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Parashat Hashavua Chukat 2002 / 5762 - When you Come to Talk, Talk; to Shoot, Shoot

19.06.2002 by

As I'm sure many of you know, in addition to reading in the synagogue the weekly Torah portion, there is a tradition to follow that reading with a short selection from one of the books of the prophets. Typically, this section, called the 'haftarah' or 'leave-taking' (the idea being that it is a kind of epilogue or coda to the Torah reading) is connected in some thematic way to the Torah portion. This week I would like to talk about parshat Chukat together with its haftarah.

In the Torah reading, near the end of the parsha, which, according to the Rabbinic understanding takes place towards the end of the 40-year trek through the desert, we are told that there was a water shortage: "Now there was no water for the nation, so they gathered against Moshe and against Aharon…saying…why did you bring the congregation of God into this wilderness to die there, us, along with our cattle…?" God appears to Moshe, and tells him to take his staff, assemble the community, and speak to a rock, which will give forth water. Famously, Moshe somehow gets it wrong, and commits what for him will be an ultimate, tragic sin, for which he will be punished by being denied entry into the Holy Land.

Moshe assembles the people, and says, "Listen here, you rebels, from this stone shall we bring forth for you water?" Moshe then strikes the stone with his staff, twice, and water flows out of it. Subsequently, God informs him that by doing so he has sinned, grievously: "You did not believe in me, to sanctify me before the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this congregation into the land that I am giving them." For centuries, the Rabbis have debated the precise nature of Moshe's sin. Some feel that it was Moshe's anger - his branding the people "rebels", and his nasty tone of voice and choice of language. Others focus on the speaking to/hitting the rock question; although Moshe was instructed by God to take his staff, he was clearly told to speak to the rock, and, instead, he hit it, twice. Many commentaries see this as another sign of anger, and/or of disregard for the precise demands made by God.

Now, it may be that we can understand the speaking/hitting problem in this way: Moshe, who has, over the period of the Exodus from Egypt and the 40 years of wandering in the desert, used his staff to hit things, was now being instructed to symbolically take the people of Israel, as they ready themselves to enter the land of Israel, to a higher, more mature level, in which speech, rather than violent action, was to be preferred. If so, his regressive behavior in hitting the rock communicated precisely the wrong message to the Israelites, whom, had he spoken to it, could have the learned the value of obedience to the word of God, rather than a fear of His wrath. They would have seen that speech is the desirable mode of interaction with Him, and that speech, rather than violent action, is the preferred mode of human behavior.

After this episode, there are a series of diplomatic and military interactions between the Jews and the first Canaanite peoples they encounter as they approach the Land of Israel. They include a successful campaign that Moshe and the Israelites waged against the Amorites, who attacked Israel, after refusing Moshe's request to pass peacefully through their territory, in which Israel captures Amorite territory. It is this last episode, the conquest of the Amorite land, which clearly seems to be the connection to the Haftarah that is read in conjunction with parshat Chukat - the story of Yiftach the Giladi in the book of Judges.

The story begins by telling us that Yiftach, Gilad's illegitimate son (we are told that his mother was a prostitute) was thrown out of his parental home by his younger half-brothers, who denied him a share in their father's inheritance because he was "the son of another woman". Yiftach takes up with a group of men described as "worthless fellows". Yiftach seems to be a typical marginal youth; unfairly rejected by his family, he opts for a life on the edge, surrounded by other marginal people. But then, the people of Israel are attacked by the Ammonites, who seek to conquer the Amorite territory that, 300 years earlier, in our parsha, Moshe had captured in his war against the Amorites. Yiftach's old tormentors, the men of Gilad, approach him and ask him to lead them in battle. It would seem that the personality-type that Yiftach was - an adventurous roustabout, was exactly what was needed. The respectable burghers of Gilad knew that they were not fighters, and turned to Yiftach to do that job for them.

Yiftach agrees, and becomes their leader. He then does something unexpected. We have been prepared by the narrative for a Yiftach who is a man of action, who will be a captain for the beleaguered and frightened people of Gilad. And what does this man of action do? He sends a diplomatic mission to the king of Ammon asking for peace. In the discussion that follows, Yiftach argues that the land that Ammon is attacking was conquered legitimately by Israel from another nation, the Amorites, some 300 hundred years earlier, in a defensive war, after Israel was attacked by the Amorites. The Ammonites, whom Israel did not fight at that time, have no legitimate reason to attack Israel over that land now. All the diplomacy is to no avail; the Ammonites attack, and Yiftach goes into battle. Before he does, he makes a vow to God, saying that, if he is victorious, and returns from the battle, "whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the people of Ammon, shall surely be the Lord's, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering." He was assuming that it would be a goat, or sheep, or cow, which would first come out to greet him upon his return. Tragically, after Yiftach returns home, victorious, it is his daughter, his only child, who comes out, singing and dancing, to greet him.

The end of the story is horribly tragic:"When he saw her, he rent his clothes, and said, 'alas, my daughter, thou hast brought me very low, and thou hast become the cause of trouble to me, for I have opened my mouth to the Lord, and I can not go back'. And she said to him, 'my father, if thou hast opened thy mouth to the Lord, do to me that which has come out of thy mouth' ". She is given two months to 'weep for her virginity', and is then forced to live out her life, alone, remaining unmarried.

Although the battle waged by Moshe and Yiftach over the same piece of land, some 300 years apart, is the obvious connection between the parsha and the haftarah, I am struck by the connections between the Yiftach story and the story of Moshe and the rock. Moshe, back in Exodus, began his career as a man of action. Like Yiftach, he was estranged from his family (albeit under very different circumstances), and what we know of him is very like what we think we know of Yiftach - the first act he does in the Torah is to smite and kill the Egyptian oppressor of his Jewish brethren. Later, at the burning bush, when God calls on Moshe to go to Pharaoh and lead the Jewish people out of Egypt, he demurs, claiming that he is not a man of words, not a speaker. God insists, but does seem to agree with Moshe's self-assessment and supplies him with his brother Aharon to act as a spokesman. The staff, which accompanies Moshe, and through which he accomplishes all the plagues and miracles, seems to underscore Moshe's personality as a man of action, rather that words.

It would seem that in our parsha, as the 40 years in the desert come to an end and the Israelites ready themselves to enter the land of Israel, God's telling Moshe to take the staff but TALK to the rock is a kind of final test. Moshe is challenged to transcend his persona as a man of action, of violence, and clearly opt for the role of the speaker, the person who achieves not by hitting, but by talking. Moshe fails, and is denied the right to enter the land, his goal for the last 40 years and more, as a punishment. It is worth noting that the same word "va'yach" - "and he smote" - is used back at the beginning of his career, when he killed the Egyptian, as well as here, in our parsha, when he hits the rock. It would seem that the act of talking to the rock, and, in effect, rejecting the staff that he held in his hands, was meant to be Moshe's final apotheosis, from the man of action to the man of words. It is this that he failed to achieve.

Yiftach's story seems to contain a similar tension between speech and action. Yiftach refuses to be typecast as a simple strong-man, and tries diplomacy before military engagement. When the Ammonites refuse to listen to reason, Yiftach is forced to be what everyone wants him to be; a tough guy, the son of a prostitute, who hangs out with worthless bums, a man of action and violence. When we are told that he defeated the Ammonites, the same word that is used pertaining to Moshe and the rock is used: "Va'yakame...maka gedolah" - "he smote them a great smitimg.

In a fascinating twist, Yiftach's tragedy comes about not through anything he does, but through something he says - his vow to offer the first thing to come out of the door of his house to God. It seems as if the story is telling us that Yiftach was wrong to try and become a man of words, to "open his mouth to God" and express a religious sentiment, and that his real role, the role that he is now called upon to play, and in which he can succeed, is that of a man of action: to fight the Ammonites.

As Israel now faces a brutal, implacable enemy, with whom we have tried to talk, unsuccessfully, for years, I pray that we, and our leaders, will have the wisdom to know when to talk, and when to act.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Shimon Felix

Yiftach's story seems to contain a similar tension between speech and action.Rabbi Shimon

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