In Parshas Chukas Miriam and Aharon died. In Parshas Balak Bilam the evil prophet attempted to curse the Jewish nation. He failed to do so but advised Balak how to direct G-d’s anger and retribution against the Jews. Balak listened to Bilam’s advice and Jewish men fell prey to the Midianite women. The fault lines of this faltering extended to the highest echelons of the nation’s leadership and G-d’s anger was swift and devastating. At the end of the Parsha, Pinchas’s zealousness saved the day. What is the connection between all of these events?
The death of Miriam and Aharon had a profound practical and psychological affect on the nation. First of all, they were their most trusted and beloved leaders. Both Aharon and Miriam had been with them in slavery and in freedom. They had experienced the good with the bad, the noble with the ignoble. Their presence throughout the enslavement and the 40 years in the desert gave the nation a sense of continuity and security. As the nation was poised to end the episode of the desert and enter the Promised Land, the deaths of Miriam and Aharon were emotionally devastating and psychologically unsettling.
However, the effects were even more profound than that. With Miriam’s death, the nation’s source of water ended. With Aharon’s death their protective cover of clouds ended. The Meam Loez explains that the “Well of Miriam” was much more than their source of water. When the leading clouds came to a stop it indicated to the nation that they should make camp. The arrangement of the camp as detailed in the beginning of Bamidbar was deliberate and divine. The Medresh says that the Well of Miriam would move to the very center of the camp, marking the position of the Mishkan. It then overflowed and created a canal system that delineated the placement and boundaries of each Tribe within the desert encampment.
As explained in previous issues, the organization of the desert camp indicated to the tribes their uniqueness as well as their intended contribution to the whole of the nation. (See Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch) While in the desert, the intended identity and interaction of the tribes and the nation was much more theory than practice. For the most part every Jew and every tribe did the exact same thing. They gathered the Manna, prepared their meals, and studied Torah. Simply put, they were free to completely depended upon G-d’s constant love and care. As such, there were few differences between the tribes, except as it related to the Kohanim’s service in the Mishkan. Otherwise, all of the Jews did the same thing every single day. However, as they neared the borders of Eretz Yisroel the intended differences between the Tribes began to have greater practical consideration.
Upon crossing the Yarden, the nation would begin to behave’ “like all the other nations.” They would begin to plant, harvest, mill and bake. They would create the infrastructure of the nation including a government and all its attendant services and costs. They would build international relationships to provide national security as well as the means for becoming “a light onto the nations.” The nation would no longer be free to only “sit and study.” The division of the land would be in concert with a necessary division of labor. Some would teach and some would do business. Some would travel the seven seas and others would stay home to tend their fields. Some would plant and harvest and others would tend their flocks and herds. However, along with the division of labor between the tribes would come an increased sense of independence from G-d. It would take greater sophistication and sensitivity to see the constancy of G-d’s loving concern as not being any different than when it was in the desert. Therefore, the delineated differences between the tribes highlighted by the miracle of Miriam’s Well, was of greater symbolic significance than ever before. Yet, Miriam died and the well ceased to provide water. The individual tribes were left alone to consider their own placement, divisions, and responsibilities.
The cloud cover that had enveloped and protected the nation for 40 years lifted with Aharon’s death. The cloud cover had protected them from the heat of the day, the cold of the night, and the other harsh realities of the desert. Additionally, it concealed the nation from the prying eyes of the other nations. You can imagine that the surrounding nations were constantly monitoring the movement of the Jews. They had heard the legends and stories of miracles and mighty deeds, yet were never able to assess the true nature and strength of the nation because of the cloud cover. Therefore, the secretive nature of the cloud cover contributed to the fear of the surrounding nations. Upon Aharon’s death the clouds disappeared and the nation stood revealed. (Note: Bilam viewing the nation for the first time.)
What did the other nation’s see and what was their reaction? They saw a beautifully regimented and organized camp. They saw the Mishkan centrally placed as the focus of the camp. And they saw a mass of normal looking people. They were not giants. They did not sprout horns, tusks, or tails. They dressed modestly and seemed to interact peacefully with each other. They appeared normal and therefore beatable. However, at the end of Chukas the Bnai Yisroel were victorious against the two giant warrior kings, Sichon and Og. A nation that appeared to be normal and beatable became awesomely frightening. Such a nation could only be destroyed through divine intervention. As the Pasuk testifies, they turned to the evil prophet Bilam and said, ” So now, please come and curse this people for me, for it is too powerful for me.” (22:6)
What was the reaction of the Jews prior to their victory? The Jews had just suffered the deaths of Aharon and Miriam. They had just lost their source of water and their cover of secrecy had lifted. They stood exposed to the scrutiny of the surrounding nations and they were frightened of going to war against Sichon and Og. G-d said to Moshe, “Do not fear him!” (21:34)
In the end the Jews tasted victory over Og and Sichon; however, along with the victory came a misguided sense of independence. They began to wrongly depend more on themselves and less on G-d. Miriam was gone. Aharon was gone. They were no longer hidden behind the veil of the cloud cover. Yet, they had prevailed, they had been victorious! It was time to shed the old dependency on miracles and miracle-makers and begin to live their lives as “all the other nations!”
They began to think about the next stage of their individual and national development. “If we are to take our place at the head of the other nation’s we must do so through natural means. So long as the world sees us as dependent on miracles they might continue to fear us but they will never learn from us. They will rightfully conclude that our greatness is in direct proportion to G-d’s manifest mastery. Values, ethics, and morality will be understood as a response to miracles and fear rather than the rightful expectation of personal growth and devotion. The death of our divinely appointed teachers, the ending of Miriam’s Well, and the lifting of the cloud cover prove that the time of overt miracles has ended. G-d expects us to take charge and do what must be done in as natural a way as possible. That is G-d’s will!”
As explained in past issues, the Jews were unaware of the conspiracy of Bilam and Balak as it was happening. It was only after G-d intervened with Bilam’s attempt to curse and destroy them that G-d informed Moshe and the Jews of the foiled attempt. (Note: Why we begin our daily prayers with Mah Tovu) The Jews never knew the extent of their danger or the miracle of G-d’s intervention when it was happening; therefore, they believed that the dynamics of their relationship with G-d and His expectations for their dependency had changed. However, They were terribly wrong.
The deaths of Miriam and Aharon and their victory over Sichon and Og were but a test of whether they had really accepted the totality of their dependency on G-d. Was dependency on G-d a consequence of miracles or the understanding of G-d’s total mastery over all and everything? Was it the miracle of water pouring out from rocks that had guaranteed their survival for forty years in the desert or the benevolence of the Creator? Was it the divine cloud cover that had secured their safety from the prying eyes and machinations of the nations or G-d’s promise to the Forefathers that their children would survive to become a blessing onto the nations? Was it miracles that insured their future or their commitment to the G-d Creator Who was as manifest in a tender blade of grass as He was in the movements of the cosmos?
Bilam’s final advice to Balak and the terrible consequences the Jews suffered proved how wrong they were to think that they could fend for themselves. G-d simply removed His special protection from the nation for a moment and allowed nature to take its course. It did not take an active display of G-d’s power to challenge the nation’s assumption of independence – just the opposite! All G-d did was sit back and let Bilam and Balak succeed in their final plan.
Exactly how did Bilam’s plan for seducing the Jewish men and awakening G-d’s wrath play itself out?
My father Shlit’a explained to me that Bilam and Balak planned the seduction by playing on the Jew’s desire to be “a light onto the nations” as well as the Jewish tendency toward independence and assimilation.
First they approached the Jews in welcome and friendship and joined to socialize and break-bread. The relationship between the Jews and Moabites grew as did the attraction for their “daughters” and in the end the Jews justified their indiscretions legally and publicly. They rationalized it as the most potent way to establish intimate ties with the surrounding nations for the sake of influencing them. (Note: Shlomo Hamelech and his 1000 wives.) It did not happen suddenly and openly. It happened slowly and subtly. Even the Prince of Shimon fell under the illusion of consorting with the Moabite women “for the sake of heaven.”
Left to their own devices – as the Jews seemingly wanted G-d to do – the nation failed. In response, the Torah discards all excuses and illusions and cuts to the tragic chase. “The people began to commit harlotry…They invited the people to the feast of their gods…The people ate and prostrated themselves to their godsâ€¦And the wrath of G-d flared against Israel.” (25:1-4)
It took the courageous zealousness of Pinchas to shock the nation back to their senses and the truth of their total dependency on G-d. (Note: Moshe’s decree against Yichud.)
Copyright © 2002 by Rabbi Aron Tendler and Project Genesis, Inc.
The author is Rabbi of Shaarey Zedek Congregation, Valley Village, CA.