Ari Sacher

“Across the border” Parashat Chukat 5784

The Jewish people are on final approach to the Land of Israel. They will be approaching from the east towards Runway 27. Suddenly, the unthinkable happens. They thirst for water, Moshe strikes a rock with his staff instead of speaking to it[1] as G-d had commanded him, and he and Aaron are prohibited from ever entering the Land of Israel. Subsequently, the people continue on their approach until the only thing standing between them and their final destination is the Land of Edom, the children of Esau, our forefather Jacob’s nemesis. Edom is everything the Jewish people are not, to the point that according to our Sages in the Midrash, the two nations cannot prosper simultaneously: Either the “Voice of Jacob” or the “Hands of Esau” will be triumphant, never the two[2]. In the words of Rabbi Joseph Hertz[3], Edom consistently showed “unnatural hostility” towards Israel. Moshe sends messengers to the King of Edom asking for passage through his land. Moshe promises to take the shortest route and not to touch the local resources – even to pay for any damage accidentally incurred –  but Edom adamantly refuses. In a show of force, the king amasses troops on the border and the Jewish people are forced to take a circuitous route.

The first stop along the updated route is a place called “Hor ha’Har,” literally “Mount Hor” [Bemidbar 20:22-23]: “G-d spoke to Moshe and Aaron at Mount Hor, on the border of Edom, saying: ‘Let Aaron be gathered to his kin – he is not to enter the Land of Canaan that I have assigned to the Jewish People because you disobeyed My command.’” Rashi[4] explains that the Torah is adding something critical by noting that Mount Hor lies on the “border of Edom”: Their desire to pass through the Land of Edom, a route that would certainly bring them into contact with “the wicked,” created a “breach” which they paid for by losing Aaron prematurely[5]. Indeed, our Sages in the Midrash teach that the righteous must pay for the sins of their generation. Rashi’s explanation raises a number of questions: First, the Jewish people never actually entered the Land of Edom, they merely skirted the border. How could G-d punish them for a sin they did not commit? Why, the Talmud in Tractate Kiddushin [40a] teaches that while a good deed is rewarded even if it is not carried out, an evil deed must be physically committed before it warrants punishment. Further, entering the Land of Edom was not the people’s idea, it was Moshe’s idea. If anyone should have been punished, it should have been Moshe – it should have been he, and not Aaron, who died on Mount Hor.

In order to understand what actually happened, we plainly need to gain an understanding of  Clear Air Turbulence, or CAT. In May, 2024, a Singapore Airlines Boeing 777 with more than two hundred passengers flying from London to Singapore encountered extreme turbulence over Myanmar. For five long seconds, the airplane buffeted up and down. Passengers who were not buckled in their seats crashed into the ceiling. One passenger died and more than seventy were injured, most of them with spinal injuries incurred from having their bodies slammed repeatedly into the ceiling and then back into their seats. The turbulence was completely unexpected. It did not ramp up slowly, rather, it hit suddenly without any warning. The incident was a case of CAT. CAT is born from the jet stream, a tunnel of air moving from west to east at extremely high speed. Pilots can shave hours off a trip by flying in the jet stream. Recently, an El Al aircraft flying from New York to Tel Aviv used the jet stream to make the trip in eight and a half hours, almost two hours less than usual. CAT begins at the outer border of the jet stream, at the edge of the tunnel. Because the jet stream is moving so much more quickly than the surrounding airmass, Bernoulli’s Law determines that the air pressure inside the jet stream must be considerably lower than the air pressure outside the jet stream. The pressure differential at the boundary between the two airmasses creates convection – think of rice boiling in a pot – which, in turn, creates a powerful wind shear, winds that blow in a vertical, as opposed to a horizontal, direction. These winds are not weather-related and cannot be detected by weather radar. It is this wind shear that causes CAT. The best way to avoid CAT is to stay as far away from the edge of the jet stream as Air Traffic Control will permit. And as far as passengers are concerned, the best way to protect agaanst CAT is by keeping your seatbelt loosely buckled whenever you are in your seat.

The Jewish people travelled through the desert in a sort of spiritual jet stream. They were led by a Divine pillar of cloud during the day and a by pillar of fire at night, all the time carrying G-d’s Holy Presence in the Ark of Covenant. The spiritual pressure differential between the camp and its vicinity was considerable. Skirting the border of the Land of Edom amplified that differential, making spiritual CAT unavoidable. Aaron’s death was not the result of any misdeed. The Jewish people remained outside of Edom such that no sin was committed. Nevertheless, merely coming into contact with the border placed them in a strong metaphysical updraft and the results were unavoidable.

Let us try to fold this idea back into Rashi’s explanation. Why would simply being in close proximity to a physical border cause such terrible consequences? I suggest that the answer to this question has to do with Mount Hor. In the seven verses in which the Torah describes Aaron’s death, the words “Hor ha’Har” appear four times, indicating that it is a “key word,” a word that sheds light on an episode. While the simple translation of “Hor ha’Har” is “Mount Hor,” combining the two Hebrew words “Hor” and “HaHar” into one word – “Horhahar” – creates a word that is very reminiscent of the word “meharher” – “to contemplate.” The Talmud in Tractate Yoma [29a] discusses the concept of “Hirhur aveira,” the contemplation of sin that precedes the performance of a sin. The contemplation of sin is more than just considering committing a sin. The contemplation of sin is the rolling of the sin over one’s tongue while performing a risk-benefit analysis. According to the Talmud, the contemplation of sin is even worse than the performance of the sin because contemplation creates a lasting thought pattern whereas the performance of a sin is a one-off – after the sin has been committed, the appetite for further sin has been satisfied. As the Jewish people passed by the border of Edom, they had a clear view as to what was going on in the Edomite border towns. They saw how the Edomites dressed and how they ate, and heard how they spoke. It all felt so, well, inviting. The stark difference between their lofty spiritual status and the crassness and lewdness that lay just on the other side of the fence spawned contemplation of sin and for this the Jewish people were punished by losing their beloved Aaron.

A recent article in Scientific American warns that global warming is making turbulence more frequent and severe. Research performed at the Seoul National University showed that between 1979 and 2020, severe CAT over the North Atlantic became 55% more frequent. This should not be surprising as rising temperatures can lead to a greater temperature differential, leading to a greater pressure differential, leading to increased wind shear. Airlines will need to learn how to better detect and to deal with CAT. Our safety depends on it. In a similar vein, daily social media usage has been steadily rising, going from 90 minutes a day in 2017 to 151 minutes a day in 2023. People are spending more time virtually gawking at the crassness of how others dress, how they eat, and how they speak. The spiritual pressure differential is rising dangerously. We will need to learn how to better detect and to deal with spiritual CAT. Our future depends on it.

Most definitely something worth contemplating…

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5784

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Shlomo ben Esther, Sheindel Devorah bat Rina and Esther Sharon bat Chana Raizel

[1] The commentators offer a large number of suggestions as to the precise sin they committed, from disobedience to haughtiness to grossly misunderstanding the intentions of their flock. If Moshe and Aaron committed even a small percentage of these sins, they would still sit on top of the FBI’s most wanted list.

[2] See Isaac’s blessing to his sons in Bereishit [27:22]

[3] Rabbi Hertz was the Chief Rabbi of England in the first half of the 20th century.

[4] Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, known by his acronym “Rashi,” was the most eminent of the medieval commentators. He lived in France in the 11th century.

[5] Aaron could have died together with Moshe on the border of the Land of Israel.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty 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". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. 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 2000 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.
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