Parshat Chukat תשפא

In this week’s portion’s final two chapters , the Jewish nation is attacked by the world’s two most powerful leaders, Sichon, King of the Emori, and Og, king of Bashan, whom the Jews handily defeat. When the Jewish people merely asked Sichon permission to transverse his land as a short-cut into Israel, Sichon gathered his troops and came out to war with them. In Og’s case, as soon as the Jewish people entered the vicinity of Bashan, Og and his whole nation also came out fighting. 

The Torah sees poetic justice in the war with Sichon and actually creates a poem for it (Numbers 21:27-30):

ספר במדבר פרק כא

(כז) עַל כֵּן יֹאמְרוּ הַמּשְׁלִים בֹּאוּ חֶשְׁבּוֹן תִּבָּנֶה וְתִכּוֹנֵן עִיר סִיחוֹן:

(כח) כִּי אֵשׁ יָצְאָה מֵחֶשְׁבּוֹן לֶהָבָה מִקִּרְיַת סִיחֹן אָכְלָה עָר מוֹאָב בַּעֲלֵי בָּמוֹת אַרְנֹן:

(כט) אוֹי לְךָ מוֹאָב אָבַדְתָּ עַם כְּמוֹשׁ נָתַן בָּנָיו פְּלֵיטִם וּבְנֹתָיו בַּשְּׁבִית לְמֶלֶךְ אֱמֹרִי סִיחוֹן:

(ל) וַנִּירָם אָבַד חֶשְׁבּוֹן עַד דִּיבֹן וַנַּשִּׁים עַד נֹפַח אֲשֶׁר עַד מֵידְבָא

27) Regarding this the poets would say:

Come to Heshbon – let it be built and established as Sichon’s city 

28) For fire has come forth from Heshbon, a flame from the city of Sichon, It consumed Ar of Moav, the masters of Arnon’s heights.

29) Woe to you, Moav, you are lost, people of Chemosh

He made his sons fugitives and his daughters captives of the king of the Amorite, Sichon. 

30) Their sovereignty over Heshbon was lost; it was removed from Dibon, and was laid waste to Nophah, which reaches up to Medebah.

What does this poem mean? The Sages explain. 

When Sichon wanted to conquer Moav, he was doubtful if he could succeed for Moav was very mighty. To guarantee a victory, he sought the help of the evil Bilaam to curse them. Bilaam’s curse proved effective, and Sichon conquered Moav. 

            Sichon’s victory seemed secure and immutable, but, in the end, the Jewish nation handily routed him and his entire powerful nation. There was something that Sichon did not know, viz, that Hashem had commanded the Jewish people not to conquer Moav. Hashem had given Moav their territory as a gift, a token of appreciation to their ancestor Lot for not revealing to Pharoah that Sara was really Avraham’s wife (Avraham having told him that she was his sister). Hence, had Sichon not conquered Moav, the Jewish people would not have been permitted to take possession of that land. But since it was now under Sichon’s control, the Jewish nation was able to have it. In retrospect, Sichon was just the pawn that enabled the Jewish nation to take control of the land. 

            Here lies the lesson for the poets. 

In this case the poet is Bilaam whom the Torah called a poet (Numbers 23:7,18). 

Let Bilaam, who thought that he did Sichon the greatest favor by cursing Moav and giving Sichon the victory, -(Come to Heshbon – let it be built and established as the city of Sichon. 28) For Fire has come forth from Heshbon, a flame from the city of Sichon, It consumed Ar of Moab, the masters of Arnon’s heights-) see, that from the onset, he was destined to lose his fortified and powerful city Heshbon to the Jewish nation. As, Their sovereignty over Heshbon was lost, (it was removed from Dibon, and was laid waste to Nophah, which reaches up to Medebah). There is poetic justice here in that “what goes around, comes around.” Ultimately, Hashem is in control. 

Moav also learned a lesson here. 

Placing all their trust in their god Chemosh, they thought that they were invincible, when all that their god did for them was leave their sons fugitives and daughters captives to Sichon.  [Woe to you, Moab, you are lost, people of Chemosh. He made his sons fugitives and his daughters captives of the king of the Amorite, Sichon]This is the simple understanding of the poem. 

The Sages provide a deeper lesson in this poem. 

            The Torah was given with four levels of understanding. The first letter of each level forms an acronym called פרד״ס. The פ stands for פשט – pshat – which means the simple meaning in context. The ר stands forרמז  – remez– which means hints, such as gematria – numerical equivalencies – which hint to a deeper textual meanings. The דstands for דרוש – drush – which means lessons that can be exegetically derived from the text. In the drush mode, words may be taken out of context and analyzed on their own to teach a lesson that does not necessarily flow from the verse. The ס  stands forסוד  –sod– which means a secret or mystical approach to understanding. 

            The Sages taught a lesson, a drush, from this poem in the Torah. In Tractate Baba Batra 78b, our Rabbis tell us

א”ר שמואל בר נחמן א”ר יוחנן מאי דכתיב על כן יאמרו המושלים וגו’ המושלים אלו המושלים ביצרם בואו חשבון בואו ונחשב חשבונו של עולם הפסד מצוה כנגד שכרה ושכר עבירה כנגד הפסדה תבנה ותכונן אם אתה עושה כן תבנה בעולם הזה ותכונן לעולם הבא

Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachman said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan (quoting this poem) Therefore the rulers should say, these are those who rule over their evil inclination. Come to Heshbon come and let’s make the calculations of eternity – the loss of a mitzvah compared to the reward for it, and the reward for a sin, compared to the loss it brings. If you do this, you will be built strong in this world and you will be well established in the world to come. 

            This drasha is derived by using different meanings for some of the verse’s words. In the simple contextual translation, the מושלים  were poets, whereas in this interpretation they are rulers. Both are correct interpretations of the word. In the simple contextual translation Heshbon was the name of the city that formerly belonged to Moav and was captured by Sichon, whereas in this drasha, it is translated as a calculation, also a correct meaning of the word. (In both cases, the underlying Hebrew root carries multiple meanings.)

            The question we need to answer is where is this drasha coming from? Does it have anything to do with the story in the text? 

            Our Sages explain that these two ideas are very deeply connected. Just as Sichon had no idea that he was simply a pawn for the Jewish people and that his success was really his undoing, so, too, when a person gives in to his evil inclination and avails himself of something that he should not, he thinks that he has received a bonus, something extra, although in the end he has only set himself up for a punishment as he will have to pay for the sin he has committed. 

            Therefore, the advice of our Sages is to make a simple calculation and to think carefully before you act . Should a mitzvah present itself, and you feel too lazy to do it, make the simple calculation of how much you will lose if you let the mitzvah go versus how much reward you will gain if you perform it. Yes, not doing it may feel good now, but later when you realize how much reward you lost by squandering the opportunity, it will be very painful. Is the moment of rest from the mitzvah really worth all the reward that you are going to lose out on?    

            Similarly, is it really worth transgressing Hashem’s law , setting yourself up for punishment for the fleeting pleasure of the moment? True, it’s delicious now, but how will you feel about it later when it comes time for the punishment? 

The Chofetz Chaim, Rabbi Yisroel Meir Hakohen Kagan, adds an additional element to the calculation. 

A mitzvah’s reward is eternal, while the benefit in this world is fleeting. Can the fleeting pleasure of this world compare to an eternity of reward?  No.       

To help us appreciate the notion of “eternity,” our Sages give us the following metaphor. Imagine a sand dune covering the earth as far as you can see. There are trillions and trillions of grains of sand in that dune. If, every thousand years, a bird came by and took away one grain of sand, it would take a seeming eternity for the bird to clear away all the sand in the dune.   (Actually, as long as that would take, it would be but a moment in terms of actual eternity.)     

Eternity is how long we will enjoy the benefits of our mitzvot and our compliance with Hashem’s laws, compared to the fleeting pleasure of the moment. This alone should nudge us make the right decisions in our life to keep Hashem’s Torah to the letter. 

Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato in his book Path of the Just adds an extra element to the Talmud’s teaching. He explains that a person should dedicate time every day to review and analyze his actions to determine where he went off and where he can improve himself. This is the only sure path to self perfection. 

ספר מסילת ישרים פרק ג – בבאור חלקי הזהירות

כלל הדבר:

יהיה האדם מעיין על מעשיו כולם, ומפקח על כל דרכיו שלא להניח לעצמו הרגל רע ומדה רעה, כל שכן עבירה ופשע. והנני רואה צורך לאדם שיהיה מדקדק ושוקל דרכיו דבר יום ביומו כסוחרים הגדולים אשר יפלסו תמיד כל עסקיהם למען לא יתקלקלו, ויקבע עתים ושעות לזה שלא יהיה משקלו עראי, אלא בקביעות גדול, כי רב התולדה הוא. וחכמים זכרונם לברכה הורונו בפירוש צורך החשבון הזה, והוא מה שאמרו ז”ל (בבא בתרא עח):

על כן יאמרו המושלים בואו חשבון על כן יאמרו המושלים ביצרם, בואו ונחשב חשבונו של עולם, הפסד מצוה כנגד שכרה ושכר עברה כנגד הפסדה וכו

A person should look into all of his actions and supervise all of his ways very carefully, not letting himself keep a wrong habit or poor character quality, and for sure not to do a sin. I see a need for a person to daily inspect and weigh his ways. Like successful merchants who are constantly evaluating their business to make sure that it doesn’t falter, he sets a special time for this so that his evaluation is not a fleeting thing, but, rather, a very serious matter. Because this will have great benefits. And the Sages have taught this to us in the statement in the Talmud Baba Batra 78b.  “Therefore the rulers should say,” these are those who rule over their evil inclination. “Come to Heshbon,”come and let’s make the calculations of eternity – the loss of a mitzvah compared to the reward for it, and the reward for a sin, compared to the loss it brings.

In explaining the metaphor of the Sages in the story of Sichon and Moav, Rabbi Yonasan Eibeshitz has a different lesson, a variation on a theme.      

Moav was strong and fortified such that Sichon should have been unable to conquer it. So, how did he do it? It was through the city Heshbon. The king of Moav didn’t consider the small city of Heshbon near the border of his land very important and he didn’t fortify it properly. First Sichon captured Hesbon, this “unimportant” city, and then he used it as a stepping stone to launch his attack on the rest of Moav, eventually taking over the  entire land.   

This is one of the tactics that the evil inclination uses to conquer us and get us to do things that we are not supposed to do. He picks a matter that we do not consider too important and hence do not protect ourselves from, and then, after we have transgressed that, he leverages it to take us to the next level and do other more grievous sins. 

This is the lesson we should learn from Sichon: how to protect ourselves from the tactics of the evil inclination. We need to make a calculation before we act, and not be fooled to let the little things go by. 

We need to realize more fundamentally that there are no little things. Everything that Hashem commands us to do is important, and its reward is eternal. 

When thinking about it rationally, we wonder how an intelligent person could forgo the great reward that Hashem has in store for us for the fleeting pleasure of the moment. Yet this is the “nature of the beast,” the human being. This is where Rabbi Luzzato’s suggestion comes in. The trick is to think about how will respond to the challenge before the moment of the challenge and decide the path of action that we are going to take when next confronted with a test.  

If taken to heart, this small calculation can make a tremendous change in our lives. 

Our Sages teach us that our purpose in this world is to stand up to the challenges of the evil inclination and reap reward for making the correct choices. The choice is always between doing what Hashem wants us to do versus what we want to do. If we defer our personal wishes in favor of Hashem’s, we will be incalculably rewarded in the world to come. As we look at our world today, we see much confusion and a myriad of options to follow each step of the way. Every person thinks that he has it all figured out and that he has the right path to follow. As Jews we have to be so thankful that we have the Torah, Hashem’s handbook for man on this planet, to guide us, which contains the perfect balance of spirituality and pleasure for a human being. We have clear instructions on what is good for us and what is not. We are able to steer clear of the pitfalls and stumbling blocks that threaten to trip a person up in his path in life. It behooves us to follow the advice of Rabbi Chaim Luzzato to set aside time to think about this for ourselves. The results will be extremely impactful.       

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