Posted on Wednesday, June 27th, 2012
Parshat Chukat is home to some of the most important moments in the Jews’ journey form Sinai to the land of Israel – Moshe’s striking the rock and subsequent punishment, Miriam’s death, Aharon’s death and the subsequent transmission of the High Priesthood onto his son, Eliezer, and battles with Sichon and Og. Each of these events would have far-reaching implications for the Jewish people.
But can these moments really be seen as more important than any other moments in the Jews’ travels? It seems more likely that the very perception that one moment is more or less important than another leads one to dangerously manic behavior, denying the value of most moments and overemphasizing the value of others.
In reality, life consists of a long series of moments, each one essential in the overall scheme. A ‘peak’ moment actually consists of all the moments before it. Often, the result of a ‘peak’ moment is determined long before the event actually happens. We might take, for example, a sporting event: though there is certainly the possibility of transcendence, the participants are basically limited to their abilities. The same is true in musical performance: one will be unable to play a certain piece if one has not worked toward gaining the technical ability to do so.
The results of ‘peak’ moments are also limited by what happens in their wake. Many a victory has been squandered by careless behavior in its aftermath, and many a loss has been recovered by attentive activity in the next moment. Our ability to accomplish our goals will be determined less by what we are capable of in moments of great pressure than by what we are able to consistently offer.
In fact, the desire to see ‘peak’ moments as more important than other moments comes from a deep yetzer harah. Rebbe Nachman describes, in Likutei Moharan I:8, that there are two kinds of ruach (breath/wind). There is the ruach of the long breath, of the capacity to relax under pressure and to make proper decisions. This breath was used to create the world, and is used to constantly recreate the world, as is written ‘And with the breath of His mouth, all of their legions [were created].’ The other kind of ruach is likened to a storm wind, or ruach s’arah. This ruach, says Rebbe Nachman, is extremely strong for a moment, but dies down completely. This storm wind makes one feel the intense urgency of a moment, can make one feel that this moment is more essential. But the goal is to achieve length of breath, a sense of the even distribution of urgency over all moments.
Really, this yezter harah does not need to point one toward a specific decision – i.e. hit the rock, eat the shrimp, go back to sleep. It need only make a person feel that this moment is more important than others; with the uneven valuation that ensues, the yetzer has already won. For even if the person makes the ‘right’ move at this moment, the devaluation of subsequent moments can have devastating effect.
The centerpiece of the Parsha, we might say, is Moshe’s hitting the rock. Hashem had told him to speak to the rock ‘before their eyes’. The Midrash tells us that this was one of the moments where a small space (before the rock) held a great amount (all of Israel). In fact, the Midrash tells us, each Jew saw him/her self as if he/she was standing immediately before the rock. It was obviously a key moment – the faith of every individual hung in the balance. If Moshe could accomplish this difficult task, he could possibly restore the faith of every Jew, as Eliyahu did on Mt. Carmel.
And Moshe was aware of the pressure – the Midrash Rabbah 19:9 recounts his difficulty in discerning exactly which rock to hit in order to have the profound effect he knew he was supposed to have. And so, in his frustration, he struck the rock twice. And, in that moment, he was banned from entering the Land of Israel. What does Moshe do in the next moment? ‘And Moshe sent messengers from Kadesh to the king of Edom…’ There is not even one word of transition between Moshe’s punishment and his next act toward fulfilling his mission of bringing the Jews into Israel. The Midrash (9:15) comments, ‘Usually, when a person does business with another, and that person angers him, he leaves him and does not want to see him. But Moshe, despite the fact that he was punished because of Israel, he did not throw off the burden of his task concerning them.’
Hashem’s command that Moshe not bring the Jews into Israel is a sort of death: it indicates that there will be a final moment, with no possibility of ‘fixing’ the effects of that moment in the following moment. The Parsha contains two other deaths – those of Miriam and Aharon. The finality of these deaths is emphasized by the losses that they brought – the loss of the well, with Miriam’s death (as in Rashi 20:2) and the loss of the Clouds of Glory with Aharon’s death (as in Rashi 21:1). But between these two deaths, we see an evolution in the nations’ reaction.
Death is one of the underlying themes of the Parsha, as the Parsha opens with discussion of the red heifer, which can nullify the spiritual effects of contact with a dead body. It gives the sense of finality – whereas many critical moments can be rectified in subsequent moments, death is final – or so it seems.
Aside from the act that ‘the righteous, in death, are called ‘living,’ the reaction of those left behind is of great significance. Death can become a conduit for the unification of those left behind, or it can become a reason for distancing and complaint. By Miriam’s death, we find no common mourning – only complaint. The feeling of loss becomes a distraction from the ultimate mission of reaching the land of Israel. It ultimately manifests in Moshe’s striking the rock. By Aharon’s death, however, we find the ‘entire assembly’ mourning him for 30 days. And the next moment is a moment of strength, whereby the Jews come together and vow to G-d to give up the spoils if they can win the war with the Canaanites.
The arrival of the Canaanite king, as Rashi tells us in verse 21:1, is actually the arrival of Amalek. Amalek is the arch nemesis of Israel. In fact, he represents the antithesis of G-d in this world, as the verse says, ‘For G-d is at war with Amalek in every generation.’ Whereas Israel’s challenge is to achieve a sense of continuity and consistency despite the intense pressure of various moments, Amalek represents that constant and continuous temptation to fall into that temptation. Amalek’s tenacity, appearing at key moments of despair, keeps Israel in constant battle for the long breath of patience. In appearing after Aharon’s death, he seems to say, ‘See! Now that you have lost Aharon, you are in trouble. That was one of those key moments.’
But Israel is able to resist the urge to fall into that trap. In fact, it is by their very realization of the essentiality of the moment after the key moment that they are able to survive. They collectively vow to G-d, ‘if you give this nation into my hand, I will commit all the booty from their cities to You.’ They show their understanding that winning a war is not really a victory if one loses one’s concentration when the war is over. In the story of Achav in Joshua 7 we find a war won without a victory.
Aharon’s great strength was his ability to show that a moment that feels like the end of relationship – with G-d, friend, or partner – need not be the end. When a person transgresses, he or she may see that moment as a ‘key moment’, a turning point away from G-d. But Aharon, by facilitating the bringing of sin-offerings, taught that even those moments are not final – more important than the sin is what we do with the fact that we have sinned.
Thus the death of Aharon allowed for his particular gift to be absorbed into the consciousness of the people. This may be the simple meaning of the phrase ‘and he shall be gathered unto his people’ (20:24).
The Jews were able to overcome Amalek’s influence by committing to a broader vision of time. But that battle cannot be forever won, as Amalek will be an influence on Israel until the end of history. Even as they walk away from their victory, they fall victim to impatience, as the verse says, ‘And the soul of the nation grew weary from the journey’ (21:4). In fact, writes Rashi, this impatience was borne of their sense of proximity to the land of Israel – ‘we are so close!’. Their recent experience of the long breath – after Aharon’s death – might have fooled them into believing they were truly close to their goal. But this deeply underestimates the power of the dark side. Victory over Amalek requires absolute patience in the struggle – never to assume, even for one moment, that the battle has been won. For in doing so, one falls victim to the same trap – making that victory into a ‘peak’ moment – whereas the true test always comes in the moment after.
At this moment, Hashem sends an appropriate punishment – a plague of snakes. Or, more particularly, ‘the burning snakes’. The Jews are meant to realize that this snake is the same snake we have been battling since Adam – an inability to stay focused in light of inner conflict. And, again, the rectification is a consciousness of the eternal moment beyond the temporary storm wind. Hashem tells Moshe to make a banner of a snake, and the Jews shall see it and live. The Gemarra Rosh Hashanah 29a tells us that, in fact, the banner itself had no power to heal. Rather, upon looking toward the snake, the Jews would look toward heaven and commit themselves to G-d. The proper reaction to such a fall is to recommit – similar to Aharon’s gift for guiding the Jews toward Hashem despite their sins.
The Parsha goes on to describe Israel’s travels, and wars with Sichon and Og. The sages, in their commentaries, find within these travels allusions to the necessity of seeing all moments of a process as equally important. The verse ‘et vahev besufah’, which does not really translate well, but might approximately mean ‘and to vahev at the end’, is interpreted by the rabbis allegorically in Gemarra Kedushin 30b. They take it to mean, ‘Even a father and son, or a teacher and his student, when they are involved in Torah, they become enemies to one another. But they do not move from their place until they become enamored with one another, as it says ‘et vahev (which is like ohev – love) besufah – at the end.’’ The enmity could be the end of the relationship, but the emphasis is placed on bearing that enmity until he deeper love comes through.
Similarly, the rabbis interpret the verse ‘and from midbar to matanah, and from matanah to nachliel, and from nachliel to bamot’ allegorically. Each of these places is seen as a necessary stage in the process of receiving and integrating Torah. In Nedarim 55b, the Rava says, ‘when a person makes himself like a wilderness (midbar) which is available to anyone, then he receives the Torah as a gift (matanah), as it says ‘and from midbar to matanah.’ And when the torah is given to him as a gift, it is an inheritance (nachalah) to him from G-d, as it says ‘and from matanah to nachliel.’ And when he has inherited it from G-d, then he ascends to greatness, as it says, ‘and from nachliel to bamot hagai (lit. the high places of the valley).’ But if a person lifts himself up (i.e. becomes haughty), then Hashem brings him low, as it says umibamot hagai (lit. and from the high place to the valley).’ Again, in this reading, we find the rabbis charting a path toward recognizing the impermanence of each moment in the context of the larger flow of time.
As the smoke clears, the rhythm of the Parsha becomes clear: the red heifer is introduced as a general rule fro dealing with difficult moments. Miriam dies (a difficult moment) and the Israelites complain about lack of water. Moshe strikes the rock (difficult moment), but recovers and sends messengers to Edom. Edom refuses them entry via their land, so they turn away. Aharon dies (a difficult moment) but the Jews recover and properly mourn, integrating Aharon’s legacy into their national consciousness. Thus, when the Canaanite (who is Amalek) makes war with them (difficult moment) they are able to keep their wits about them and commit to dedicating the spoils to G-d in return for victory. They lose their patience (difficult moment) but Hashem enables Moshe to remind them of the transitory state of such moments through the banner of the snake, reminding them that this is an eternal struggle. They fight with Sichon, but win. Their ‘presence of mind’ is indicated by their response after the battle – a poem.
The parsha contains constant battles with a subversive force that, by emphasizing the importance of certain moments, leaves others as meaninglessness. Just as that force is never fully extinguished, our ability to fight it must never run dry. Sometimes our ability to see meaning is only slightly challenged, and our response is a rational one. At other times, however, as in cases of death, our capacity to look toward ultimate meaning is obscured by dense clouds. At those times, we may be called upon to temporarily relax our sense of reason and submit to G-d’s sense of reason.
Though the red heifer is ultimately not rational, it is only as irrational as death is. In such a moment, a rational act of justification will not suffice. A non-rational act may be the only way to retain a sense of meaning at all. At the moment when the ashes are sprinkled with a bundle of hyssop, the sprinkler and the receiver both acknowledge that the only consistency is inconsistency – only change is reliable. The greatest skill, then, is not the ability to win in moments of pressure, but to retain composure and forward movement at all times.
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