This week’s Torah portion is Chukat. I wish I could write about the laws of the Parah Adumah (the Red Heifer), which are detailed in the opening of the portion, but I can’t.
I wish I could write about how Miriam died and how the well (known as Miriam’s Well) dried up and the nation gathered against Moshe and Aharon to complain.
I wish I could write about how the “hitting of the rock” (instead of ‘speaking’ to it) occurred and Moshe and Aharon were therefore refused entry into the land of Israel.
I wish I could write about all the other topics in this portion: How Aharon died and Elazar succeeded his father as the High Priest. About how following Aharon’s death the protective clouds departed and the nation began to complain about the living conditions and how God sent poisonous snakes to attack the nation and Moshe was instructed to create the “copper snake on a stick” to miraculously save the bitten.
I wish I could write about any of those many interesting and important topics and the others that appear in this week’s Torah portion, but I just don’t feel I can. Not as long as the three young men who were abducted nearly two weeks ago in Israel by terrorists have still not been found.
Perhaps I was too hasty, for there is one topic (or two) at the end of the portion which has to do exactly with what is going on in the news.
Towards the end of the portion (Numbers 21:1) we read that, : “And when the Canaanite King of Arad, who lived in the Negev, heard that the Israelites were traveling along the Atharim Highway, he attacked them and took some captives.”
According to the Sages, they took only a single maidservant. Yet, in order to save her, Israel did not suggest negotiations, but went to battle against the Canaanites. An additional example can be brought from King David: When the Amalekites attacked the town of Ziklag, taking the women captive, King David did not sit down at the negotiating table, but went to war against them and saved the prisoners (Samuel 1:30).
I could end this post right here and now with the message that we must ‘Bring Back Our Boys’ and ‘take no prisioners’ when doing so. It appears that Israel is taking this approach (as best as it can).
However, there is another ‘sort of’ connection to hostages in this week’s portion. At the very end of the portion it, when Moshe and the Israelites are confronted with Og the King of Bashan (a giant), the Torah records: “And God said to Moshe, ‘Do not fear him, for I have delivered him, his nation, and his land into your hand.’” (Numbers 21:34)
When the Jewish people were preparing to do battle with Og, the mighty king of Bashan, God consoled Moshe with a special promise that his people would emerge as the victors. However, earlier in the portion when the Jewish people stood in virtually the same situation before their imminent confrontation with the Emorites, they were offered no such encouragement. Why did God feel it necessary to reassure Moshe specifically at this time? We can only deduce that Moshe was particularly unsure of the nation’s ability to defeat Og in battle and thereby required God’s encouragement, while when fighting the Emorites he did not lack confidence. Was Og really so much more powerful than Sichon, the king of the Emorites? Why was Moshe more afraid of Og that he needed a special reassurance from the Almighty?
Rashi comments that indeed, it was not Og’s prowess in battle that Moshe was afraid of. In Parshat Lech Lecha, the Torah relates how four kings of the Jordan Valley waged war against and conquered their enemies, and how in the course of the ensuing battle, Avraham’s nephew Lot was captured and taken prisoner. When a messenger subsequently arrived and informed him of the fate of his nephew, Avraham successfully retaliated against the kings, freeing Lot from captivity. Interestingly, the Midrash relates that this messenger who escaped the battle and came to tell Avraham about Lot was none other than . . . you guessed it, Og, the king of Bashan. But don’t think that Og was just trying to do a favor for Avraham. The Midrash explains that Og knew very well that Avraham would never allow his nephew to remain a prisoner of war, and that he would certainly attempt to save him. Most likely, reasoned Og, Avraham would be killed in battle, leaving Sarah widowed and free to marry him, Og, King of Bashan.
Although as a result of Og’s intervention Avraham was eventually successful in rescuing Lot from the clutches of the four kings, we would hardly say that Og was deserving of any reward for it. As his intentions were solely for his own benefit and not for the sake of Avraham, it can hardly be said that Og had performed an act of kindness. Nevertheless, Rashi tells us that it was precisely because of the favor that Og did on behalf of Avraham that Moshe was so afraid to fight him; perhaps the merit of Avraham would stand up for him.
Ok, in the Torah, God assured Moshe that he and the Israelites would defeat Og – and they did. But the ‘message’ here is strong. Even if Og had ulterior motives in telling Avraham that his nephew had been captured, that was still VITAL information that Avraham needed. So important was that ‘info’ that centuries later Moshe worried about the merit Og had for delivering that information.
Today we lack information on where those three youths are. If only there was an Og, someone who would come forward with some useful information (whatever his motives are), it might help us locate and bring those boys back home.
So perhaps this week’s portion is telling us two things.
1) Take no prisioners when trying to free captives.
2) Information (no matter who the source is) can be vital.
May God help the IDF locate these boys and bring them back home safely soon.