In this week’s Torah portion, Hukat, we read a brief account of a war waged by “the Canaanite king of Arad, who lived in the south,” against the Israelites, who were making their way to the land of Canaan, at the end of which – after vowing not to enjoy the spoils of war but to dedicate them to God – the Israelites defeated the king who fought them. The description of this war begins with the following sentence:
“The Canaanite king of Arad, who lived in the south, heard that Israel was coming by the route of the spies, and he waged war against Israel and took from them a captive” (Num. 21:1; see Rashi there).
The motives of the king of Arad – which some identify as Amalek – to fight with Israel are explicitly stated in this verse: “For Israel came by the route of the spies.” That is, until now the Israelites’ journey had been conducted mainly in the desolate desert, where they posed no threat to anyone. But now they were approaching populated areas, which aroused fear in the heart of the king of Arad and caused him to go out to fight against the Children of Israel.
Why did the king of Arad want to attack the Israelites?
The Sages of Israel, as usual, searched for the spiritual reason behind the events and asked: “What rumor did he hear?” and gave different answers. One of them is the answer of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai:
“When they heard that Aaron had died, they said: ‘Their high priest has died, and their great Lookout has gone, and the pillar of cloud that waged war for them – this is the time to go and fight them” (Sifre Numbers par. 82).
This answer links the description of the war to what was mentioned in the Torah in the previous verses: “and Aaron died there on the top of the mountain.... The whole congregation saw that Aaron had expired, and the entire House of Israel wept for Aaron for thirty days” (Num. 20:28-29). The death of Aaron, the second leader after Moses, weakened the resilience of the Children of Israel. The Sages say that throughout Aaron’s life, a cloud enveloped the camp of the Israelites and protected them, but with Aaron’s death the protective cloud disappeared, and they were left exposed. The king of Arad, recognizing the weakness, seized the opportunity and launched a war against them.
A CLOSER look at the events will explain the connection between Aaron’s death and the weakness and the war that followed. Aaron is said to have been mourned by “the whole House of Israel,” and the midrash explains what caused the weeping:
“This is to teach you to be a person who loves peace among all the people of Israel, just as Aaron loved peace between everyone.... [W]hen two people were fighting with each other, Aaron would go and sit next to one of them and say: My son, look at the anguish your friend is going through! He beats his breast and tears his clothes, saying, How can I face my old friend? I am so ashamed, I betrayed his trust. Aaron would sit with him until his rage subsided. Then Aaron would go to the other person in the fight and say: My son, look at the anguish your friend is going through! He beats his breast and tears his clothes, saying, How can I face my old friend? I am so ashamed, I betrayed his trust. Aaron would sit with him until his rage subsided. When the two people saw each other, they would embrace and kiss one another. And that is why it says, ‘And the entire House of Israel wept for Aaron for thirty days’” (Avot d’Rabbi Natan 12).
Aaron was a symbol of peace and unity. He was engaged in quieting quarrels, reconciliation and mediation. Aaron’s death was a symbol of the disappearance of inner unity within the nation. There was no one left to devote his days and nights to reconciliation between spouses and former friends. The internal rift in the nation brought about weakness that radiated externally as well, inviting enemies who tried to seize the opportunity. The king of Arad understood this and came to fight against the divided and weakened Children of Israel.
If that Canaanite thousands of years ago understood this, we should understand it, too. The people of Israel, and especially in the Land of Israel, are subject to constant threats, the most serious of which are manifest threats that seek to destroy the State of Israel, God forbid. In order to deal with these threats, we must acquire inner resilience which depends on striving for unity and peace. This is not only a moral task. This is an existential task on which we are required to concentrate our best efforts and, with God’s help, succeed! ■
The writer is the rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.