“The Pendulum” Parashat Chukat 5776

Winds of war are blowing. Am Yisrael have not seen battle in nearly forty years, but the Canaanite King of Arad sees a possible weakness [Bemidbar 21:1]: “The Canaanite King of Arad, who lived in the south, heard that Israel had come by the route of the spies, and he waged war against Israel and took from them a captive.” What did the king hear? Rashi brings a Midrash that connects this episode with the previous episode in which Aharon dies. According to the Midrash, the Cloud of Glory existed because of the merit of Aharon, and so when Aharon died the cloud departed. The King of Arad saw this as a potential chink in the armour of Am Yisrael, and he made a strategic decision to attack right there and then.

Am Yisrael make a deal with Hashem [Bemidbar 21:2]: “If You deliver this people into my hand, I shall consecrate their cities”. Hashem accepts their bargain and He delivers the Canaanites into their hands. Am Yisrael keep their part of the bargain, and they consecrate the Canaanite cities. The response of Am Yisrael to this war is strange. Why do they bargain with Hashem? Why don’t they just go out and fight? Rav Meir Simcha HaKohen from Dvinsk, writing in the “Meshech Chochma”, answer this question in a way that sheds light not only on this episode, but in the preceding and succeeding episodes, as well. Rav Meir Simcha notes that Am Yisrael had waged wars twice in their history as a nation: they defeated the Egyptians at the Red Sea, and a few days later they defeated the Amalekites at Rephidim. Both times they had won the war via overt miracles: Hashem split the Red Sea and drowned the entire Egyptian Army and Moshe defeated the Amalekites by holding his hands above his head. However, in a statement that has been attributed to Voltaire, Teddy Roosevelt, and Spiderman “With great power comes great responsibility[1]”. Am Yisrael understood that in order to win wars by bypassing the laws of nature, they had to be spiritually worthy. And so they willingly refuse to have the war fought for them. They want to win this war their way – without the Divine shock and awe that accompanied the previous wars. They ask Hashem to deliver the Canaanites “into their own hands”. Compare this with the first war against Amalek when the Amalekites were delivered literally into Moshe’s hands[2]. Hashem is only too happy to comply with Am Yisrael’s wish. As we’ve stated time and time again in these shiurim: Hashem does not desire to operate via miracles. He created the laws of physics – why then go ahead and break them? He is only too happy to grant Am Yisrael their wish. They are successful in their endeavours against the Canaanites, and they, in turn, consecrate the Canaanite cities as promised.

The connection of the explanation of Rav Meir Simcha with the previous episode is clear: For nearly forty years Hashem has been protecting Am Yisrael with a pillar of cloud. The reason that they have not waged war since that day at Rephidim is because no nation in its right mind would attack them. But when Aharon dies the Cloud of Glory dies with him, and the supernatural security blanket disappears. Am Yisrael sense the opportunity for change, and when war breaks out, they ask Hashem to take a back seat.

The connection of explanation of Rav Meir Simcha with the following episode is less clear, but no less important. After the Canaanites are defeated, the people become restless [Bemidbar 21:4-9] “They journeyed… and the people became restless because of the way. The people spoke against Hashem and against Moshe, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in this desert, for there is no bread and no water, and we are disgusted with this rotten bread.’ Hashem sent against the people the venomous snakes and they bit the people, and many people of Israel died. The people came to Moshe and said, ‘We have sinned…’ So Moshe prayed on behalf of the people. Hashem said to Moshe, ‘Make yourself a serpent and put it on a pole, and let whoever is bitten look at it and live.’ Moshe made a copper snake and put it on a pole, and whenever a snake bit a man, he would gaze upon the copper snake and live”. What was the cause of the plague of snakes? Why did the people become “restless”? From their complaint, it looks like just another case of the people wanting to go back to Egypt. According to Rav Elchanan Samet, nothing could be farther from the truth. The last time Am Yisrael expressed a desire to return to Egypt was in the Book of Shemot, forty years earlier. The people that stand before Moshe in Parashat Chukat were never enslaved in Egypt. They had no intention of stepping foot in Egypt. They wanted something else entirely. They did not want to die in the desert – they wanted to enter the Land of Canaan[3]. They were interested in something else altogether.

Here’s where Rav Meir Simcha really shines. The people have just soundly defeated their nemesis – the Amalekites – with their own hands, no less. They are itching to enter the Land of Canaan and to build on their success by waging war and capturing the land. While this sounds like a noble goal, there is more here than meets the eye. A clue lies in their displeasure with the “rotten bread”. They are referring, of course, to the manna that fell each morning. They had gotten a taste of how it feels to do things on their own. Having won a war with their own hands, they now wanted to raise crops with their own hands. While they had successfully been weaned from the necessity of overt miracles, the pendulum had swung too far in the opposite direction, and now there was a real threat that they would leave Hashem out of the picture completely. The Mishna in Tractate Rosh HaShanah [3:8] asks why the antidote to the snakes came in the form of the copper snake: “Does a snake kill or does a snake grant life? Rather, when Am Yisrael looked skywards at the copper snake [which was placed on a pole], they subjugated their hearts to their Heavenly Father and they were cured. And if they did not [subjugate their hearts], they shrivelled and died.” While living a life of miracles was not a feasible long-term plan, neither was living a life in which miracles were not even a remote possibility. By forcing Am Yisrael to look at the copper snake, Hashem forces them to acknowledge that miracles are an integral part of the way in which Hashem runs his world.

Years later, the pendulum swings back again, and the copper snake must be ground to dust by King Hezekiah [Kings II 18:4] “[He] crushed the copper serpent that Moshe had made, for until those days the children of Israel were burning incense to it; and he called it Nechushtan[4]Am Yisrael had come full circle. Not only were they unwilling to live a life without miracles, the miracles had taken on a life of their own.

So what is better – too many miracles or no miracles at all? The answer, unsurprisingly, lies in the middle, where miracles are woven into nature and acknowledged as such. Why did Israel win the Six Day War? Because our Mirages were better than their MiGs? Because our Generals were better than their Generals? Or because Hashem was doing the fighting? Why, when thirty-nine SCUD-B missiles fired at Israel in 1991, did only one Israeli die, while 28 US soldiers died when one SCUD-B slammed into a Army barracks in Dhahran? Was it because the coalition fighter aircraft over H-2 and H-3 made it difficult for the Iraqis to aim their weapons at Israel, or was it because we had a Cloud of Glory protecting us? As a rocket scientist and as a religious Jew, I have no doubt as to the answer to both of these questions [Tehillim 121:4-8]: “Behold the Guardian of Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. Hashem is your Guardian; Hashem is your shadow; [He is] by your right hand… Hashem will guard your going out and your coming in from now and to eternity”.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5776

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Moshe Dov ben Malka.

[1] Neither of the three actually spoke these words, just something very close.

[2] Rashi asserts that the Canaanites from Arad were really Amalekites. Assuming this is so, then Am Yisrael are indeed closing a circle.

[3] Rav Samet explains that Moshe did not understand what the people wanted, and this led to his removal as their leader.

[4] It is interesting to note that General Ido Nechushtan was the Chief of the Israeli Air Force from 2008-2012. There is no more miraculous organization in the world today than the IAF.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty-five years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science", and his speaking events are regularly sold-out. Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA and Canada. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.