Commentary for Chukat

30 Jun

Throughout the Torah so far, the Israelites have earned quite the reputation as an ungrateful lot of complainers. After seeing all of the plagues that God brought upon the Egyptians to convince Pharaoh to let them go, they immediately start complaining that God brought them into the desert to die when the Egyptian army starts to give chase. After God saves them with yet another miracle at the Red Sea, they start to complain about not having any water. Once God fixes that problem, they complain about not having any food, as if God would take them this far and provide them with water, but not provide them with food. This pattern of complaining would continue until the incident with the spies, in which God finally got fed up with the Israelites doubting God’s intentions and capability to fulfill them, and condemned the entire generation to die in the wilderness. That incident was a mere two weeks ago, and yet, in this week’s parshah the Israelites are at it again.

After the kingdom of Arad attacks the Israelites, the Israelites pray to God to help them defeat Arad, and God delivers Arad into their hands. Just a short journey later, and the Israelites are at it again. “Why did you make us leave Egypt just to die in the desert because there is no bread and no water and we loathe this miserable bread (Num. 21:5).” It takes a lot of chutzpah to complain that you don’t have any bread while in the very same sentence acknowledging that there is bread in the middle of the desert, and you just don’t like it. God reacts to this by sending poisonous snakes into the Israelite camp, and killing many Israelites.

The Israelites then went to Moses and said “we sinned by speaking against God and against you. Please pray to God to make the serpents leave us alone (Num. 21:7).” Moses does so, and God proscribes a cure. God orders Moses to make a fiery serpent and mount it on a pole, and anyone who was bitten by a snake could come look at it and be cured.   The Mishnah (Rosh Hashanah 3:8) explains that when the people would look up at it, they would think of God. If they turned their hearts back towards God, they would be healed, and if they didn’t, they would die of the snakebite. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch posits that the serpent reminded them of how dangerous their journey through the desert was, and how much they depended on God for protection and sustenance.

It is interesting to note that in last week’s parshah, after God caused the ground to swallow up Korach and his cohorts when they rebelled, the Israelites actually ascribed this clearly supernatural act to Moses and Aaron instead of God, and for this, God sent a plague upon them. In this week’s parshah, they recognize that it is God who is punishing them, and that it is God who has supreme power over everything. After this incident, the Israelites never complained about their troubles in the wilderness again.

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