Parshat Hukat

Summary: Parshat Hukat is the 6th in the Book of Numbers covering Chapters 19:1-22:1. It begins with the enigmatic laws of the Red Heifer (Parah Adumah) which, after being processed into ashes and mixed with pure water, restored spiritual purity to those who had come in contact with a corpse.

The parasha then described in the 40th year of their sojourn the death of Miriam which led to a water crisis. Moshe & Aharon, commanded to speak with a rock that would provide water, struck it instead. G-d told them, for their lack of Faith, they wouldn’t merit bringing the people into Canaan.

Moshe sent messengers to the King of Edom seeking permission to take the shorter route to Canaan through their land but was rebuffed. Bnei Yisrael instead travelled by way of Mt Hor. Atop the mountain Moshe removed Aharon’s priestly garments, Aharon died and was succeeded by his son Elazar. Bnei Yisrael mourned Aharon for 30 days.

The Canaanite King of Arad attacked Bnei Yisrael taking captives. The people pledged to G-d all of the spoils of war if only they’d be granted victory – and G-d heard their prayers.

But forced to back-track so as to circumvent the land of Edom, the nation complained of a lack of food and water; and a plague of fiery-serpents broke out. Confessing their sin to Moshe, they asked for forgiveness. And G-d instructed Moshe to cast a copper snake, suspend it on a pole so all who were bitten who looked at the image would be healed.

They continued to travel to a series of encampments until reaching the border of Moab. There they found a well and sang a song in its praise.

Messengers were again sent, this time to King Sihon of the Emorites, asking permission to take the shorter crossing through his land. Sihon refused, instead amassing his army for war. Bnei Yisrael defeated Sihon, capturing cities he had earlier taken from Moab.

Continuing on the road to Bashan, they were met by King Og and his army. G-d assured Moshe that Bnei Yisrael would defeat Og in battle and capture his cities as well. After that they reached the plains of Moab along the Jordan River.

Comment: Perhaps one of the most dreadful verses in the entire Torah appears in our parasha:

Because you didn’t believe in me, to sanctify me in the eyes of the Children of Israel, you won’t merit bringing this congregation into the land I’ve given them. Numbers 20:12)

יַעַן לֹא-הֶאֱמַנְתֶּם בִּי, לְהַקְדִּישֵׁנִי לְעֵינֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל–לָכֵן, לֹא תָבִיאוּ אֶת-הַקָּהָל הַזֶּה, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר-נָתַתִּי לָהֶם.

With this statement, the fate of Moshe and Aharon was sealed. For the miscalculation of not speaking to a rock but striking it instead, they perished in the desert, not inheriting the Land of Canaan. A tragedy that evokes from the reader great pathos and sympathy.

Very much has been written by commentators, from Talmudic times to the present, on this set of verses. How frustrating that 40 years of struggle as their leader, enduring complaints and criticisms, discomfort and despair, what seems like the one thing Moshe wanted most, would be kept from him in his twilight years.

An explanation that rings true is that having been a leader of the generation who left Egypt, to a degree Moshe was stuck in a time frame he couldn’t transcend. Already, on more than one occasion, he couldn’t imagine how G-d would solve the challenges of life in the Midbar.

When the people complained for meat and G-d promised they’d have enough for a month until it was coming out of their teeth, Moshe cried out to G-d, ‘from where will I find so much meat to serve them?’ G-d’s solution was to bring them quail. (Numbers 11:13)

Once again, it seems at a place subsequently named the Waters of Strife (Mei Meribah), Moshe’s short-coming was being unable to imagine how the generation that would enter Canaan had changed. Referring to them as ‘rebels’, he lambasted their ingratitude; through transference, projecting upon them his experience with their parents. Perhaps, G-d felt that Moshe was out of sync.

For many of us the same can be said, we curtail our imaginations, failing to realise that so much is possible when we open ourselves up to G-d’s thinking. We’ve seen this through the lens of technological development. Those who used a typewriter but never made the transition to computers. And, today, those who know how to use a computer but aren’t able to cope with the speed of social media.

Next Sunday, 9 July, will be the Great Faith Get Together, an Inter-faith walk that will visit 3 Houses of Worship and finish with a picnic in Aberford Park. Clearly, for some of us, it may be uncomfortable going beyond the boundaries of our own faith. But this is a chance to expand our imaginations, meet new people and join in … if for no other reason than not to be left behind in a Wilderness of our own making.