Thoughts on the Weekly Parshah by HaRav Eliezer Chrysler
Formerly Rav of Mercaz Ahavat Torah, Johannesburg

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Vol. 4 No. 38

Parshas Chukas

Bread, Water and Snakes

In this Parshah, we find people grumbling yet again, complaining that "there is no bread or water".What sort of complaint was that, asks Rabeinu Bachye? Did the Mon not fall daily? And did they not have ample water, in the form of the roving well which accompanied them on their travels, providing them with as much water as they needed? So what was their cause for complaint?

R. Bachye ascribes their complaints to a desire to live a more natural (or perhaps we should say a less supernatural) life. After all, they maintained, other nations were able to buy food and to obtain water in bulk, to stock their larders for weeks in advance. There were no divine restrictions as to how much they were allowed to possess; there were no rations, nor was their livelihood dependent upon their behaviour or upon any other specific merits. But see how their own water supply was cut off the moment Miriam died, because it was on her merit that they had the well in the first place.It was, of course, due to their elevated plane of existence that G-d had been providing their needs supernaturally. He wanted them to remember always that mankind is dependent upon G-d for its existence and moreover, that it can depend upon Him totally and unreservedly, with or without their efforts, as long as they are worthy of His support. As long as they would turn their eyes heavenward, they would always receive all their needs, and their food would never be subject to drought, locusts or other plagues that tend to ravage man-produced food. Surely the divine quality of the food should have convinced them of that, when they saw how the Mon changed its taste to the whim of the individual. And how else could they account for the fact that, for 40 years, it fell daily and amply, and the well (which returned on the merits of Moshe), actually travelled with them throughout, in a terrain where no food, and above all, no water, are normally available.

Under such circumstances, the B'nei Yisroel should have experienced an unparalleled sense of peace and security. But this was not the case. They remained oblivious to the unique advantages of the Mon, demanding instead, to live normally like other nations.

Rashi attributes the ensuing plague of snakes to the original snake, who was punished for speaking evil about his Creator; his offspring were now charged with punishing those who continued with this trend. The plague was also appropriate because, as Rashi explains, to the snake, all foods taste like dust. He was now sent to punish those who saw fit to grumble about a food that tasted like all foods.

Rabeinu Bachye adds a third explanation: Throughout the 40 years in the desert he writes, the divine clouds protected them from the snakes that abounded in the desert. Now that they no longer wanted the Divine system to function, G-d did indeed remove His protection, and the local snakes attacked them. And that explains why Moshe proceeded to set up a copper-snake for them to look up to, to become cured. It was not the sopper snake that cured, says the Mishnah in Rosh Ha'shonoh, but their looking to G-d and rendering their hearts subservient to Him. It was their attempt to disconnect themselves from Him that had resulted in the ensuing plague. This reconnection then, would serve to remove it!

And if we examine R. Bachye's above interpretation of the sin, a fourth explanation of the punishment emerges. It is based on a beautiful explanation of one of the original punishments of the snake: It was decreed on him that he would eat dust. But what sort of punishment is that, asks the S'fas Emes? Surely for anyone to have one's food so readily available, must be considered a blessing, as he is totally independent, without even the need to pray to G-d for his food. He is assured that he will never go hungry.No, replies the S'fas Emes, that is not a blessing! That is the biggest curse, for there is no bigger curse than to be independent of Hashem, since this automatically means that he is disconnected from the Divine source.

The B'nei Yisroel in the desert had reached such heights that they were totally dependent upon G-d. Like a child in his parents' home, they had every need supplied, knowing of none of the material worries with which mankind is normally beset. They now rejected this Divine connection, they disdained their dependence upon Him and yearned for total independence. It was therefore fitting for the snake, who had gained that very independence from G-d, to be chosen to punish those who would go in his footsteps.


In two consecutive weeks, we read about the dual debacles of the spies and Korach's rebellion. In the one. B'nei Yisroel rebel against G-d, and in the other, they attempt to overthrow Moshe - in direct contrast to the possuk in Sh'mos 14:31, "And they believed in Hashem and in Moshe His servant".

It became clear that there was something basically wrong with their attitude towards G-d and His Torah (and it must be stressed that we are speaking of a people on a higher level of adherence than our own, and we are consequently speaking of an error at their level, not at our's). Therefore, in order to counter this erroneous attitude, it became necessary to introduce an entirely new concept into their lives.The common fault that was responsible for the two above-mentioned sins, appears to have been one that is widespread today: namely, their reliance on their own wisdom, as opposed to relying upon the Divine Wisdom and allowing Him to dictate to them (rather than their dictating to Him), (as the Mishnah in Pirkei Ovos states: "Nullify your will before His will!").

And this applies equally to the guidance of our Torah-leaders, particularly to Moshe Rabeinu, from whose mouth the Shechinah spoke. They first demanded that they send spies, as we read in last week's Parshah, and then they attempted to find flaws with Moshe Rabeinu's Torah ("Does a tallis of techeiles really require tzitzis?!").It was to teach them the limitation of the human mind and its inferiority to the Divine Wisdom that Hashem introduced the mitzvah of the red heifer, a mitzvah which defies human logic, to the point that even Shlomoh Ha'melech, in his deep wisdom, had to admit, that it was beyond his comprehension.

The mitzvah of Poroh Adumoh would teach them that the commands of Hashem are to be obeyed, as are the commands of their leaders ("Ve'yikcchu eileicho" - "and they will take to you" - see Rashi 19:2), whether they are understood or not, for just as this mitzvah has no known reason, so too is it possible that other mitzvos, which do have apparent reasons, may well have other motives of which we are perhaps unaware and which are beyond our limited comprehension.The commands of Hashem and His prophets are ours to obey, not to query!

The Well
The Gemoro in Nedorim (55a) explains the possuk "u'miMidbor mattonoh, u'mi'matonoh Nachaliel, u'mi'Nachaliel Bomos, u'mi'Bomos ha'Gay!" etc. (21:18-20) - "When a person makes himself like a desert which is hefker to all, the Torah is given to him as a gift; and, once it is his as a gift, G-d inherits him and he rises to greatness. But if he becomes proud, then G-d will cast him down."A talmid of the Gro once asked his Rebbe how the Gemoro had explained the set of pesukim starting with the end of possuk 18. But how would one explain the beginning of that possuk in the same light: "The well which princes dug, which the leaders of the people dug, which they carved with their staffs".To which the Gro replied that the first part of the possuk, just like the second, can be explained as pertaining to Torah. The well refers to Torah, as the possuk writes in Mishlei, "Drink water (Torah) from your well," etc. (5:15).Based on the pesukim "in the shadow of wisdom, in the shadow of silver" (Koheles 7:12), and "It is a tree of life for all who grasp it" (Mishlei 3:18), Chazal have taught us that someone who is unable to study Torah himself full-time, and supports others, to enable them to do so, shares the reward together with those who study on his account. And it is in this light that we can understand our possuk: "The well which the princes (of Torah - the talmidei-chachomim) dug, (by means of their constant delving and research of the hidden sources), which the generous ones of the people bought (through their donations to the Torah students) ("nedi'vei am" - the generous ones, "konuho" - bought - See Rashi Bereishis 50:5).(Both of these acquire Torah, the one by means of the laws of Torah that they carve out (bi'mechokek), (the others) with their staffs (through their support of Torah).


(Shoftim 11: 1-33)
Gil'od, Menasheh ben Yosef's grandson, married a concubine from another tribe, something which was customarily avoided by that generation. It was also customary to brand anyone who did this. They would call the woman an inn-keeper, though the word "zonah" has other connotations, and deny her sons their father's inheritance, though this was illegal since, halachically, a son inherits his father, irrespective of yichus (Redak).That explains why Gil'od's sons from his real wife drove away the son of that concubine - Yiftach. Yiftach moved away to live in the land belonging to a man by the name of Tov - Redak - where he attracted a band of "empty" men. Together, these men lived the life of outlaws (Robin Hood style) under the leadership of Yiftach, who proved himself to be an excellent soldier and leader. That is why, when the army of Ammon attacked Yisroel, it was Yiftach to whom the elders of Gil'ad sent, to take over the Jewish forces and to lead them into battle against Ammon.At first, Yiftach accused them of hypocracy in their dealings with him, but, when the elders offered him the currently vacant throne of leadership, he acquiesced, provided the appointment took immediate effect.

After presenting his credentials as it were, before G-d (Redak 11:11), and praying for success, he addressed a long letter to Ammon (presumably, because it was initially forbidden to attack Ammon), in which he clarified Yisroel's position vis a vis the tract of land that Ammon claimed Yisroel had taken away from them, three hundred years earlier, before entering Eretz Cana'an. He pointed out how that was incorrect. It was not from Ammon that Yisroel had taken the land, but from Sichon, as recorded in the Torah. In fact, the Torah writes (Parshas Chukas 21:26) that Sichon fought with Mo'ov and captured his land, not with Ammon. However, Chazal do say (Gittin 38a), that "Ammon and Mo'ov became permitted through Sichon; so we must assume that a small part of Ammon's land, together with a major part of Mo'ov's, fell into the hands of Sichon. That also explains as to why Yiftach, in his letter to the King of Ammon, wrote that Yisroel took land neither from Mo'ov nor from Ammon (11:15), though it is not at first clear why he mentions Mo'ov's land, which has nothing to do with Ammon (see also Redak, according to whom Ammon appears to have laid a false claim).

An interesting observation emerges from the Haftorah regarding another aspect of the Parshah. The possuk writes that Sichon did not "believe" Yisroel when they first asked for permission to pass through their land. The Metzudas Dovid takes this to mean that they simply mistrusted them. They thought that Yisroel's request was nothing more than an excuse to gain entry into their land, that their hidden intention was to attack them and capture their land. That is why they gathered an army and went out to attack Yisroel. (See Rashi and Ba'al Ha'turim for alternative explanations.)

The King of Ammon ignored Yiftach's letter and, in the ensuing battle, he was defeated by him. However, personal tragedy struck Yiftach as he returned home from the battlefield. Before entering into battle, he had vowed that, whatever, or whoever, came out of his house to greet him first, he would give to Hashem, and the first to come out of his house to greet him was none other than his own daughter. Consequently, she was obligated to go and live the life of a recluse, dedicated to serving G-d, and never marrying, as some commentaries explain.It is not really clear what the basis for the above law is - the closest would be the din that a father may avow his son to be a nozir - but even that din is confined to a son, not to a daughter. But this difficulty is compounded by the interpretation of Chazal, who must have had a tradition to explain that Yiftach actually sacrificed his daughter, though the Novi does not actually say that.

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