Friday, July 01, 2011

Parshat Chukat - פרשת חוקת

"אָז יָשִׁיר יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת-הַשִּׁירָה הַזֹּאת: עֲלִי בְאֵר, עֱנוּ-לָהּ - Then Israel sang this song: Spring up, O well; sing to it"
(במדבר כא:יז)

In the passage above, we read how Am Yisrael sing of the "Be'er Miriam," the well that accompanied them during their travails in the desert and from which water miraculously flowed. While it seems reasonable enough to mention and praise this incredible phenomenon, a question begs to be asked; why is it only now that Am Yisrael recognise the blessing of this well? After all, they had been in the desert for many years - shouldn't they have made their gratefulness known earlier?

To understand this difficulty, we have to look at the situation in it's proper context. The generation who suddenly found themselves (quite literally) singing the well's praises had never fully appreciated what a blessing this Be'er was. This particular generation had been born in the desert. As such, to them, a rock that rolled around of its own volition and produced drinking water (in huge quantities) was of no great consequence. To them, it was no more miraculous than a rainfall or a sunrise.

When Hashem punished Am Yisrael for speaking against him a few verses earlier in the Parsha, the B'nei Yisrael finally understood what a miracle this well was. Until this time, they had never appreciated Hashem's benevolence and it was only when this blessing (which they had always had) was taken away that they grasped it's goodness and their dependence on Hashem.

Part of their punishment was that "הנחשים השרפים," "the poisonous snakes" that lived in the desert, were sent after B'nei Yisrael, and consequently bit and killed many Jews. In classic fashion, Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch notes with precision the phrasing of the verse, and highlights the letter ה - which means "the". Rav Hirsch teaches that the presence of the definite article here indicates that these snakes were not any old snakes. Rather, these snakes were already in the desert; they had always been there, even though Am Yisrael had not encountered them in their desert travels thus far.

Rav Hirsch teaches that we should understand that these snakes were kept away from the B'nei Yisrael in an act of kindness by Hashem. However, because they had shown themselves to be unappreciative of the kindness of the Be'er, Hashem punished them with the snakes so that they would appreciate all that Hashem had done to prevent them from experiencing hardship.

There is a vital lesson that we must learn from this incident. We cannot only be thankful for that which we are blessed with, rather we must appreciate all that we are not burdened with. Here we learn that the snakes had always been in the desert and only by Hashem's grace were the B'nei Yisrael spared being bitten by them. The B'nei Yisrael grew accustomed to the miracles that Hashem had done for them. The moment Hashem stopped sustaining these miracles, it became abundantly clear just how much we are dependent on his love and good will for us.

I'd like to credit a friend, Ezra Javasky, for teaching me this D'var Torah when we were in Yeshiva together. It's a lovely insight and I thank him for sharing it with me.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom.

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