Commentary on Parashat Chukat, Numbers 19:1 - 22:1
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 the Torah reading together with the Haftarah that goes with it.
In the Torah reading, near the end of the portion, 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 Moses and against Aaron…saying…why did you bring the congregation of God into this wilderness to die there, us, along with our cattle…?”
God appears to Moses, and tells him to take his staff, assemble the community, and speak to a rock, which will give forth water. Famously, Moses 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.
Moses assembles the people, and says, “Listen here, you rebels, from this stone shall we bring forth for you water?” Moses 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 Moses’ sin. Some feel that it was Moses’ 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 Moses 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.
It may be that Moses, who has consistently, 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. Had he spoken to the rock, the Israelites could have the learned the value of obedience to the word of God, rather than a fear of His wrath, as being 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. Moses and the Israelites wage a successful campaign against the Amorites, who attacked Israel after refusing Moses’ 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 Parashat Chukat — the story of Yiftah (also known as Jephthah) and Gilad in the Book of Judges. The story begins by telling us that Yiftah, 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.” Yiftah takes up with a group of men described as “worthless fellows.” Yiftah 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 defensive war against the Amorites. Yiftah’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 Yiftah was — an adventurous roustabout, was exactly what was needed. The respectable burghers of Gilad knew that they were not fighters, and turned to Yiftah to do that job for them.
Yiftah agrees, and becomes their leader. He then does something that is somewhat unexpected. We have been prepared by the narrative for a Yiftah 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, Yiftah 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 Yiftah 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 Yiftah 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 Moses’ fight and Yiftah’s fight over the same piece of land, separated by some 300 years, is the obvious connection between the Torah portion and the Haftarah, I am struck by the connections between the Yiftah story and the story of Moses and the rock.
Moses, back in Exodus, began his career as a man of action. Like Yiftah, 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 Yiftah — 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 Moses 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 Moses self-assessment and supplies him with his brother Aaron to act as a spokesman. The staff, which accompanies Moses, and through which he accomplishes all the plagues and miracles, seems to underscore Moses’ personality as a man of action, rather that words.
It would seem that in our Torah portion, 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 Moses to take the staff but TALK to the rock is a kind of final test. Moses 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. Moses 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 portion, 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 Moses’ final apotheosis, from the man of action to the man of words. It is this that he failed to achieve.
Yiftah’s story seems to contain a similar tension between speech and action. Yiftah refuses to be typecast as a simple strong-man, and tries diplomacy before military engagement. When the Ammonites refuse to listen to reason, Yiftah 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.
In a fascinating twist, his tragedy comes about not through anything he does, but through something he says–his vow to offer the first thing to come out of his door to God. It almost seems as if the story is telling us that Yiftah was wrong to try to 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, that needs to be played, and in which he can succeed, is that of a man of action.
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.
Reprinted with permission from The Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel.
Pronounced: hahf-TOErah or hahf-TOE-ruh, Origin: Hebrew, a selection from one of the biblical books of the Prophets that is read in synagogue immediately following the Torah reading.
Pronounced: moe-SHEH, Origin: Hebrew, Moses, whom God chooses to lead the Jews out of Egypt.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.