Beit Midrash

  • Torah Portion and Tanach
  • Chukat
קטגוריה משנית
To dedicate this lesson
This week's Torah portion of Chukat (Numbers 19-22,1) recounts the story of Moshe hitting the rock for its water, instead of speaking to it as G-d had commanded. Extracting water from a rock by speaking to it would have made an amazing impression upon the Israelites, and therefore G-d was not happy with what Moshe had done. As we read: "G-d said to Moshe and Aharon, 'Since you did not … sanctify Me before the eyes of the Children of Israel, therefore you will not bring this congregation into the Land that I have given them.'"

The Hebrew word for "therefore" is lachen, and the Baal HaTurim points out that the gematriya of this word is 100 – precisely the same as the words for "measure for measure," midah b'midah.

The question is asked by the author of HaLekach V'haLibuv: "What exactly is 'measure for measure' about the punishment of not entering the Land of Israel for the sin of hitting the rock? What is the connection between them? And he answers that in the subsequent verses, we read that Moshe sent emissaries to the King of Edom to ask for permission for Israel to pass through his land on their way to the Promised Land. Moshe explained to the king that G-d had heard Israel's prayers, saved them from the Egyptians, and freed them to go to the Land of Israel. [Which prayers did He hear, and in what merit?] Rashi notes that G-d heard their prayers in the merit of Yitzchak's blessing to Yaakov when the latter came to be blessed, dressed as Esav, and Yitzchak said, 'the voice is the voice of Yaakov.' That is, the "voice of Yaakov" is a special merit, leading G-d to answer Israel's prayers. To this, the King of Edom responded: "You take pride in what your forefather bequeathed you? I will come out against you with what my forefather [Esav] bequeathed me [when Yitzchak later blessed him]: the power of the sword!"

Our Sages taught that, "If Moshe Rabbeinu had entered the Land, Israel would not have had to battle for it, nor would they have needed weapons; instead, the situation would have been as Moshe told the Israelites at the Sea of Reeds: "G-d will fight for you; you just be silent." The Meir Einei Chakhamim explains that Moshe Rabbeinu is the power of Torah for all of Israel, i.e., the complete revelation of 'the voice of Yaakov." And even though he had speech impediments (Sh'mot 4,10; 6,12), this was only physically – but spiritually, he spoke perfectly. As the Medrash says: "Moshe was 'not a man of words' (4,10) before receiving the Torah, but afterwards, his tongue was cured and he began to speak [impressively]."

In this Torah portion, G-d told Moshe to speak to the rock. It was His will that Moshe would rise and connect Israel to his high level of speech, where it would be the dominant force. At the same time, Israel was supposed to rise up themselves and not complain bitterly about the lack of water, but rather be drawn to Moshe's level of spiritual speech perfection. But they did not (Bamidbar 20); they rather detached themselves from Moshe and contended with him. As a result, they could not rely on the "voice of Yaakov," and instead were forced to use weapons and war with the Canaanites.

Soon afterwards in their journey to the Land, Israel met up with the Emorites, whom they defeated in battle. The Emorites' name in Hebrew refers to speech, and they battled against the "saying" - the "message" - of Israel. Yaakov Avinu had blessed his son Yosef: "I will give you an extra portion, which I will take from the Emorites with my sword and bow" (B'reshit 48,22). Rashi explains there that this sword and bow refer to Yaakov's "wisdom and prayer" – teaching us that words of Torah wisdom and prayer are a tremendous force against the Emorite kings. 

The Greatest Mitzvah

The renowned Gaon of Vilna wrote: "It is known that the greatest mitzvah of all is the study of Torah – and speaking words of nonsense and mockery, the opposite of Torah, is the worst thing. This explains why speaking such things gives more joy than other sins – because the spirit of impurity is so great, as it is the opposite of the constantly gushing well of Torah." 

The Kabbalistic works tell us that the Jewish People's task in our generation, and particularly during these months of Tammuz and Av, concerns the holiness of our speech. The recent weekly Torah portions recount specifically sins of speech: Miriam speaking negatively about Moshe, the spies' report, Korach's rebellion, the complaints – all of these remind us of the sanctity of speech. Our work during these months is to make amends for the sins that occurred during these months by both avoiding bad and doing good. The sin of the spies occurred in the month of Tammuz and at the beginning of Av; it is the sin that ultimately led to the destruction of the Temple; thus is the power of evil and wanton speech, when we place no guardrails on our open mouths. 

We must desist from the bad, taking upon ourselves to say nothing bad about any Jew, under all circumstances [unless permitted for the various specific reasons outlined in Jewish Law - HF]. And we must actively do good, by engaging in the beautiful inheritance that G-d bequeathed us, namely, the holy Torah; we must use our time to the best advantage, studying the Torah as often as we can, and especially on the holy Sabbath, when we have the ability to fortify our "voice of Yaakov" in Torah study and recitation of Psalms to bring us closer to G-d. On the Sabbath, too, we should have Sabbath meals with special Sabbath songs and words of Torah. 

And certainly our rectification of our speech habits will help us merit to see the arrival of the Mashiach and our Redemption. Rabbe Nachman of Breslov taught that the Hebrew word for Mashiach stems from the same root as sichah, which means "speech" – for Mashiach will teach us the rectification and perfection of our speech, rendering it pleasing to the Creator.

Translated by Hillel Fendel
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