Parashat Chukat: Victory without miracles

Now the nation faced a new situation. They had to fight the enemy, the Canaanite king of Arad, without a miracle, completely naturally. Was this change advantageous or disadvantageous for the nation?

By SHMUEL RABINOWITZ
July 3, 2019 18:46
3 minute read.
Parashat Chukat: Victory without miracles

‘MOSES ON the Mountain During the Battle,’ James Tissot.. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

This week’s Torah portion, Chukat, is famous for the law it begins with: Para Aduma (Red Heifer), and because of the story that follows later: the sin of hitting the stone, which led to Moses and Aaron being prohibited from entering the Promised Land, Canaan, the Land of Israel. Later in the parasha, we read the description of the long journey taken by the People of Israel along the southern and eastern border of the Land of Israel, a journey that entailed several battles. This was the first of them:
The Canaanite king of Arad, who lived in the south, heard that Israel had come... and he waged war against Israel and took from them a captive. Israel made a vow to the Lord, and said, “If You deliver this people into my hand, I shall consecrate their cities.” The Lord heard Israel’s voice and delivered the Canaanite... and he called the place Hormah. (Numbers 21:1-3)

This was not the first battle encountered by the nation on its way from Egypt to the Land of Israel. Immediately after the Exodus, the Egyptian army pursued the liberated nation, wanting to return them to slavery. The battle resulted in the total defeat of the Egyptian army: the pursuers drowned in the sea with their horses and carriages (known to us today from illustrations that were preserved for thousands of years in Egypt). The Israelites did not have to fight for themselves. On the contrary. They were told explicitly: “The Lord will fight for you, but you shall remain silent” (Exodus 14:14).

Then Amalek came and fought Israel. There, there was no complete miracle as in the parting of the Sea of Reeds. The nation had to fight, but the victory was attained through Moses’s arms as he stood on the hill. As long as Moses raised his arms up, the nation was victorious. The Mishna said about this: And do Moses’s arms make or break a war? This is to show us: As long as Israel looked up and enslaved their hearts to their Father in Heaven – they prevailed; and if not – they fell (Tractate Rosh Hashanah, Chapter 3, Mishna 8).

Now the nation faced a new situation. They had to fight the enemy, the Canaanite king of Arad, without a miracle, completely naturally. Was this change advantageous or disadvantageous for the nation?

One of the spiritual leaders of Eastern European Jewry at the end of the 19th and early 20th century was Rabbi Meir Simcha Hacohen, the rabbi of Dvinsk in Latvia. He wrote two books that left a tremendous mark on the beit midrash to this day: the first is a halachic book called Or Sameach, and the other is a book of commentary on the Torah called Meshech Chochma, which includes a variety of styles, halachic discourse and brilliant philosophical thought. In the latter book’s discussion on the short story in our parasha, it compared the Nation of Israel to a son seated at his father’s table who does not find a way to support himself, and therefore, he writes, “it is not respectable for the nation that God must make miracles to save it from its enemies.”

Indeed, the nation understood something very important. Victory could not be attained without God’s help. In this, the nation passed the first test of independence: the independent and fighting nation understood that even in war being fought with natural tools, victory cannot be attained without divine assistance. And for this, they turned to God and asked Him for help.

Rabbi Meir Simcha Hacohen concludes that a nation should fight on its own, taking advantage of its abilities without depending on miracles. But this can only be achieved if we remember the source of our strength and success.

The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.


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