Parashat Chukat is a very eclectic portion, chock full of stories and commandments. This week we will zoom into one very short and very enigmatic episode. After Aaron dies, the Torah tells us [Bemidbar 21:1-3] “When the Canaanite, King of Arad, who dwelt in the Negev, learned that Israel was coming by the way of Atarim, he engaged Israel in battle and took some of them captive. Then Israel made a vow to G-d and said, ‘If You deliver this people into our hand, we will consecrate their towns.’ G-d heeded Israel’s plea and delivered up the Canaanites; and they and their cities were consecrated. So that place was named Hormah.” End of story.
Who were these “Canaanites” and where did they come from? Recall that at the time, the Jewish People were encamped on the eastern bank of the Jordan River, miles away from the Land of Canaan. Rashi, the most famous of the medieval commentators, who lived in France in the eleventh century, asserts that these “Canaanite” people were actually nomad Amalekites, the nemesis of the Jewish People. In order to bamboozle their enemies, the Amalekites dressed and spoke like the local Canaanite population.
The Ramban, who lived in Spain in the thirteenth century, disagrees with Rashi and offers a revolutionary explanation, albeit one that makes a tremendous amount of geopolitical sense. The Ramban identifies “Arad” with the town of Arad in the Land of Canaan, near the modern-day city of Arad that borders the Negev Desert. According to the Ramban, the King of Arad feared that the Israelites would soon cross the border to begin capturing the Land of Canaan and he pre-emptively attacked them. The Israelites defeated the Canaanites and per their word, they consecrated their towns. This presents a chronological conundrum: If Arad was in the Land of Israel, then it could have been consecrated only by Joshua and only after the Jewish People had crossed the Jordan River. How could the Torah say that “they and their cities were consecrated”? The Ramban is aware of this problem and he asserts that the Torah is referring to an event that happens in the future, after Moshe has died. Indeed, the Book of Joshua [12:14] mentions both Arad and Hormah as two of the cities that Joshua captured. The Ramban’s explanation is undeniably avant-garde, lying beyond the pale of today’s “accepted exegesis”. Chances are if he were alive today, certain influential Rabbis would have him summarily excommunicated.
There is another significant difference between the explanations of Rashi and of the Ramban. Rashi translates the verse [Bemidbar 21:1] “Va’yishb mi’menu shevi” as “[The Canaanites] took one captive – one handmaiden”. The Ramban, on the other hand, translates the verse as we translated it above: “[The Canaanites] took some of them captive”. Rashi and the Ramban are painting two different pictures: Rashi describes a short skirmish with a negligible outcome. The Ramban, however, is describing the opening battle in the First Israeli War of Independence. This was a real war, waged against a real enemy, with real prisoners, and more than likely with real casualties.
The battle against the Canaanites is described even more concisely when the Torah reviews the locations in which the Jewish People encamped during their forty-year sojourn in the desert after the exodus from Egypt. All that is required is one verse [Bemidbar 33:40]: “And the Canaanite, king of Arad, who dwelt in the Negev, in the land of Canaan, learned of the coming of the Israelites.” That’s it. The Torah does not mention war, hostages, retribution, nor consecration of the land. This fits in well with Rashi’s description of a marginal incident. But if we adopt the Ramban’s description of a larger war, then we would have expected to see a larger summary. Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno, who lived in Italy in the sixteenth century, comes to our rescue. The Seforno suggests that the Torah’s review of the places in which the Jewish People camped was not merely a geography lesson – it was a list of places in which the Jewish People acted especially meritoriously. Regarding the Canaanites, the Seforno writes “[The actions of the Jewish People] were meritorious because unlike their forefathers, who said [Bemidbar 14:4] ‘Let us appoint a new leader and return to Egypt’ when they encountered war, these people made vows and consecrated the spoils”. The Torah’s description of the war was purposely brief. The Jewish People treated the war like “another day at the office”.
If the Seforno’s explanation did not hit you over the head like a ton of bricks, then you are not paying attention. Let’s take a good look at the Jewish People who were attacked by the Canaanites: They had spent nearly forty years wandering in the desert in punishment for panicking after a contingent of spies had told them that trying to conquer the Land of Israel from the Canaanites would be a suicide mission. As they near the end of their wandering, their leaders, Moshe and Aaron, are both sentenced to die in the desert. Immediately after Aaron dies, the Canaanites launch their successful surprise attack. The Jewish People are living their worst nightmare: The spies had spoken the truth. We really are all going to die. Except that’s not what they say. They rise to the occasion. They heed the words of Joshua and Caleb who stood up against the other spies [Bemidbar 14:9]: “Have no fear of the people of the country for they are our prey: their protection has departed from them, G-d is with us, do not fear them”. They do not fear. They turn to G-d and with His help, they are victorious. Their actions are truly a tikkun – a remedy – of their actions forty years earlier.
Which makes their actions immediately after they defeat the Canaanites so utterly difficult to comprehend [Bemidbar 21:4-6]: “The people grew disheartened on the journey and the people spoke against G-d and against Moshe, ‘Why did you make us leave Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread and no water, and we have come to loathe this miserable food. G-d sent venomous serpents against the people. They bit the people and many of the Israelites died.” Really?? You have just finished proving that you have learnt your lesson, that you are finally ready to meet your destiny head on. And then suddenly you revert to your old ways: What has G-d done for me lately? Our Sages refer to this as “Me’igra rama l’bira amikta” – “From a tall mountain to a deep pit”. How did this happen so quickly?
This kind behaviour is anything but surprising. After weathering a crisis, humans need time to catch their breath and to regain their strength. Problems occur when the danger has not yet dissipated and continuous vigilance is still required. After the Jewish People had defeated the Canaanites, they were still in an uninhabitable wilderness, wholly dependent on G-d. Their loss of spiritual clarity was fatal. The Israeli response to the COVID-19 pandemic is another example. A little more than one month ago, we had essentially defeated COVID-19. From a high of 800 new cases a day, we were down to about 10. Our victory came at a high cost – COVID-19 took many captives. Our economy was in tatters, with more than a quarter of the workforce unemployed. We were forcefully separated from our parents and our grandparents. Many of us, especially those over sixty-five, spent the Pesach seder – a joyous event usually celebrated with friends and family – alone. We were psychologically and economically battered. But it was worth it: our actions had kept the infection rate low enough so that the hospitals could tend to the sick, so that there were enough ventilators to go around. Then we decided it was over. We paused to rest. We jettisoned social distancing. We stopped wearing masks. Unsurprisingly, the infection rate has skyrocketed. Yesterday, we had more than 500 new cases, an increase of five thousand percent in one month. From a tall mountain to a deep pit.
The Ramban teaches that purpose of the stories written in the Torah is to teach a lesson: “The events that transpire with the forefathers is an omen for the children”. Well, here we go again, but this time there is one significant difference: When our forefathers fell from their high mountain, they were punished by venomous snakes. When we fell this time, we are being punished by no-one but ourselves.
Shabbat Shalom and stay healthy.
Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5780
Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza and David ben Chaya.
 See https://seforimblog.com/2020/03/the-breadth-of-rabbinic-opinion-regarding-mosaic-authorship-of-the-torah-in-the-middle-ages/ for a fascinating deep dive into the opinion of the Ramban.