Peter J. Rubinstein | June 29, 2012
The parashah from which we’re reading this evening, Chukat, is part of an episode during the journey of the Israelites after the spies have returned and announced to them and convinced the people that they could never possibly conquer the land of Canaan.
This portion begins with a ritual that nobody quite understands and therefore I’m not gonna read it this evening [laughter]. It’s a ritual about a red heifer that’s supposed to be burnt; the ashes are then used later on whenever anybody touches a corpse and therefore needs to be cleansed from their defilement.
It’s also a portion that includes both the death of Miriam and the death of Aaron, and in fact, the sentence is passed upon Moses that he will not enter the Land and needs to die east of the journey. It is also the portion that has in it that famous episode of the people becoming thirsty, begging for water, recalling that it was so much better in Egypt. Moses seeks advice from God and is told to speak to a rock that will produce water, and he smacks it twice and because of that, he is doomed not to enter the Land.
But the fact is I’m not gonna read any of that. I’m going to be reading what I would consider to be a transitional moment and yet a very important moment, as Moses and the people are seeking the shortest or the most passable route in order to enter Canaan, the Promised Land, from the east. And in fact this episode that I will be reading comprises an arbitration between Moses and the Israelites on one side and the King of Edom on the other.
And as though to prove that family squabbles never really go away, we will need to remember the historical context into which this arbitration, this conversation, this discussion takes place. Since this is not only an interchange between the Israelites and another tribe or kingdom. This is a discussion that becomes more and quickly escalates with the same bitterness I would think that Jacob and his brother Esau had when Jacob stole both the birthright and the blessing.
Because as you will hear from the language, the words that are used are the B’nei Yisrael, that is the children of Israel, and Israel of course is Jacob, and Edom on the other side, which is the name that is connected with, of all people, Esau.
And so it’s not simply between two tribes: this has a historical context of bitterness that is built into it. So as we read this portion, listen for the terminology, the use of the word “brother,” and how in fact both of these parties play their historic roles as we will discuss just a little bit following the reading of the portion.
So in order to perhaps fully understand both the tension and the emotion that was as you can see, rampant in this discussion, that seemingly was so simply about passing through one’s territory. Remember what Isaac said to Jacob when he sought the blessing of the firstborn, stealing it from his brother Esau. Remember that Jacob brought food prepared by his mother, and food that they knew his father would especially love, and he put on Esau’s clothes so that he would smell like Esau, and his mother put on the skins of goats, of kids, so that when his father felt his neck or his arms he would feel hairy as his brother did.
And Isaac suspected something was amiss and he said “Hakol kol Yaakov,” the voice is the voice of Jacob, “vehayadim,” but the hands, the arms, “yedei Esav,” these are the hands of Esau. And so we have already at this moment pitched Israel, Jacob, as the intellect, the speaker, the convincer, and Edom, Esau, as we know, is the man, the hunter, the man of the field.
And this is the way the conversation evolves in this particular episode. On the one hand, the B’nei Yisrael, Jacob, arguing, negotiating, convinced that here is logic and justice in what he is asking for, they are asking for, versus Edom, who is the embodiment of power and violence and war. And yet, despite Israel’s self-perceived justification of the propriety of their reasoning and argument, there is no way they can stand before violence and war and power. And so the portion ends “vayeit,”—and they simply turned away.
So what do we learn from this episode?
Firstly, we learn that no matter how we would think otherwise, direct confrontation or argument is not always effective. Secondly, I learn, and I think we all do and I think this is a great lesson, there is always an alternative. And I think the basic purpose of this story is to teach us that above all, we have to keep an eye and our vision on commitment to the outcome—in the case of the Israelites, entering that land of milk and honey—and not to ever be beholden to the strategy or tactic that we think is right.
In other words, it’s better for us to be effective than to prove that others are wrong. And therefore, whereas strategies and tactics can evolve, commitment to purpose should be always clear and before us. So even in matters of negotiation, in an attempt to be effective, we learn from the Torah, there is always more than one way to find and to enter the Promised Land.
May each of us find that way for ourselves.
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