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“Sparks of the Tempest” Parashat Chukat 5782

“The difference between us is a part of the game” – Sparks of the Tempest, by K. Livgren / S. Walsh

Thirty eight years separate the first verse of the portion of Chukat with its last verse. During this time, the Jewish People wander in the desert until all those who were turned by the slanderous report of the spies had died. Our Sages in the Midrash describe a bizarre ritual in which each year, on the night of Tisha b’Av, the Jewish People would dig graves and then lie in them and wait. In the morning, the living would rise while the dead would be buried in the graves they had just dug. The Torah does not explicitly describe what transpired during these thirty eight years and so the passage of time is difficult to monitor. One verse alludes to the fact that nearly two generations have passed [Bemidbar 20:1]: “The Children of Israel – the entire community – arrived at the wilderness of Zin on the first new moon and the nation encamped at Kadesh”. Rashi, the most eminent of the medieval commentators, who lived in France in the eleventh century, explains the term “The entire community (kol ha’eda)” as “The complete community, for the ones destined to die in the desert had already died and these were assigned for life.”. There would be no more Tisha b’Av death ceremonies. Those who had survived were unblemished by sin and stood ready to enter the Land of Israel.

While the Torah is usually succinct, this verse is particularly verbose in that it uses no less than three different terms to describe the Jewish People:

  1. The Children of Israel (Bnei Yisrael)
  2. The Community (ha’Edah)
  3. The Nation (ha’Am)

The verse could have written much more succinctly: “All the Children of Israel (Kol Bnei Yisrael) arrived at the wilderness of Zin on the first new moon and they encamped at Kadesh”. Why does scripture use so many different words to describe the Jewish People? In order to proceed, we must understand the meanings of each of these descriptors.

  1. The term “Children of Israel” is first used after our forefather, Jacob, fights off an unidentified assailant and is wounded in the thigh in the process. The Torah tells us [Bereishit 32:33] “That is why the Children of Israel (Bnei Yisrael) to this day do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the socket of the hip, since Jacob’s hip socket was wrenched at the thigh muscle.” Rabbi David Kimchi, known as the Radak, who lived in southern France about a hundred years after Rashi, explains that “The children of Jacob/Israel adopted this prohibition for themselves in commemoration of their father whose thigh muscle had been injured. They in turn commanded their children to abstain from eating this part of any animal.” The term “Children of Israel” is a metaphor for the unbreakable and eternal chain of Jewish tradition.
  2. The word “Community (Edah)” was dissected and analysed in our essay last week[1]. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveichik, who led North American Modern Orthodox Jewry in the second half of the previous century, explains that the word “edah”, translated heretofore as “community”, comes from the word “edut” – testimony. An “edah” is a community of people who are bound together by dogmatic belief. The community of the Jewish People are bound together by the belief in an all-powerful Being Who gave them His Torah at Mount Sinai.
  3. The Zohar, the core book of Jewish mysticism, teaches that whenever the Torah uses the word “Nation (Am)” or “the Nation (ha’Am) by itself, it is referring to the “Erev Rav”, a “mixed multitude” of people that joined the Jewish People at the Egyptian exodus. Rashi suggests that these were non-Jews that wished to convert and to become part of the Jewish People, having seen G-d perform great wonders and miracles. Other commentators suggest that the Erev Rav were predominantly Egyptians and others propose that they were Egyptians that had intermarried with Jews. According to the Zohar, the Erev Rav were responsible for nearly every calamity that befell the Jewish People in the desert, including the golden calf (egel) and the near-mutiny that followed the return of the spies. It would be straightforward to identify the “nation” who encamped at Kadesh as the Erev Rav but that would be contradictory as Rashi has already informed us that all of the people who remained alive were “assigned for life”. As the Erev Rav were the instigators of the very act that resulted in the nearly forty-year sojourn in the desert, it seems fair to conclude that they would have perished along with the rest of the sinners. I suggest that the Torah’s reference here to “nation” is referring the “pintele Yid”, literally, the “the Jewish spark”. According to Philologos, an anonymous language maven on Mosaic Magazine, the pintele Yid describes “an indestructible core of Jewishness that lurks deep within even unknowing or alienated Jews”. To the pintele Yid, his Jewish identity – his being part of a nation – is existentially important. While he might be less than pedantic in his keeping of Jewish ritual, he comes to the Chabad House on Shabbat, he circumcises his children with great fanfare, and he goes down the beach in Tel Aviv, perhaps without a kippa, to recite Kabbalat Shabbat (Welcoming the Shabbat) with his friends and then he returns home to recite Kiddush and to eat dinner with his family. Saul Axelrod, a Professor Emeritus at Temple University, writes[2], “Some of the people still have a pintele yid… It just requires a special event to expose it”.

The Jewish People who stood ready to enter the Land of Canaan to fulfil the promise that G-d had made to their forefather, Abraham, so long ago were not monolithic. Present were the traditionalists[3], who turned to their ancestors for guidance in the performance of mitzvot, the religious dogmatics, who swam in the oceans of the Rambam and the Shulchan Aruch[4], along with the pintele Yid, who perhaps was knew less about Judaism but for whom a Jewish spark glowed, ready to be fanned into flame. These people stood together at the Israeli border, arm in arm, all of them, “assigned for life”.

Near the end of the Torah, we encounter another example of Jewish unity. As Moshe prepares the Jewish People to enter into a covenant with G-d, he tells them [Devarim 29:9-10] “You stand this day, all of you, before your G-d: your tribal heads, your elders, and your officials, every householder in Israel… from your wood choppers to your water carriers”. Our covenant with G-d is entered not as individuals but as one nation – “all of you”. These people stood together before G-d, arm in arm, all of them, “assigned for life”.

The actions of the fathers are signposts for their descendants (“Ma’aseh avot siman l’vanim”). Today the Jewish People find ourselves in a similar position. We have returned to our ancient homeland after two thousand years of exile. Our redemption is taking place before our eyes. G-d has kept His part of the covenant and we must keep ours. We will build, we will grow, and we will renew. We will accomplish this together because only when we are together are we complete. And may it be G-d’s Will that we are all assigned for life.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5782

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, Geisha bat Sara, and Batya Sarah bat Hinda Leah.

[1] Parashat Korach 5782

[2] https://www.jewishexponent.com/2019/02/22/the-spark-of-the-pintele-yid/

[3] Rabbi Chaim Soloveichik, writing in “Rupture and Reconstruction”, refers this as “experiential Judaism”.

[4] The Shulchan Aruch is the codification of Jewish Law by Rabbi Joseph Karo in the sixteenth century. Obviously, as Rabbi Karo and the Rambam were not yet born when the Jewish People entered the Land of Israel, we are speaking poetically.

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 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.
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