Monday, June 18, 2007

Parshas Chukas (Rabbi Sedley)

Love Peace, Love Each Other

* This week's Torah reading contains the death of Aharon, the high priest and the brother of Moshe. The Midrash (Tanna d'vei Eliyahu chap. 12) contrasts the Torah's description of the death of Aharon with the description of the death of Moshe. When Aharon dies the Torah says, " And they wept for Aharon thirty days, the entire house of Israel" (Numbers 20; 29). However at the time of the death of Moshe the Torah says "The Children of Israel wept for Moshe in the plains of Moav for thirty days" (Deuteronomy 34; 8). There was greater mourning for Aharon ("The entire house...") than for Moshe, because Moshe was the judge, the strict lawgiver, who would reprimand the people for their misconduct. However Aharon's approach was to bring the people close to Torah through showing them love and peace. Aharon's love for the people, and his constant quest for peace, is documented in the Mishna (Ethics of the Fathers 1; 12): "Hillel says, Be amongst the disciples of Aharon, love peace, pursue peace, love people and bring them close to Torah".
"And the Canaanite King of Arad heard and he waged war with Israel." (Numbers 21; 1). What did he hear that caused him to fight Israel now? The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah) explains that he heard that Aharon had died. The clouds of Glory which surrounded the camp of the Israelites in the desert came in the merit of Aharon, and therefore after his death they departed. The Canaanite King took this as a signal that permission was given to wage war against Israel. It seems that Aharon himself, and his constant quest for peace, caused the Jews to be protected from their enemies. Without Aharon the people began once again to fight amongst themselves, and they became vulnerable to attack from outside.
The Ateres Mordechai points out a similar episode, where argument caused vulnerability. In Lech Lecha the verse states: "There was a quarrel between the shepherds of Avram and the shepherds of Lot. And the Canaanites were then in the land." What is the significance of the "Canaanites were then in the land?" It seems to be the same idea that we find here in our Parsha. As long as there was peace between the shepherds of Avram and Lot, their unity was a guarantee of protection from external enemies. However once quarrels broke out, there was a cause for worry about the Canaanites being in the land.
This has been the pattern throughout history. Whenever there are quarrels among the Jewish nation, they become vulnerable to attack from external enemies. The 9th of Tammuz (which is coming up next week) was the date that the walls of Jerusalem were breached by the Babylonians in the time of the First Temple (Jeremiah 29; 2). The week after is the 17th of Tammuz, the anniversary of the Roman's breaking through the walls of Jerusalem in the Second Temple period. These tragedies, which led up to the destruction of both Temples, were both caused by disunity amongst the nation.
The destruction of the First Temple was preceded (albeit 262 years before) by the division of the nation into the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah (Kings 1 12). This disunity, and the resulting idolatry, led to the destruction of the Northern Kingdom and the exile of the Ten Tribes. 23 years later the Kingdom of Judah was conquered and the remaining two tribes, together with the remnants of the ten tribes who had fled to Jerusalem, were also exiled.
The Talmud (Gittin 55b ff.) describes the cause of the destruction of the Second Temple: "Because of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, Jerusalem was destroyed...". A certain man made a feast, and invited many people, including the leading Rabbis of the generation. However, instead of inviting the man's friend Kamtza, the servant accidentally invited Bar Kamtza, who was hated by the man. Thinking that this was an opening for peace, Bar Kamtza came to the banquet. However when the man saw him there he had him thrown out. No amount of pleading by Bar Kamtza would persuade the man to let him stay, and he was publicly humiliated. Bar Kamtza said to himself, "Since the Sages were present and did not protest against such behaviour, it is obvious that they approve. I will slander them to the emperor". He went to Rome and provoked Nero into launching a military campaign against Jerusalem.
Even when Jerusalem was under siege the people refused to unite. There was a group of people inside Jerusalem called the Biryonim, who vied with the Sages for power. The Sages wanted to negotiate with Rome, but these Biryonim would not let them. In order to rally the people into military conflict they set fire to the food stores, which would have been sufficient for 21 years, and in the ensuing famine many people starved to death. This forced them into battle with the Romans, and led directly to the destruction of the city and the Temple.
The phrase "United we stand, divided we fall" is the lesson that we must learn from this Torah reading, and from history. It is as true today as it has ever been, but it becomes more and more difficult to create harmony and peace amidst the splintering factions of the Jewish nation. Aharon showed us the way, "Love peace and pursue peace. Love people and bring them near to Torah".

* This Torah Treasures is partially based on Rabbi Yissocher Frand's Internet d'var Torah for parshas Chukas 5755

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