“From Arad to Amsterdam” Parashat Chukat 5774

Aharon dies and the entire nation mourns. The enemies of Am Yisrael seek to take advantage of the situation and they attack [Bemidbar 21:1]: “The Canaanite, King of Arad, who lived in the Negev, heard that Israel were coming by way of Atarim. He waged war on Israel and took captives”. Who is this “King of Arad” and where did he come from? While the Torah seems to imply that he was a Canaanite, the geography is off. The spies who went to reconnoiter the land reported that [Bemidbar 13:29] “Amalek lives in the Negev”. So who were these people: Canaanites or Amalekites?

A number of suggestions can be made: Perhaps the Canaanites fought with the Amalekites and took over their stronghold in the Negev. Or perhaps the Amalekites were not the only nation that lived in the Negev[1]. Or perhaps the Torah is referring to all of the inhabitants of the Land of Canaan as “Canaanites” without regard to their specific tribal identities. Any of these suggestions is reasonable. Rashi, however, chooses to quote from a Midrash that is anything but reasonable. Rashi is troubled by a phrase in a subsequent verse in which Am Yisrael pray to Hashem before taking on the King of Arad in battle [Bemidbar 21:2]: “If You help me to defeat this nation, I will dedicate its cities [to Hashem]”. Why don’t they say “If You help me to defeat the Amalekites…” or “If You help me to defeat the Canaanites…”? Rashi brings the following Midrash: The King of Arad was in fact an Amalekite. He knew from experience that the power of Am Yisrael was in prayer and so he tried to confound Am Yisrael in an attempt to prevent them from using their secret weapon. In an act of cunning military strategy that rivaled Norman Schwarzkopf’s left-hook in Iraq in 1991, the entire Amalekite nation learned to speak the Canaanite language. This was meant to trick Am Yisrael into believing that they were Canaanites, and so they would pray to Hashem to defeat the Canaanites (and not the Amelekites). But as they were actually Amalekites this prayer would be ineffective and the Amalekites would be able to defeat Am Yisrael. Luckily, Am Yisrael were too shrewd for such a ploy. They noticed that their enemy spoke Canaanite but dressed like Amalekites. Suspecting a trap, they left nothing to chance and prayed to Hashem to help them defeat “this nation”, whichever nation it happened to be. Their response to the Amalekite strategy was correct and they defeated the Amalekites soundly.

Let’s assume that this Midrash is teaching a lesson in military strategy. It is clear that the Amalekites could have done better in their attempt to trick Am Yisrael into thinking that they were really Canaanites: they could have dressed like Canaanites. Perhaps this would have tipped the scales. Certain that they were facing Canaanites, Am Yisrael would have prayed to Hashem to help them defeat “the Canaanites” and they would have lost the war. How could the Amalekites have made such a critical error?

If the reader has detected a note of sarcasm, it is not by coincidence. Why does Rashi, who professes to always give the simplest explanation, not give the simplest explanation? Why does he instead choose to quote from a Midrash that is anything but simple? The answer is that Rashi does not always give the simple meaning. In his commentary to Bereishit [3:8] Rashi writes that “I come only to give the simple meaning of the verse or to bring a Midrash that reconciles the words of the Torah”. While Rashi will most often teach “only the simple meaning” of the verse, he does infrequently use a Midrash to teach a message as long as the Midrash is consistent with the grammar of the verse. In our case, the Midrash is indeed consistent with the grammar – it answers why Am Yisrael ask Hashem “If You help me defeat this [generic] nation”.

Now that we understand that Rashi is teaching a message, we must understand which message Rashi is trying to get across. One way of doing this is by looking at the Midrashim that Rashi didn’t quote. According to one Midrash, the King of Arad is actually Sichon, the King of the Amorites. At the end of Parashat Chukat Sichon wages war on Am Yisrael and he is soundly defeated. According to another Midrash, the King of Arad is really an Amalekite, and he tries a nearly identical ruse: he changes both his language and his clothing to make it appear that he is a Canaanite. This Midrash addresses the critical error we noted above. Why does Rashi choose to bring the more problematic Midrash? Rav Mordechai Eliyahu amplifies this question, noting that it is much more difficult to change one’s language than one’s dress. Learning a new language can take years while changing one’s clothing requires only a few minutes in front a mirror. Rav Mordechai concludes that it must be that changing one’s clothing is more difficult than changing one’s language, although he does not specify how.

I’d like to try to propose a reason why Amalek adopted the Canaanite language but not the Canaanite dress. The reason involves the essence of the clothing a person wears. Rav Ittamar Eldar asks why the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) must wear such fancy clothing, with threads of blue, purple and hammered gold. Doesn’t this fly in the face of our belief that what is inside a person is far more important than what is outside? Shouldn’t a person wear clothing that is modest and not overly fancy? Rav Eldar, basing himself on the words of Rav Natan of Nemirov, explains that clothing has two purposes. On one hand, our clothes cover our bodies and conceal our nakedness. On the other hand, our clothing defines ourselves to the world. A King wears royal robes.A showy person wears showy clothing. And so the Kohen Gadol, who serves as the nation’s spiritual leader, must wear clothing that honours his position. But clothing is a double-edged sword. We can fool ourselves with the clothing that we wear, convincing ourselves that we are who we are not. We can hide behind our clothing, letting golden robes cover a murky soul[2]. Or worse, our clothing can pour dirt on a pure soul.

We are what we wear. Had the Amalekites worn Canaanite clothing, they would have become Canaanites. Had this happened, Am Yisrael’s prayers to “defeat the Canaanites” would have been effective. This message can be transmitted only if Rashi chose to quote the Midrash in which the King of Arad changes his language but not his clothing.

From Arad to Amsterdam. Last week we flew to the Netherlands to see some radars and some Combat Management Systems. The company we were visiting was two hours from Schipol, but we couldn’t really come to the Netherlands and not see Amsterdam. So we went downtown to “see the sites”. I am in no way prudish, but I was mortified. Never had I seen such a collection of pornography, sexual paraphernalia, and drugs. They were not limited to the (in)famous Red-Light District with its window prostitution. They were in cafés, behind windows, and on street-corners. Unabashed, out in the open, free to see, touch, and taste. It was as if Amsterdam was boasting, flaunting a culture of hedonism. As long as it feels good, it is good.

The next day at the plant, our hosts told us that “it’s only a show. We’re not really like that”. But that is precisely Rashi’s message. Your clothing is a window through which you reveal and define yourself to the world. We are what we wear. And we are what we show others. Amsterdam wants to show others Cannabis Ice Cream and half-naked women playing Beach Volleyball.

A month ago I was in Jerusalem for a family event. Jerusalem wants to show others the Kotel and Holy Bagels. How do we want to define ourselves?

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5774

 

[1]A reason that the spies mentioned specifically the Amalekites was to raise fear among the people who had been burned badly by Amalek on their way out of Egypt and they carried emotional scars.

[2]Rav Eldar notes that the Hebrew word for clothing – “begged” – is very similar to the word for betrayal – “baggad”.