be influenced by my character and sins, and I will then be able to wage war against you, for “by your sword you shall live … you shall shake his yoke off your neck” (ibid 27:40) and I will conquer you. Naturally, he wasn’t saying this because of his love for Israel (whom he feared tremendously, as it is written: “Then the chieftains of Edom were confounded” [Exodus 15:15]), but only as a trick. And in fact G-d wisely decreed that it wasn’t necessary to fight against Edom before the Redeemer (Mashiach) arrives to judge the mount of Esau, and that royalty belongs to G-d.
2. How can I let you pass through and benefit from my country, since tomorrow I will destroy your Temple? Better that we remain enemies until the future and that you don’t pass through me.
The death of Aaron occurred after this entire episode, and concerning him it is said, “When the entire assembly saw that Aaron had perished, they wept for Aaron thirty days” (Numbers 20:29). Everyone wept for him, for he loved and pursued peace (Perkei Avoth 1:12). Even when the Children of Israel complained of him, he held no grudge against them. On the contrary, he always made peace between a husband and his wife and between a man and his fellow. In this way, he brought about the love of G-d, Whose name is also Shalom (“Peace” – Shabbat 10b), and we know that G-d finds nothing better to contain blessing than peace.
This is why Aaron merited being the High Priest, for the clothes, sacrifices, and blessings of the High Priest connect the Children of Israel to their Father in Heaven. Concerning upright men, it is said that they establish peace between the Children of Israel and the Holy One, blessed be He (Tanhuma Toldot 1), and G-d blesses His people by peace (Psalms 29:11). All this was because of the merit of Aaron the peacemaker.
The importance of Aaron’s merit is such that the Clouds of Glory were due to him (Taanith 9a). They protected Israel against all enemy intrusion, and also against the cold and the heat – just like Aaron, who had a good influence on everyone and made peace reign among all. The clouds also had the goal of bringing the Children of Israel to repentance, for the Sages said that the clouds rejected those who had sinned (Tanhuma Teitzei 10). When this occurred, Aaron certainly realized what was happening and came to teach the person who had sinned how to repent and return to the interior of the cloud in order to benefit from the influence of the Holy One, blessed be He, and gain protection from all harm (Bamidbar Rabba 19:15). Concerning this, Rabbi Israel of Ruzhin explains that the clouds were due to the merit of Aaron, not anyone else, for it was Aaron himself who brought an abundance of good to the people, in the same way as did these clouds.
However when Aaron died, the clouds disappeared (Taanith 9a). This beneficial influence and protection were interrupted and there was no one left to guide the people in the way that Aaron had done. The House of Israel wept for him for two reasons: Because this beneficial influence had been interrupted, and because there was no one to make peace among men and teach them to return to G-d. Now clouds, as we know, can be small. Yet the wind often connects one cloud to another, to the point that one very large, powerful cloud can take shape. This is a teaching for all the Children of Israel: Through love and fraternity, by respecting the commandment “you shall love your fellow as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18), each person can connect to another, and at the same time the Torah and mitzvoth connect them to the Holy One, blessed be He, for love is a great principle of the Torah (Bereshith Rabba 24:7) and it brings people closer to G-d.
Once all this stopped with the death of Aaron, the war began. At that moment, the Canaanite king of Arad heard that Aaron had died (Numbers 21:1) and that the Clouds of Glory had vanished. He believed that this was a sign of weakness, and so he attacked the Children of Israel and took some of them prisoners. From this we see the harm brought about by sin and hatred. Up to then, the Tzaddik had protected them from all harm, and no nation could fight against them, but then he passed away and they began to argue among themselves, to the point that they were punished by the Canaanite (who in reality was Amalek). How did the Canaanite become aware of what had happened? It was Balaam who told them that the Children of Israel were surrounded by Clouds of Glory because of Aaron’s merit. We therefore see to what extent the Tsaddik can protect the entire people, even if they are not worthy, for by his very nature he wants to do good for Israel in every possible way.
How did the Children of Israel succeed in defeating the king of Arad? It is written, “Israel made a vow to the L-RD and said, ‘If He will deliver this people into my hand, I will consecrate their cities’ ” (Numbers 21:2). They understood that Amalek came to fight them and make them sin, which is why they immediately made a vow, as a single man with a single heart (“made a vow” is singular in Hebrew). They promised to conquer their evil inclination, to consider everything as consecrated, and not to use their enemy’s riches. They in fact were successful, and the merit of Aaron returned because the Children of Israel had immediately repented and succeeded in overcoming the weakness that had allowed Amalek to take prisoners from among them.
From what we have said up to now, we understand that everything is connected to the beginning of the parsha, where the subject is the ashes of the red heifer, followed by the death of Miriam. Actually, the Sages have said, “In the same way that the ashes of the red heifer atone, the death of the Tzaddikim purify and atone” (Yerushalmi Yoma 1:1). This is because with their passing away, everyone cries for them (as they did for Aaron), and they repent and draw closer to G-d. This is why the Children of Israel obtained victory through Aaron’s merit.
Every person must learn from this that he should possess a merit that will protect him, such that in dangerous situations this merit will come to his aid. This is what the Children of Israel did by immediately making a vow. What is a vow? It is a weapon against the evil inclination to prevent it from enticing us, similar to what the Sages have said: “The one who sees the degrading ordeal of the Sotah should make a vow to abstain from wine” (Sotah 2a). A vow permits a person to establish a distance between himself and the pleasures of the world and to conquer his instincts, thus allowing him to become holy and pure. This is a lesson for all the generations. In case of tragedy, a person must try to sanctify and purify himself. This allows him to conquer the evil inclination and defeat the enemy, as did the Children of Israel when they triumphed over Amalek. It is in this way that one comes closer to G-d.