Parshas Chukas

June 14, 2013
6 Tamuz , 5773

Parshas Chukas
Candle-lighting Time: Between 6:55pm and 8:11pm

This edition of Sparks of Torah is dedicated in honor of a speedy recovery for Yaakov ben Shayna Yehudis.


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Snake Eyes

By Rabbi Raphael Leban

In this week’s parsha, as the Jewish People are reaching the end of their forty year term in the desert, there is a very strange event. The people complain. Not that that’s a particularly strange thing in and of itself. People often complain, and the Jews that left Egypt certainly did their fair share. Of course, it wasn’t really complaining, it was kvetching, a traditional Jewish method of self-expression. But it’s a lot like complaining.

In this particular incident, the people complained about none other than the manna—the miraculous food that they received directly from God that sustained them for those forty years in the desert. They weren’t quibbling about the check, because the manna was free. They weren’t grumbling about the service, because God delivered it directly to them six days a week, with a double portion on Fridays for Shabbos. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be any good reason for their complaint about the manna. They just wanted some regular old bread.

As a result of their ungrateful complaining, God punishes them by sending poisonous snakes amongst them, and many people die from their deadly bites. The people then realize that their complaining was inappropriate and unacceptable (not to mention it set a bad precedent of complaining about food for generations to come) and they ask Moshe to pray to God on their behalf and save them from the snakes. Moshe does so, and God gives him the following instructions: “Build a snake replica and hang it on a high pole. Whoever is bitten by the poisonous snakes should look up at the snake replica on the pole and be healed.” I told you it was strange.

Why all the snakes? In previous episodes of the people’s complaining, the Torah indicates that there was a nameless plague that struck them as a punishment, and when Moshe prayed it was simply removed. Why the attack of the snakes in this case, and when God forgives them and removes the punishment, why don’t the snakes just shrivel up and die? Why does Moshe need to make a snake-on-a-pole that somehow heals anyone who is further bitten by the poisonous snakes? There is clearly something else being indicated here (besides the state flag of Texas).

Perhaps the lesson is the importance of outlook. The people complained about the manna. Prior to their complaints, the manna had been their primary source of sustenance for almost forty years. One day their attitude towards it changed, and they complained.

The punishment was an attack of snakes. When they were forgiven, an antidote to the snakes was given—another snake. At first the people must have feared and loathed the deadly snakes. Then when they looked up at the pole, they saw a snake which was a source of salvation and healing. The very same thing that was the source of their suffering was subsequently the source of the solution.

Perhaps God was rebuking them for their negative, pessimistic outlook, and teaching them how the very same thing can be viewed in more than one way.

Look at the world with inspired eyes, He was telling them. See the gifts that I’ve given you, the opportunities, the challenges and the potential to succeed. See around you good people who sometimes make mistakes. Realize that I am here for you and with you always, despite the obstacles in your path. They are there for your growth.

Perhaps God was pointing out to the Jewish People in that generation, and in every generation, the real source of all tragedy is the failure to see the world with the right eyes.

Water, Water Everywhere

By Rabbi Dovid Nussbaum

Kli Yakar notes that the Torah only uses the extreme language that the people ‘fought with Moshe’ when discussing water. When they complained about the lack of water an intense struggle ensued between the nation and its supreme leader, Moshe. Why did this forceful encounter only occur concerning water? He explains that the source of conflict in the world finds its source in the moment that Hashem separated the lower waters from the upper waters at the time of creation. When that division occurred, the potential for divergence first appeared in the universe.

What is so significant about water? It is the source of sustenance in the world; no civilization can exist without it. Yet it also alludes to a destructive force, discord and friction, which actually can lead to the demise of civilization, making it a proverbial double-edged sword.

Perhaps we may suggest the following. Water alludes to the attribute of chesed or performing acts of kindness. It suggests the ability to extend oneself beyond his own limited being and reach out and connect with others. In Hebrew, water is always expressed in plural form. This may allude to the fact that one cannot be an absolute individual without being part of the plurality. As a model that we must be inclusive of others stands water, the very sustenance that propels a community, a nation, indeed the global society in which we all live. Whereas at one time isolationism was an ideal that was attractive to our government and to the masses as well, today we understand that we must work together and thereby function more efficiently and productively.

However, we can overextend ourselves when it comes to chesed. When one is selfless, the drive to be involved in other people’s lives can be compulsive and incessant. Even the most commendable quality unrestrained will careen out of control and become destructive. Indeed, even acts of chesed can become addictive and damaging when they are not restricted and directed in an intelligent manner. We may view conflict as the mismanagement of our resources thereby creating friction when diverse factors interact inappropriately. This can occur within us and we can introduce frustration into our lives and confound our objectives.

Additionally, when our goals are confused and misconstrued, the conflict that we experience not only affects us personally, its sphere of impact spreads and can trigger stress and dissent among others. The desire of an individual to relate to and intermingle with others can become harmful and disparaging. The separation of the upper waters and the lower waters at the time of creation was a catalyst and set into motion the potential for divisiveness and disruption that we witness today. Water the source of sustenance and subsistence transforms into a forum for devastation and anguish.

Our Sages teach that there is a fine line which delineates the distinction between Gan Eden (paradise) and Gehinom, the repository where souls undergo purification allowing them subsequently to enjoy their share of reward in the World to Come. Perhaps this lesson is expressed by water which encompasses two very different facets. In addition, life has varied situations where the opportunity to succeed or sustain a dismal failure are separated by a hairbreadth. It all depends upon the perspective of the person and his strictly monitored actions based upon a focused and clear-minded viewpoint.

A Question for the Rabbis

The Torah portion this week discusses the laws of impurity due to contact with the dead, either through touching a corpse or being under the same covering. A kohen may not generally visit a grave or be under the same covering as a grave. Rabbis throughout the generations have been asked bykohanim as to whether they may visit the grave of a tzaddik, a righteous person. Some maintain that the body of a deceased tzaddik does not impart impurity as is implied by a famous statement of Rabbeinu Chaim, the kohen (Tosafot, Ketuvot 103a) that had he been present at the funeral of Rabbeinu Tam, he would have made himself impure for his honor. He based this on the Talmud that states that on the day of passing of Rabbi Judah the Prince, it was proclaimed, “Sanctity (according to Tosafot, the sanctity of the kohen) is annulled today.” Others point out many sources that imply strongly that even the body of a tzaddik imparts impurity and hence a kohen may not treat them any differently than other deceased Jews (Pitchei Teshuvah, Yoreh Deah 672:2, Sdei Chemed 9, p. 56,Minchat Asher, Bamidbar 49).

Joke of the Week

A poor man walking in the forest feels close enough to God to ask, “God, what is a million years to you?
God replies, “My son, a million years to you is like a second to me.”
The man asks, “God, what is a million dollars to you?”
God replies, “My son, a million dollars to you is less than a penny to me.
The man asks, “So God, can I have a penny?”
And God replies, “In a second.”


Rashi explains that Moshe’s grave error in this week’s parsha was that he hit the rock instead of talking to it. In fact, water spurted out anyway which was a tremendous miracle. However, Moshe was commanded to learn Torah before the rock and then water would gush forth. The people would have witnessed the power of Torah and it was this lesson that Moshe was guilty of failing to transmit.