Source of Sustenance: Song and Struggle

 Shiur provided courtesy of

Adapted by Channie Koplowitz Stein

            Parshat Chukas contains one of only nine song/poems recorded in Tanach. (A tenth will be sung at the time of Moshiach.) Yet it seems to be buried inauspiciously within an itinerary listing many of the stops of Bnei Yisroel on their journey and some of the historical events that took place at those sites. The song is recorded after the death of Miriam and Aharon, after the well water and the manna Hashem had given Bnei Yisroel in their merit had stopped and were subsequently reinstated for Bnei Yisroel in the merit of Moshe Rabbenu. What prompted Bnei Yisroel to sing this song now when they had actually enjoyed the water for forty years? Is there any significance to the place names recorded in the song itself? Bnei Yisroel had camped at Arnon which juts out from the border of Emor at the border of Moav. And, besides the song recorded here, there may also have been a record of this event in the Book of Hashem’s Battles that mentions the Vahev/gift in Sufah/Yam Suf/Reed Sea and the Rivers of Arnon. In other words, the miracles here will be related with the same wonder and gratitude as the miracle of the splitting of the reed Sea. (Additionally, there may have been an actual Book of Hashem’s Battles first begun by Avraham Avinu and continued in ancient history, but since lost to us. This book would be similar to ancient epics, often sung rather than written, or to the Chronicles of Persia mentioned in the Book of Esther.)

            In any case, what happened here is enigmatic, but definitely a great miracle and victory. Ramban translates Vahev and Arnon as actual place names. Originally, Vahev was a Moabite city, and Bnei Yisroel were prohibited from taking these lands, but when Sichon, King of the Emori captured these lands from Moav with whirlwind, lightening speed, they and the surrounding areas of the streams and slopes were now permitted to Bnei Yisroel and were given to them. As the Ohr Hachaim notes, since Hashem created the world, he can give whatever territory He wants to whomever He wants, and at the end of time/besufa, all the lands that were promised to Avraham Avinu will be given to his descendants, to Bnei Yisroel.

            What is the miracle that happened here? Our medrashim paint a picture of an actual, secret battle Hashem waged on behalf Bnei Yisroel, a battle they were unaware of until they saw the streams of the water filled with blood. Then they realized that Hashem had saved them from certain death, and they sang this song. In Avodat Avodah, the Tosher Rebbe describes the battle and explains how this miracle relates to the miracle of the splitting of the Sea. He too goes back to creation itself, to the first three words of the Torah. Bereishit bara Elokhim… is usually translated as “In the beginning God created…” The Tosher Rebbe interprets this homiletically from the Kedushas Halevi, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev. This phrase he interprets as “for [the nation who will be called] Reishit Hashem created the world.” According to this, since all the world was created to serve Bnei Yisroel whose entire purpose is to serve Hashem, all of creation must serve Bnei Yisroel. But this purpose would first be in effect when Bnei Yisroel accepts the Torah and become Hashem’s servants. Therefore, it was necessary for Bnei Yisroel to expend tremendous effort and dedication to Hashem for the Sea to split against its nature, until Nachshon jumped in and almost drowned. Here, however, Bnei Yisroel had already accepted the Torah, and all the earth was committed to their service. The mountains intuitively knew what they had to do, what they had been created for.

            So what actually happened? The Shvilei Pinchas graphically describes the scene. Bnei Yisroel had to pass through the Valley of Arnon to enter Eretz Yisroel. The Emorites saw their opportunity. They would lie in wait inside the caves of the cliffs and mountains on their side of the valley and attack Bnei Yisroel as they crossed to the other side. Meanwhile, the mountains on the Israel side heard the footsteps of Bnei Yisroel and their voices filled with Torah. They wanted to go out and greet Bnei Yisroel. Then they realized that their sides had projections that seemed to mirror the caves in their sister mountain on the other side of the valley. There must have been a reason for this parallelism. So, the mountain moved, interlocking with the mountain on the other side, crushing the warriors within. Then the Israel side mountain, having intuited and fulfilled its duty, returned to its place.

            Bnei Yisroel would never have known of this miracle and of Hashem’s great love for His people, had not the well gone down into the valley and brought up the blood and limbs of the enemy so Bnei Yisroel would recognize the miracle Hashem had performed for them. Bnei Yisroel broke out in spontaneous song, telling the well to rise and bring with it all the evidence from below.

            But the song does not overtly mention this great miracle. It speaks only of the well that sustained Bnei Yisroel for forty years. Now Bnei Yisroel understood that all the miracles of daily life, the food we eat, the clothing we wear, are all just as miraculous gifts from Hashem as are the overt miracles, writes Rabbi Kofman z”l in Mishchat Hashemen. Therefore, they now sang of the well that until now (except for its short cessation at Miriam’s death) had been part of their daily, “natural” routine.  We have to thank Hashem for open miracles, often celebrating with a seudat hodaya/Meal of gratitude, writes the Tiv Hatorah, for relating these miracles to others is a positive commandment of the Torah. And if we are required to thank Hashem for natural bounty, adds Rabbi Soloveitchick z”l in Kol Dodi Dofek, how much more so are we required to thank Hashem for actual “miracles”. For if we neglect to do so, if we neglect to acknowledge Hashem’s chesed, we open the door for the attribute of justice.

            The Shvilei Pinchas continues to interpret the miracle allegorically.  Using an idea from Rabbi Bachayei who tells us that the future redemption will follow a similar path through the desert of nations until Bnei Yisroel is fully redeemed, the Shvilei Pinchas notes that at that time the kedushah/sacredness of Eretz Yisroel will spread throughout the world, crushing the impurities that seek to hide in the dark spaces, the caves and crevices of the world outside Eretz Yisroel. This miracle of crushing the Emorites was an allusion to the future redemption, and therefore at the time of the Messiah, Bnei Yisroel will sing both this song of salvation and the Song of the Sea.

            In further homiletic interpretation, the Lashon Chasidim, citing the Meor Vashemesh, the Chernobeler Rav z”l, connects this event to the event recorded immediately preceding it, that of the mei merivah/the waters of separation and conflict. Before the conflict at these waters, Bnei Yisroel studied Torah and interpreted it without conflict. The halacha was always clear. There was no difference of opinion even in the Oral Torah. Afterward, there were divisions These were the battles in the Book of the Wars of Hashem. But in the end, all conflict in interpretation will be resolved and there will be ahavah/love between the people. This song, then, metaphorically, is about the oral Torah. Further, the nechalim/streams that emanate from arnon/renah/song and prayer refer to the prayers for clarity that those who study Torah express. Through teshuvah and song/prayer, the waters of Torah will rise up and be understood. Therefore, we prepare to serve Hashem by starting our day with prayer and pesukei dezimrah/verses of song.

            Music is very powerful. Rabbi Zev Reichman notes that the Zohar tells us there is a palace in the heavens that is only open to song, and the Rebbe of Modshitz z”l says that the palace of teshuvah and the palace of song are one and the same. Therefore, an effective way of returning to Hashem is through song.

            Is this the time to talk about struggle, when you are singing in celebration of the victory over Sichon and Og asks Rabbi Mordechai Ezrachi? He answers, definitely yes, for all life is a struggle, a struggle against the yetzer horo that wants to hoist its flag over us. Either we capture and control it, or it captures and controls us. If we try to live complacently, we are not really living life, for we are meant to engage. When our Patriarch Yaakov wanted to just finally live in peace after so many challenges, Hashem forced upon him new hardships of Dinah and Yosef. Life in this world is struggle; peace and contentment are for the next world.

            But struggle is not necessarily negative, continues Rabbi Ezrachi. Learning with a chevrusha/learning partner and struggling with the text, arguing and disagreeing until you arrive at clarity results in feelings of love for each other.

            We tend to reminisce about the past, thinking of them as the “good old days”. That is a mistake, cautions Rabbi Imanuel Bernstein in Sefer Aggadah. In truth, says Rabbi Bernstein, Hashem instills in us an elevated sense of enthusiasm so that we will begin the struggle. As we mature, we begin to understand the need to study Torah, to struggle for truth. In the interim, we borrow against that initial inspiration until we desire to drink from the source, from Torah, on our own.

            In an interesting digression from the more traditional analysis of previous commentators, Rabbi Bernstein quotes the Midrash that tells us that Et and Vahev are two lepers who were outside the Israelite camp. Trailing behind, they were the only ones who saw the mountains separating and the blood gushing forth, witnessing the great salvation the others were oblivious to. Who were these lepers? Rav Kook z”l explains that these two represent the dysfunctional approaches to meaningful spiritual gain and wisdom. Et wants to go from the beginning, aleph to achieve the tuf, without engaging in the mahalach/path and process to achieve emet/truth in his spiritual life. Similarly, VaHev wants to have a perfect relationship, perfect ahavah. He wants his relationship of love to increase sixfold from aleph and heh, and he will go through the Hev, the giving on his part, whenever he gets to it. Neither wisdom nor relationships come automatically, without struggling and working for them. Thinking so puts you “outside the camp”.

            May Hashem reward the struggles in our lives so that we can live meaningful and fulfilling lives. May we begin and end each day with songs of praise for the open, hidden and “natural” miracles He performs for us every day.