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Parshas Chukas - Vol. 5,
Compiled by Oizer Alport
Zos chukas HaTorah (19:2)
The Magen Avrohom writes (Orach Chaim 580:9) that it is the custom of pious individuals to fast on the Erev Shabbos preceding Parshas Chukas in observance of a tragic event which occurred on that day. On this day in the year 5004, 24 cartloads of the Gemora and other holy books were publicly burned in France due to allegations of heretical and rebellious teachings contained therein.
Rav Hillel of Verona, a student of Rabbeinu Yonah, writes that his illustrious teacher noted that just 40 days prior to this episode, the Jews had publicly burned in that very spot a number of copies of the controversial philosophical writings of the Rambam,. Rabbeinu Yonah saw in this tragedy Divine punishment being meted out for their actions, and he viewed it as a Heavenly message supporting the legitimacy of the teachings of the Rambam. The Jews of the time repented their actions and prayed for Divine forgiveness, thus ending the bitter controversy over the philosophical views of the Rambam.
Although fasts commemorating historical events are normally established on the calendar date on which they occurred – in this case 9 Tammuz – the Rabbis of the time mystically inquired regarding the nature of the decree, and received the cryptic reply “da gezeiras Oraisah” – this is the decree of the Torah. This expression is taken from Onkelos’ Aramaic translation of the second verse in Parshas Chukas. They interpreted this message as alluding that the decree was connected to the day’s proximity to the reading of Parshas Chukas, so they established the fast specifically on the Erev Shabbos preceding the reading of Parshas Chukas. The Magen Avrohom concludes by noting that in the terrible pogroms that occurred in the years Tach V’Tat (1648-9), two entire Jewish communities were brutally destroyed on the Erev Shabbos preceding Parshas Chukas.
Vayir’u kol ha’eidah ki gavah Aharon vayivku es Aharon sheloshim yom kol Beis Yisroel (20:29)
The Torah requires (35:28) a person who accidentally kills another Jew to flee to one of the cities of refuge. In order to be protected from the deceased’s relative and blood-avenger, he must remain there until the death of the Kohen Gadol, at which point he is permitted to return to his community and family. The Meshech Chochmah derives from our verse that although this law was applicable during the 40-year sojourn of the Jews in the wilderness, with the accidental killer required to dwell in the camp of the Levites (Rashi Shemos 21:13), an accidental killing never actually occurred during this entire period.
The Torah relates that upon the death of Aharon, every member of the Jewish nation cried and mourned his death. Rashi explains that this was due to his tremendous efforts to make peace between quarreling parties. The Meshech Chochmah notes, however, that had there been even a single accidental murderer during this period, he wouldn’t have cried at the death of Aharon – the Kohen Gadol – but rather would have rejoiced at the event which secured his freedom!
However, the Matamei Yaakov questions this proof. It is entirely possible that there was an accidental killer who was exiled to the Levite camp but who died prior to the death of Aharon, which occurred during the last year of their 40-year sojourn in the wilderness. As such, the fact that at the time of Aharon’s death every living Jew mourned his passing doesn’t constitute an absolute indication that there were no accidental killings during this period.
Al kein yomru ha’moshlim bo’u Cheshbon tibaneh v’sikonein ir Sichon (21:27)
On a literal level, our cumbersome verse discusses the battles between two of the non-Jewish peoples who lived at this time and commemorates the victory of one over the other. However, the Gemora (Bava Basra 78b) homiletically reinterprets our verse as coming to teach an important life lesson in values and priorities. The Gemora explains that the verse can be read as quoting not rulers over kingdoms, but rather rulers over their own base instincts and evil inclinations. What is the message of these masters of self-control? They advise that a person make a reckoning of the reward for performing a mitzvah versus the loss incurred by doing so, and the potential gain from sinning relative to its downside.
The Gemora concludes that these individuals promise that somebody who makes the appropriate calculation will be built in this world and well-established in the World to Come. While it is certainly understandable that a person who righteously makes such a reckoning will be well-compensated in the next world, in what way does he tangibly benefit from doing so in this world?
Rav Shalom Schwadron was once giving a speech on this very topic when a man approached him at the end of the lecture and related a story which answers our question. The man was an old Russian Jew, and his story took place just before the rise to power of the Communists. At that time, the Jews in Russia felt secure, and the man had a lucrative job in the jewelry business.
One day he was going to work a bit early when he heard somebody calling for a tenth man to complete a minyan so that a person could say the Mourner’s Kaddish on the yahrtzeit of one of his relatives. Because he had a few minutes to spare, he agreed to be the tenth man. Much to his chagrin, when he entered the room, he saw only five other men. When he turned to leave, the man with yahrtzeit begged him to stay a few more minutes until the minyan could be completed.
After much time, the real tenth man was found, but the jeweler was fuming at the thought of all of the money he was losing in missed business deals. Still, he assumed that there would be one quick Kaddish and then it would be all over. He was left speechless when the man with yahrtzeit proceeded to start from the very beginning of the prayer service. As they had only an exact minyan, the jeweler had no choice but to remain hostage, growing more livid by the moment. When the service was finally over, he angrily ran toward his office. When he got there, he was informed that that very morning the Bolsheviks had attacked and ransacked the building, killing most of the Jews in the process. If he hadn’t stayed to allow another Jew to say Kaddish, his kids would be saying Kaddish for him!
Many times in life we are confronted with dilemmas between what we known deep down is the right thing to do and what we want to do to get ahead and have what appears to be more fun in this world. The next time we are faced with such a choice, we should follow the advice of the rulers to make a calculation and to realize that by making the right decision, we stand to gain not only in the next world but also in this one.
Answers to the weekly Points to Ponder are now available!
Parsha Points to Ponder (and sources which discuss them):
1) The Medrash Pliah explains the juxtaposition of Parshas Chukas to Parshas Korach by stating that Korach was motivated to rebel against Moshe when he learned about the mitzvah of the red heifer). How is this to be understood, and in what way did the parah adumah inspire Korach to challenge the authority and leadership of Moshe? (Roshei Besamim, Chemdas Tzvi)
2) The Torah uses the phrase “this is the chok (decree) of the Torah” in conjunction with 2 mitzvos: the purification of the red heifer, and the laws of koshering utensils (31:21-24). What do they have in common, and why is this phrase used in connection with them? (Darash Moshe)
3) Who is on a higher level of purity: a person who remains ritually pure his entire life, or one who becomes impure but subsequently re-purifies himself? (Peirush Mishnayos L’Rambam Parah 3:3, Gilyonei HaShas Berachos 22b, Shu”t Ben Poras 2:2, Chavatzeles HaSharon, Bishvilei HaParsha)
4) The Medrash teaches (Vayikra Rabbah 11:7) that wherever the word “v’haya” appears, it connotes joy. In describing the fiery serpents which attacked the Jewish people as punishment for their complaints, the Torah states (21:9) “v’haya im nashach ha’nachas es ish” – and if the serpent bit a man. Why did the Torah use the word “v’haya” in conjunction with the attack of the serpents, something which should have caused suffering and not joy? (Meshech Chochmah, Mishmeres Ariel)
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