"Manna or Thistles"
Chukat-Balak (Numbers 19:1-25:9 )
In last week's Torah portion, Parshat Korach, the Israelites were in their second year of wandering in the desert. Suddenly, now, in Parshat Chukat we find that 38 years have come and gone and the Torah is rapidly moving toward its 40th and final year. The last verse is therefore extremely instructive:
And the people of Israel set forward, and camped in the plains of Moav on this side of the Jordan by Jericho. (Numbers 22:1)
Geographically, the Torah nears its completion as the people approach the land of their dreams. Soon the conquest will commence. All that remains is to pave the way for the aforementioned conquest.
In a sense Parshat Chukat (in the Book of Numbers) mirrors Parshat Beshalach (in the Book of Exodus) which tells the tale of the beginning of the Israelites' sojourn in the desert. Now as their wandering comes to an end many of the issues introduced at the dawn of their national identity are revisited.
A cursory glance of the topics discussed in Parshat Chukat and Parshat Beshalach will immediately yield some common ideas. A deeper analysis will show a thematic connection throughout.
From Parshat Chukat:
And the people quarreled with Moses, and spoke, saying, "Would God that we had died when our brothers died before the Lord! And why have you brought up the congregation of the Lord into this wilderness, that we and our cattle should die there? And why have you made us come out of Egypt, to bring us in to this evil place? This is no place of seed, or of figs, or of vines, or of pomegranates; nor is there any water to drink." (Numbers 20:3-5)
From Parshat Beshalach:
And they said to Moses, "Because there were no graves in Egypt, have you taken us away to die in the wilderness? Why have you dealt thus with us, to carry us forth out of Egypt? Is not this the word that we did tell you in Egypt, saying, Let us alone, that we may serve the Egyptians? For it had been better for us to serve the Egyptians, than that we should die in the wilderness." (Exodus 14:11-12)
Therefore the people complained to Moses, and said, give us water that we may drink. And Moses said to them, "Why do you strive with me? Why do you tempt the Lord?" And the people thirsted there for water; and the people murmured against Moses, and said, "Why have you brought us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our cattle with thirst?" (Exodus 17:2-3)
And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying. "Take the rod, and gather the assembly together, you, and Aaron your brother, and speak to the rock before their eyes; and it shall give forth his water, and you shall bring forth to them water out of the rock; so you shall give the congregation and their beasts drink." (Numbers 20:7-8)
And Moses lifted up his hand, and with his rod he struck the rock twice; and the water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their beasts also. (Numbers 20:11)
And lift up your rod, and stretch out your hand over the sea, and divide it. (Exodus 14:16)
And the Lord said to Moses, "Go on before the people, and take with you of the elders of Israel; and your rod, with which you struck the river, take in your hand, and go. Behold, I will stand before you there upon the rock in Horeb; and you shall strike the rock, and water shall come out of it that the people may drink." And Moses did so in the sight of the elders of Israel. (Exodus 17:5-6)
This is the water of Meriva, because the people of Israel altercated with the Lord, and he was sanctified in them. (Numbers 20:13)
And he called the name of the place Massah and Meriva, because of the altercation of the people of Israel, and because they tempted the Lord, saying, "Is the Lord among us, or not?" (Exodus 17:7)
Then Israel sang this song, "Spring up, O well; sing you to it." (Numbers 21:17)
Then sang Moses and the people of Israel this song to the Lord, and spoke, saying, "I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider has he thrown into the sea." (Exodus 15:1)
And the Lord spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying, "This is the ordinance of the Torah which the Lord has commanded, saying, 'Speak to the people of Israel, that they bring you a red heifer without spot, which has no blemish, and upon which never came yoke.'" (Numbers 19:1-2)
...there he made for them a statute and an ordinance, and there he tested them, (Exodus 15:25)
[Rashi states this refers to the Red Heifer]
CASTING OF THE TREE
And the priest shall take cedar wood, and hyssop, and scarlet, and cast it into the midst of the burning of the heifer. (Numbers 19:6)
And he cried to the Lord; and the Lord showed him a tree, which when he cast into the waters, and made the waters sweet, there he made for them a statute and an ordinance, and there he tested them. (Exodus 15:25)
THE LONG WAY HOME
And Edom said to him, "You shall not pass by me, lest I come out against you with the sword ... Thus Edom refused to give Israel passage through his border; therefore Israel turned away from him." (Numbers 20:18, 21)
And they journeyed from Mount Hor by the way of the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; and the soul of the people was much discouraged because of the way. (Numbers 21:4)
And it came to pass, when Pharaoh had let the people go, that God led them not through the way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near; for God said, "Lest perhaps the people repent when they see war, and they return to Egypt." But God led the people around, through the way of the wilderness of the Red Sea; and the people of Israel went up armed out of the land of Egypt. (Exodus 13:17-18)
It should now be clear that there are numerous connections between these two portions. The same ideas and terms are employed, forcing us to read more closely and consider the similarities. But is is the contrast between the two sections which may provide a deeper understanding.
One of the basic problems over the years in the desert was the lack of resources. Self-sufficiency was not a real possibility given the locale in which they wandered. The solution of food was the manna which fell from heaven:
And the whole congregation of the people of Israel murmured against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. And the people of Israel said to them, "Would to God we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots, and when we did eat bread to the full; for you have brought us forth into this wilderness, to kill this whole assembly with hunger." Then said the Lord to Moses, "Behold, I will rain bread from heaven for you; and the people shall go out and gather a certain portion every day, that I may test them, whether they will walk in my Torah, or not." (Exodus 16:2-4)
And when the people of Israel saw it, they said one to another, "It is manna; for they knew not what it was." And Moses said to them, "This is the bread which the Lord has given you to eat." (Exodus 16:15)
And the people of Israel ate manna forty years, until they came to a land inhabited; they ate manna, until they came to the borders of the land of Canaan. (Exodus 16:35)
And the people spoke against God, and against Moses, "Why have you brought us out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no bread, nor is there any water; and our soul loathes this light bread." (Numbers 21:5)
In Beshalach the people had no bread and complained, and received manna. Now the people have been eating this Divine bread for 40 years yet they still complain that it is not "real food."
The result of these complaints is that God sends the serpents to attack the people. The choice of the serpent is particularly apt. There was on other time in history where God provided the cuisine – in the Garden of Eden. There the instigator of old – the serpent – convinced man to take action which caused his expulsion, and the cession of the food of Eden. Now when man rejects God and His food, the serpent returns to torment and kill.
The theme of the rejection of God is also introduced in Beshalach. The result was the arrival of Amalek – the devil – or serpent incarnate:
Then came Amalek, and fought with Israel in Rephidim. (Exodus 17:8)
The Midrash makes the connection:
And he called the name of the place Massah, and Meriva, because of the altercation of the people of Israel, and because they tempted the Lord, saying, "Is the Lord among us, or not?" Then came Amalek, and fought with Israel in Rephidim. (Exodus 17:7-8)
This is what God said to Israel: "I have borne you on clouds of glory" and yet you say, "Is the Lord among us, or not?" Let the enemy come, therefore, and prevail over you'; hence, then came Amalek. (Midrash Rabbah – Exodus 26:3)1
Likewise, Amalek makes an unheralded cameo appearance in Parshat Chukat:
And when king Arad the Canaanite, who lived in the Negev, heard tell that Israel came by the way of Atarim; then he fought against Israel, and took some of them prisoners. (Numbers 21:1)
The Midrash reveals the identity of this king:
Who was the king of Arad? It was Amalek; as is borne out by the text (Numbers 23:29) ... If he was in reality Amalek why was he called by the name of Canaanite? For this reason: Israel was forbidden to fight against the children of Esau (Deut 2:5)... Now when Amalek came and waged war against them, a first time and a second time, the Holy One, blessed be He, said to them: "This nation is not forbidden to you as are the children of Esau. They are like Canaanites to you ..." This is the reason why they were called Canaanite ... You find that when Aaron died, the Amalekites went out against them and they had to turn back seven stages. (Midrash Rabba 19:20)
Indeed, Amalek is alive and well, occupying the south of the country. The rejection of God led to the arrival of Amalek, who represents a worldview of atheism and natural causality. The defeat of Amalek is based on the Jews putting their trust in God, and accepting that God indeed controls the world. This can be understood in the text:
And it came to pass, when Moses held up his hand, that Israel prevailed; and when he let down his hand, Amalek prevailed. (Exodus 17:11)
The Mishna explains that the defeat of Amalek was not accidental, and compares this Divine response to another episode:
Now did the hands of Moses wage war or crush the enemy? Not so, only the text signifies that so long as Israel turned their thoughts above and subjected their hearts to their father in heaven they prevailed, but otherwise they fell. The same lesson may be taught thus: [It is written], make thee a fiery serpent and set it up on a pole, and it shall come to pass that everyone that is bitten, when he seeth it, shall live. Now did the serpent kill or did the serpent keep a live? No; [what it indicates is that] when Israel turned their thoughts above and subjected their hearts to their father in heaven, they were healed, but otherwise they pined away. (Rosh Hashana 29a)
The reference is to the serpent of copper which was produced in order to stop the plague. This plague is described in Parshat Chukat as coming in response to the people's complaints about the manna!
They are rejecting God's food just as they had rejected God in Parshat Beshalach an action which brought Amalek. Now after meeting Amalek they reject the manna. The result is slithering serpents on the prowl.
Both the hands of Moses in the battle against Amalek, and the defeat of the serpents which caused death are defeated in the same manner – by lifting ones eyes toward our Father in heaven.
And the Lord said to Moses, "Make a venomous serpent, and set it upon a pole; and it shall come to pass, that everyone who is bitten, when he looks upon it, shall live." And Moses made a serpent of copper, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he looked at the serpent of copper, he lived. (Numbers 21:8-9)
THE FOOD OF EDEN
The food in Eden was pure; it came from a place and time before good and evil were confused and merged. Eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil changed the world. Now man would have to work the ground.
"Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to you; and you shall eat the herb of the field. In the sweat of your face shall you eat bread, till you return to the ground; for out of it you were taken; for dust you are, and to dust shall you return." (Genesis 3:18-19)
Man is made of both spiritual and physical components, the soul and the body. In Eden man's food was pure – closer to the spiritual despite its physical nature. Now, post–Eden, in order to find food, man must battle with thorns and thistles, until his eventual return to the dust.
It is interesting that the snake which appeared and attacked the Israelites after they denigrated the Divine food, crawls on its belly in the dust – all of its food tasting like the dust.2 And dust is the destination of failed man when forced to submit to the final surrender – death.
There is however another level of understanding the connection between food and Amalek.
When God orders the Jews to be vigilant in the epic battle with Amalek, the Torah writes:
For he said, because the Lord has sworn that the Lord will have war with Amalek from generation to generation. (Exodus 17:16)
The Hebrew for "generation to generation" is dor l'dor. The Hebrew term for thistle is dardar. These terms are visually identical.3
The first appearance of the force which later became identified with Amalek was in the Garden in the body of a snake. Now we are forced to eat from the sweat of our collective brow until the time comes when we return to an Eden-like existence in the end of days.
Until then from generation to generation we will be forced to separate the good from the bad, with which it has become fused. And our food will need to be extracted from thorn and thistle.
In the desert man again received food which was pure – direct from heaven.4 Now we understand that the rejection of this food brought us face to face with the serpent of old.
SNAKE OF COPPER
But what remains obscure is this snake of copper. The Hebrew term is even more curious, nachash ha nichoshet, which sounds like "snake of snakes." In order to understand this we must review the first time the term copper is used in the Torah.
And Zillah, she also bore Tubal-Cain, forger of every sharp instrument in copper and iron. (Genesis 4:22)
The Midrash explains that Tubal-Cain made weapons:
Rabbi Yehoshua said in Rabbi Levi's name: "This man perfected Cain's sin: Cain slew, yet lacked the weapons for slaying, whereas he was forger of every sharp instrument." (Midrash Rabba Genesis 23:3; see Rashi 4:22)
Of course, the ability to make sharp instruments could have been harnessed for positive use, for example to harvest and work the ground. Exiled man was faced with the choice of accepting his lot of exile from Eden and working the ground or to use this technology to attack and kill others and take their food by force.
Copper, therefore, is a wonderful symbol of choice – and of good and evil combined together. How it will be used is completely man's choice.
Looking at the snake of copper was meant to remind man of the post–Eden choice and reality. Rejection of the manna, brought death from poisonous snakes. Healing took place along with the recognition that humanity has the ability to choose between weapons and food – death and life.
The key lesson in this is that the correct choice brings man closer to God. The Jews had to come to terms with this fact if they were to be able to continue their march to the Promised Land. There they would be confronting difficult situations, where weapons would have to be brandished.
This is however not the final goal. A time will come when weapons will not be necessary:
And he shall judge among the nations, and shall decide for many people; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, nor shall they learn war any more. (Isaiah 2:4)
This was the "magical" ability of the copper snake – a conduit which brought the Jews in touch with choice and therefore God. But the need for such tools was only appropriate, in a post-Eden world.
This is the deeper tragedy of Parshat Chukat. With the death of the generation of the desert all the naysayers should have been dead. Moses and Aaron should have led this generation into the Promised Land without war, rather with the pure spirit and Godliness which they possessed.
But this was not to be. Even Moses and Aaron received the death sentence.
The years in the desert were indeed long and circuitous. In Parshat Chukat they are coming to an end though not in the way the Jews would have wanted. The road back to Eden will continue to be even longer and more circuitous and painful, with more serpents and other obstacles both spiritual and physical along the way.
- The idea of clouds introduces yet another connection, the Clouds of Glory begin in Parshat Beshal ach and cease in Parshat Chukat. According to the Midrash: "You find that when Aaron died, the clouds of glory departed ... Amalek dwelt in the gap on the border, and when he heard that Aaron was dead and that the clouds of glory had departed he straightway attacked them (Midrash Rabba 19:20)
- See Rashi 21:6.
- See Sfat Emet Kitavo 5655, explaining the Mitzvah of Bikurim – the first fruits, which offset Amalek which is described as the first among the nations.
- See Nefesh HaChaim 2:6.