Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Monday, June 14, 2010

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk


            This week's parsha is fascinating on a number of levels.  When most people hear the name Chukat they immediately think of the most mysterious of mitzvoth, namely the red heifer, which begins this week's reading.  I find the chronological issue most interesting.  In the middle of our reading we jump from year two in the desert right to year 40.  What happened to those 38 years?  I mean all of us periodically lose an afternoon or an evening, but to not remember where we placed 38 years.  That's amazing.  But the hits just keep on coming.  We also have the deaths of Miriam and Aharon this week.  Don't forget the incident of Moshe hitting the rock instead of chatting with it.  Plus we have Judaism's first attempts at diplomacy.  Not surprisingly, those efforts end in war.  The more things change, etc.  However, I like the poetry in this week's Torah reading.

            I referred to this week's first poem last week.  It reads:  That is why the Book of the Wars of the Lord says: "...Waheb in Suphah and the ravines, the Arnon and the slopes of the ravines that lead to the site of Ar and lie along the border of Moab."  From there they continued on to Beer, the well where the Lord said to Moses, "Gather the people together and I will give them water."  Then Israel sang this song: "Spring up, O well!  Sing about it, about the well that the princes dug, that the nobles of the people sank, the nobles with scepters and staffs." Then they went from the desert to Mattanah, from Mattanah to Nahaliel, from Nahaliel to Bamoth, and from Bamoth to the valley in Moab where the top of Pisgah overlooks the wasteland (Numbers 21:14-20).  Like all poetry this material is very hard to translate.  The nature of poetry is metaphor and multiple meanings, but when you translate you must pick one meaning to convey in the new language.  This poem (or maybe series of poems) is literally translated as a travelogue of the places where major events occurred.  However, all the place names also have meanings, which open all sorts of new layers of interpretations.  The most famous interpretation concerns the list of places at the end (Mattanah. Nachliel, and Bamoth).  In rabbinic literature these names don't describe progress on a map, rather they depict our evolution in our Torah achievements.  Our Torah went from being a gift (Mattanah), to become a permanent possession (Nachliel), to eventually raise us to the highest spiritual heights (Bamoth).

As cool as that poem is, I want to comment on the second poem of our parsha.  That poem begins:  This is why the poets say: "Come to Cheshbon and let it be rebuilt; let Sihon's city be restored…(verse 27) "  This sounds like an ad jingle from the Cheshbon tourist authority or chamber of commerce.  Translating these lines is even more treacherous than the last poem.  The first poem's difficulties spring from the problem of whether to present the material literally or metaphorically.  This poem has a major obstacle to straight translation because a critical term is obscure.  I followed the most common approach to translation by stating that poets are speaking, but many authorities claim that a better translation of the Hebrew moshlim should be 'rulers' or 'governors'.  If poets are addressing us then we have a flowery prayer for the future of this area.  However, if these are declarations by political and military leaders, we don't have wishes but policy statements.

Assuming that kings or generals are speaking, this verse expresses the intention of rebuilding the area destroyed by the war between Israel and King Sichon.  This is an admirable idea because this province lies on major trade routes and has important water resources in a parched land.  The region under discussion is where Israel, Jordan and Syria meet just south of the Golan Heights.  Now, historical reality impinges on our interpretation.  During most of the time that our great Biblical commentaries were at work, Jews had no military presence.  From 135 until 1948 there were no Jewish armies.  Remember, when rabbis comment on material they are generally speaking to their contemporary audience. Therefore, many authorities describe the rulers referred to in the verse as those who control themselves and their inclinations. 

How does one go about staying in control of their Yetzer?  Well, according to the founder of the Mussar (ethical) Movement, Rab Yisroel Salanter (1810-1883) the most successful method (Based on Benjamin Franklin, I kid you not.) to manage our behavior is to keep an accounting or reckoning of all our actions.  The Hebrew (and Yiddish) word for an accounting is Cheshbon, which just happened to be the name of the city that we're trying to rebuild in the verse.  So, now the verse contains instructions for us about how to rule our passions and appetites by keeping a tally or cheshban of all our actions.

This poetic verse ends with words tiboneh v'tikonen, which is usually translated as be built and established.  There's a problem, though (isn't there always?).  The second term tikonen really means to prepare or plan.  Don't we usual plan our buildings or cities before we build them?  This is a hint that we're not talking about structures.  We're building human beings, and this requires continual mid course adjustments.  We must always be reassessing our actions.  It is important to think and plan before we act, but even more important to change when we notice that our course is off target. 

Today, we again have a Jewish nation and army functioning in Eretz Yisroel so that the literal meaning of our poem is once more significant.  The leaders must continually build and plan the future of our wonderful State.  However, the personal reading of our verse remains in effect.  Every individual can only be master of their lives and destiny when a careful accounting of all behavior is carefully recorded, and the ongoing construction of their personality reflects these observations.  Plan carefully, but be flexible.              

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