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Parshat Chukkat

"And Moshe lifted up his hand, and smote the rock with his rod twice and water came forth abundantly, and the congregation and their cattle drank"

(Bemidbar 20:11)



The Striking of the Boulder- Response Out Of Desperation or Fulfillment of God's Command?

 Have we the right to investigate the feelings of Moshe our teacher at that moment? What was in the heart of 'the servant of God' - about whom God himself testified "in all my house, trusted is he?" What had distracted him from properly discharging his mission?

We might offer the following suggestion: Moshe took the staff from the tabernacle where it had stood for almost forty years. He took the staff in his hand as God had commanded, and, holding this symbol of his divine mission, he proceeded to gather the people. Here he stands once again - after forty years - with the staff of God in his hand. At the beginning of his mission forty years earlier, he needed the staff in order to publicly certify his appointment. Now he is pained by the thought that in all those forty years, despite all he had done for them, he had not succeeded in winning the people's trust. In the bitterness of this emotion, he forgot his mission, and instead of talking softly to the boulder, he spoke harsh words of admonition. In the storm of his feelings, he struck the boulder.

(From the commentary of Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch on Bemidbar 20:11)



Thus Edom refused to give Israel passage through his border...

You shall not abhor the Edomite for he is your brother.

Pinchas Leiser

In honor of my granddaughter Hila Miriam bat Yael and Imri Nitnas

born on 10 Adar 5772,

and my grandson Alon Yisrael ben Yael and Nati Leiser,

born on 14 Iyar 5772

The Torah tells us about number of events and encounters between the children of Israel and other nations at the time of the exodus from Egypt and leading up to their entrance into the land of Israel.

The Torah tells us at the beginning of Parashat Beshalach "God led them not by the way of the land of the Plishtim although that was near; for God said: Lest the people regret when they see war and they return to Egypt".

The first encounter, except for when the Egyptians chased after the children of Israel before the parting of the Red Sea in which there was a need for divine intervention in order to release the nation from fear of Egypt without war, was the encounter with Amalek. It is interesting to point out that this encounter with Amalek took place in Refidim, after the nation complained about the lack of water. Immediately afterwards the Torah tells us: "And Amalek came and fought against Israel in Refidim", and the author of the Midrash Tanchuma Beshalach Chapter 25 expounds on the word Refidim: "Refidim can only mean that they slackened their grip on the Torah, thus Amalek came upon them". Amalek is understood here also as someone who takes advantage of the weakness of the enslaved nation who just now came out of Egypt. But here, in contrast to the events at the Red Sea, the children of Israel fought and were victorious over Amalek.

During the first two years of the journey through the wilderness, The Torah does not tell us of any additional encounter between the children of Israel and another nation.

In Parashat Shlach, the spies manage to incite in the generation of the wilderness fear of war against the residents of the land: "We are not able to go up against the people for they are stronger than we". On account of their weakness, it was decreed that the children of Israel should tarry in the wilderness for another forty years until all those who left Egypt die, for they were not ready to enter the land.

In our parasha, we witness again a hostile encounter between the children of Israel and another nation, and this is the language of the verse:

And Moshe sent messengers from Kadesh to the king of Edom: Thus says your brother Israel: You know all the travail that has befallen us: how our fathers went down into Egypt, and we dwelt in Egypt a long time; and the Egyptians dealt ill with us and our fathers; and when we cried to the Lord, He heard our voice, and sent an angel, and brought us forth out of Egypt; and, behold, we are in Kadesh, a city at the edge of your border. Let us pass, I pray you, through your land; we will not pass through field or through vineyard, neither will we drink of the water of the wells; we will go along the king's highway, we will not turn aside to the right hand nor to the left, until we have passed your border. And Edom said to him: You shall not pass through me, lest I come out with the sword against you. And the children of Israel said to him: We will go up by the highway; and if we drink of your water, I and my cattle, then will I give the price of it; let me only pass through on my feet; there is no hurt. And he said: You shall not pass through. And Edom came out against him with much people, and with a strong hand. Thus Edom refused to give Israel passage through his border; wherefore Israel turned away from him. (Bemidbar 20:14-21)

Moshe attempts to turn toward "his brother" Edom but he is turned away with hostility; yet even in this instance the war between the children of Israel and Edom is prevented.

This parasha, in which Moshe requests passage through Edom and is answered negatively, occurs between the story of "the waters of Meriva" (in which there is again a lack of water, after the death of Miriam. In this story, the people suffer from despair, and Moshe strikes the rock instead of speaking to it and the decree is given that Moshe and Aharon will not enter the land of Israel) and the story of Aharon's death.

After Aharon's death, the Canaanite King Ered starts a war with Israel by whom he apparently feels terrorized. Israel makes a vow to God, wages battle and is victorious in this war.

The next war, too, following the refusal of Sichon the king of the Amorites when Israel requests passage through his land, concludes with Israel's victory and the conquering of the Amorite cities. The children of Israel also won the war against Og king of the Bashan who initiated a war.

When Balak the Moabite king saw that all the local nations who attempted to fight Israel were beaten, he hires the services of Balam who may not be successful in cursing Israel, yet nevertheless is successful in seducing large portions of the nation to have licentious relations with the daughters of Moav and worship the baal peor. This is not a classic victory of battle, but it does constitute the cause of a severe crisis within the people of Israel.

After the difficult plague in which 24,000 people among Israel died, Moshe is commanded to enlist the people in a war of revenge against Midian. In this war, the kings of Midian are killed as well as Balam ben Be'or.

In contrast, Moshe is commanded not to wage war against Ammon and Moav because their lands were given to the descendants of Lot.

Beyond the various stories that are told about the animosity that prevailed between the children of Israel and the other nations, it is interesting to notice the differential manner in which the Torah relates to these enemies and commands us to respond to them.

Concerning the Egyptians, who enslaved the people Israel for hundreds of years, it is stated: "You shall not abhor an Egyptian, because you were a stranger in his land" (Devarim 23:8).

As we know, Amalek becomes the ultimate eternal enemy about whom it is said: "Utterly erase the memory of Amalek" and also "It is an eternal war for the Lord against Amalek from generation to generation".

Also in relation to the Edomite, although he did not allow us to pass through his land, and he even came out to war against us, we are commanded to relate to him as we do towards the Egyptians: "You shall not abhor an Edomite, for he is your brother" (Devarim 23:8).

In contrast, concerning the Ammonites and Moabites it is said "An Ammonite or a Moabite shall not enter into the assembly of the Lord even to the tenth generation shall none of them enter into the assembly of the Lord for ever. Because they met you not with bread and with water in the way, when you came forth out of Egypt; and because they hired against you Balam the son of Be'or from Petor Aram Naharayim, to curse you. Nevertheless the Lord your God would not hearken unto Balam. But the Lord your God turned the curse into a blessing for you, because the Lord your God loved you. You shall not seek their peace nor their prosperity all your days for ever" (Devarim 23:4-7).

It is interesting to point out that seemingly Ammon and Moav cannot enter the assembly of God although there is no such comprehensive limitation concerning Edom who behaved in a similar manner. More than that, there is no explicit mention in the Torah stating that Ammon or Moav did not greet the children of Israel with bread and water. The Torah only tells us that the children of Israel must avoid being provoked into a war with Ammon and Moav because their land was promised to Lot.

The Ramban (23:5) explains why Ammon and Moav are excluded from the "assembly of God", and these are his words:

It seems to me that the Torah distances these two brothers who were recipients of Avraham's loving kindness, for he saved their father and mother from destruction and captivity (Bereshit 14:16), and in his merit God sent them out from the upheaval (Bereshit 18:29) and they were obligated to treat Israel well, yet they treated them badly; The first hired Balam ben Be'or against him- these were the Moabites, and the other did not greet them with bread and water when they approached nearby, as it is stated (Devarim 2:18-19) "'You are today to pass over the border of Moav, even Ar, and when you come over against the children of Ammon" and behold the verse warns them (Devarim 2:19) "harass them not, nor contend with them" and they did not greet them at all, as the verse would have written "as the children of Esav, the Moabites, and Ammonites did to me", but it did not mention Ammon, who did not meet them. Behold, in this respect Ammon acted more wickedly than the others, for the children of Esav and the Moabites took bread and water out from their borders when they knew that Israel was warned against contending with them, yet Ammon did not want to do so. This is the reason behind the phrase "who did not greet": they did not go out to greet them with bread or water as the others did, thus the verse names "Ammonite" first and mentions his sin in not greeting them first, and afterwards mentions the Moabite and his sin.

Concerning the preferential relationship which the Egyptians and Edomites merit, Rashi writes (Devarim 23:8-9): You shall not abhor an Edomite - completely, although it would be fitting for you to abhor him for he came out to meet you with sword. You shall not abhor an Egyptian- entirely, although they threw your male children into the Nile; Why? For they were your lodging place when you were in need, therefore: Children who are born to them to the third generation etc.... and the other nations are permitted immediately, thus you may learn that [the punishment] is more severe for the person who causes another to sin than it is for one who kills another person, for the one who kills him kills him in this world, while the one who causes him to sin takes him out of this world and the world to come. Therefore Edom who greeted them with sword shall not be abhorred, nor the Egyptians who drowned them, yet those who caused them to sin shall be abhorred.

Rashi, then, not in accordance with the Ramban who explains the severity of the punishment for Ammon and Moav by saying that they were obligated to treat us with loving kindness because they were saved in the merit of our forefather Avraham, sees a greater danger in the nation that harms the soul of the people that he finds in the nation who fights against us. It is not clear how Ammon caused Israel to sin.

The Netziv, in his commentary "Ha'emek Davar" does not hang the matter particularly upon the merit of the Edomite and the Egyptian, but rather he sees in this relationship an opportunity for cultivating elevated character traits. This is his wording:

For he is your brother": The Holy One Blessed Be He wanted to habituate Israel to the sublime level of the soul, and the more elevated a soul is, he draws close those who are near him. Thus he reminded him to remember their brotherhood with the children of Edom. "Because you were a stranger in his land": This, too, is the way of the sublime soul to bestow goodness and not to be ungrateful and called a scoundrel. Thus the Holy One Blessed Be He habituates us to this mitzva.

On the practical, halakhic plane, our Sages neutralized the scope of these restrictions. For example: At first, they decreed that the restriction of Ammonites and Moabites joining the assembly of God should apply only to the males, and they expounded: Ammoni (male) and not Ammonit (female), Moavi (male) and not Moavit (female)" (Yevamot 69A). A more comprehensive neutralization of the restriction is cited in the statements of Rabbi Yehoshua (Brachot 28A): "But are Ammon and Moav sitting in their proper places? Sanherev the king of Ashur already came and mixed up all the nations". Meaning: We cannot correlate the nations from ancient days with latter day nations that have the same name.

How, then, shall we relate to the differences in our relations towards various nations described in the scriptures? I think that in all the attempts of the Torah commentators to explain the differences between the relations with various nations in the Torah, one should relate on the level of "seek and you shall be rewarded", since they raise various criteria that are likely to be useful to us when we come to determine, even in our day, our relations with nations who cause us harm in various forms. It could be that it is possible to learn from here that there is a difference between relations of animosity or hostility that follows from opposing interests or political quarrels even if they are accompanied by difficult violence and relationships of essential hatred that flow from racist ideology. Similarly, the Netziv teaches us that hatred is not a desirable quality of the soul and one must rise above feelings of vengefulness.

The way of our Sages also makes it possible for us to believe in the possibility of people and nations to change and not to drag animosity and hostility on for many generations, but rather to remember that "the descendants of Haman taught Torah in Bnei Brak, and the descendants of Sisra taught children in Jerusalem, and the descendants of Sanheriv gave public Torah expositions" (Gittin 57B), to rise above and forgive.

Pinchas Leiser, Editor of Shabbat Shalom, Psychologist


"When a man dies in a tent..." (Bemidbar 19:14)

[Translator's note: To understand this passage from Sifri, it is helpful to compare two verses in Hebrew: Num.19:14 Zot hatorah adam ki yamut baohel... and 2 Sam 7:19 vzot torat ha-adam...]

"You shall die on the mountain you are about to ascend" (Deut.32:50) Moses said: Master of the Universe, why do I have to die an untimely death? They will say Moses took us out of Egypt and split the sea and gave us the Torah, and the manna, and brought the quail, and performed miracles and wonders... but I still have much left to do. God responded: Moses, every man (adam) must die, as it is said, "This is the law [zot hatorah] :When a man [Heb. adam] dies in a tent" ; and it says, (2 Sam.7:19) "This is the law, after the manner of a great man, O Lord God" [Heb. v'zot torat ha-adam] The accompanying angels said to the Holy One Blessed be He: Master of the Universe, why did the first man, Adam, die? He answered: He did not follow My instructions. They responded: And did Moses follow Your instructions? God said to them: every man (adam) must die, as it says in Numbers 19:14, "This is the law: When a man [adam] dies [in a tent]..."

(Sifri, Haazinu, section 339)


Can a serpent kill - can a serpent revive?

Hezkiyahu, King of Judea, did four things, and his thought concurred with of the Omnipresent: He hid a book of remedies, and his thought concurred with of the Omnipresent; he crushed the copper serpent, and his thought concurred with of the Omnipresent

(Avot D'Rabbi Natan, 2:4)


The Holy One, Blessed Be He, said to him: "Make yourself a burning-snake So Moshe made a viper of copper (Bemidbar 21:8-9) And thus stood the copper serpent; whenever a person was bitten, he would look upon it and be healed. Until Hezkiyahu reigned and saw Israel going astray after it. He said; Now whoever is in need of cure goes to this and ignores The Holy One, Blessed Be He. He took it away, as is written "And he crushed the copper serpent etc." (II Kings 18:4) People began to protest: That which Moshe established you demolish? He replied: Whoever is need of cure, let him look to The Holy One, Blessed Be He, and he will be cured, as is written "Men look to Him and are radiant; let their faces not be downcast."

(Midrash Aggadat Bereishit, Chap 11)


The sin of jeftah

...And this was the mistake that Jeftah made with his daughter. For he thought that just as a cheirem ["doomed" object] of the chief of Israel is valid and takes effect to put [certain] people to death, and [also] anyone who transgresses it is liable to the death penalty, so [Jeftah thought] that if he uttered a vow at a time of war, to make an offering of a certain person or persons, the vow is valid; but he did not know that a cheirem declared by the king and Sanhedrin is valid [only] regarding the destruction of rebels, or against one who transgresses their decrees and ordinances. But that a vow should take effect to make a burnt-offering of something not appropriate for God [as Jeftah thought] - Heaven forbid! Therefore the Rabbis have said in Bereshit Rabbah that [Jeftah] was not even obliged to pay the price of [an amount equivalent to his daughter's] value to the Temple treasury [as his vow was totally invalid], and he was punished for her [innocent] blood!

(Ramban on Lev.27:29, tr.Chavel)


Jeftah is not to be regarded as a national hero. His deed is not to be admired as one of self-sacrifice and greatness prompted by patriotic feeling. It was a cruel and unwarranted deed. We may rely on our Sages who saw him as an ignorant and unlettered person, a boor, empty, and rash. Enthusiasm by itself is no guarantee of the desirability of a cause. Enthusiasm that is not backed by conscience and the self-discipline of Torah is liable to bring disaster. 'What caused Jeftah to take the life of his own daughter? His failure to read and understand Torah.'

(From Studies in Bamidbar by Nehama Leibowitz, tr. A. Newman, p.279)


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