Parshat Chukat: Master Of Peace

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Kadesh, where the Jews were encamped, was on the border of the kingdom of Edom. Moshe sent a message requesting permission for the Jewish people to pass through Edom on the way to their new homeland:

“‘Please let us pass through your land; we will not pass through fields or vineyards, nor will we drink well water. We will walk along the king’s road, and we will turn neither to the right nor to the left until we have passed through your territory.’ Edom replied to him, ‘You shall not pass through me, lest I go out towards you with the sword!’ The Children of Israel said to him, ‘We will keep to the highway, and if we drink your water, either I or my cattle, we will pay its price. It is really nothing; I will pass through on foot.’ But he said, ‘You shall not pass through!’ …so Israel turned away from him” (Bamidbar 20:17-21).

As you can see, the king of Edom refused. As we continue studying the parshah, it will become clear why we quote this passage of the Torah so fully.

The Jews made a detour along the Edom border and came to Hor HaHar (literally, “the mountain on a mountain,” a smaller one atop a larger one). Here, on the first day of the month of Av, Aharon the Kohen Gadol died, and the entire house of Israel mourned him for 30 days.

Later, after Moshe died, we read, “And the Children of Israel [traditionally referring to just the menfolk] mourned Moshe on the plains of Moab for thirty days...” (Devarim 34:8). But here, of Aharon it is said: “...and they mourned Aharon for 30 days, the whole House of Israel” (Bamidbar 20:29)—that is, both men and women: everyone loved Aharon.

Why? Because Aharon was a man who established peace between people all his life. He was a master at reconciling those who quarreled, and he was very inventive at that.

For example, the Talmud describes the following scene. A quarrel broke out between two friends. Aharon met the older of the two, and said to him, “My son, I saw the person who offended you. He very much regrets what he did; in fact, he almost cried to me about it!” Aharon would then approach the younger of the two and give a similar report. The next time the two met up, they reconciled, and peace again reigned between them.

Of Aharon it is said (Malachi 2:6): “In peace and honesty he walked with Me and turned many away from sin.”

How did Aharon influence people to mend their ways?

If a person began to behave badly, when Aharon would encounter him, he would greet him warmly and chat with him. Later, if this same Jew was about to sin, it would suddenly occur to him: “How will I be able to look Aharon in the face if I do this! If he were aware of what I did, he would be ashamed to speak to me!”

Aharon likewise reconciled many couples who were on the verge of divorce. And thousands of Jews in that generation bore his name: They were born of spouses who decided to separate but made peace thanks to him. When it came to choosing a name for their son, the couple would agree, “May he grow up to be like Aharon!” and chose to name their child after him.

It is no coincidence that Hillel said: “Be a disciple of Aharon: Strive for peace [in your midst] and seek peace, love people and bring them closer to the Torah.”

After the death of Miriam, the well that had accompanied the Jewish People the Jews on all their journeys summarily disappeared. After the death of Aharon, the cloud that had protected them from the scorching desert sun for almost 40 years temporarily left them. But, thanks to Moshe’s prayers, Hashem reinstalled both the well and the cloud.

When the king of the neighboring land, Arad, heard that the Jews were now defenseless, he waged war against them—but with G-d’s help, they destroyed his army and moved on.

Having completed their detour around Edom, the Israelites approached the border of Moav, whose king also denied them passage though his territory. After bypassing Moav, the Jews reached the Arnon River, which formed the border between Moav and the land of Emor.

Anticipating the advance of the Jews, the Emorim had gathered their army along the mountainous riverbanks, ready to attack as soon as the Jews were sighted. Their fighters hid in the many caves that dotted the rocky slopes.

Then a miracle happened. Suddenly—an earthquake! The mountains tremble, and the Emorim are buried alive in the caves where they had hidden.

The Jews advanced without any inkling that the Emorim had been lying in ambush awaiting their approach. And when the earth shook, they weren’t even aware that G-d was slaying their enemies. That is why our Parashah tells us (Bamidbar 21:14): “Concerning this it is told in the account of the Wars of the Lord, ‘What He gave at the [Sea of] Reeds and the streams of Arnon…’”

The events that took place at the Arnon River were as miraculous as the events at the Red Sea: Israel’s enemies perished in both cases.

We often find ourselves saved from a calamity, not knowing how it happened. These are the hidden miracles of “the One who alone performs great miracles, for His mercy is forever” (T’hilim, 136:4).

Copyright© 2023 by The LaMaalot Foundation. Talks on the Torah, by Rabbi Yitzchak Zilber is catalogued at The Library of Congress. All rights reserved. Printed in China by Best Win Printing, Shenzhen, China.