Chukat תשע”ט

In this week’s portion, the Jewish nation loses two of its three great leaders, Miriam and Aharon. Each one’s passing brought an immediate reaction. After Miriam’s demise, the Jewish people begin thirsting for water, and after Aharon’s passing the Jewish people were attacked by Amalek. What was the cause and effect?

As the Jewish people travelled through the wilderness, Hashem miraculously attended to their physical needs. Their food, in the form of manna, fell from heaven daily except for Shabbat, landing right outside their doors. The manna was a true superfood; it was so nourishing that it was completely absorbed into their systems with no waste. A travelling (!) well provided their water. The Talmud describes the well as a large stone, shaped like a doughnut with holes in it, which rolled on its side when they travelled and fell flat when they camped. From the holes they drew as much water as they needed. They were further protected from the sun, their enemies, and vicious animals by six clouds that enveloped them.

The Talmud in Tractate Taanit 9a teaches us:

רבי יוסי ברבי יהודה אומר, שלשה פרנסים טובים עמדו לישראל. אלו הן משה ואהרן ומרים, ושלש מתנות טובות ניתנו על ידם. ואלו הן: באר וענן ומן. באר בזכות מרים עמוד ענן בזכות אהרן מן בזכות משה.

Rabbi Yossi the son of Rabbi Yehuda says: There were three wonderful benefactors to the Jewish people – Moshe, Aharon and Miriam, and, through them, three wonderful presents were given to the Jewish people: the well, the clouds, and the manna. The well was in Miriam’s merit, the clouds were in Aharon’s merit, and the manna was in Moshe’s merit.

Upon Miriam’s death, the miraculous well disappeared; there was no water for the people to drink, and they thirsted for water. When Aharon died, the clouds disappeared, and the people became exposed to the enemy who attacked the Jewish people thinking them now vulnerable.

What is the connection between the miraculous well and clouds and Miriam and Aharon whose merit they were in?

The Midrash informs us that Miriam, Moshe’s older sister, was one of the midwives whom Pharaoh told to kill the Jewish baby boys upon birth. Her code name was פועה (Pooah) because she would stop the child from crying. She would poo at the child, and give him food and water to help quiet him down. This was a very difficult and risky task because it required her to defy Pharaoh’s express instructions. The commentary  כלי יקר  says that in the merit of Miriam’s taking care of the babies and giving them water that the well came in her honor.

The Torah’s second incident reported about Miriam is how she stood by Moshe’s basket to see what would happen to him as it moved down the river. The Torah says (Exodus 2:4):

ד) וַתֵּתַצַּב אֲחֹתוֹ מֵרָחֹק לְדֵעָה מַה יֵּעָשֶׂה לוֹ

4) His sister stood at a distance to know what would be done to him.

This wording is a bit peculiar, to know what would be done to him?

The Sages tell us that Miriam, even at her tender age, was a prophetess who had prophesied that her mother would have the child that would take the Jewish people out of Egypt. When Moshe was born and the house lit up, and they were sure that her prophesy was correct. But when they had to abandon him in the river, it seemed that all hopes were dashed. Miriam kept her resolve and kept her confidence in the prophesy. Because she was confident that Moshe would be saved somehow, she went to observe how it would play out and to be of help if necessary. When she saw Pharaoh’s daughter going to bathe in the river, Miriam could have assumed that Pharaoh’s daughter would follow her father’s directive and kill the baby Moshe. Miriam nevertheless maintained her faith in Hashem. She even asked Bitya (Pharaoh’s daughter’s name per the Book of Chronicles) if she should find a Jewish woman to nurse him. What nerve! Yet for this trust in Hashem and for taking care of Moshe when he was in the basket, her reward was that the Jewish people had the well of water during their journeys through the wilderness.

What about Aharon and the clouds?

When Aharon died, the Torah tells us (Numbers 20:29) that all the Jewish people cried and mourned him, whereas at Moshe’s death, the Torah says, only the men mourned him.

כט) וַיִּרְאוּ כָּל הָעֵדָה כִּי גָוַע אַהֲרֹן וַיִּבְכּוּ אֶת אַהֲרֹן שְׁלשִׁים יוֹם כֹּל בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל

29) The entire congregation saw that Aharon had died, and the entire Jewish nation cried for Aharon for 30 days.

          Our Sages explain that “the entire Jewish nation” includes men, women, and children. Why was Aharon so beloved to the women and children? Because he was a peacemaker. He would make peace between two arguing men, and between a husband and wife who were going through hard times.

Hillel the Elder tells us in Ethics of the Fathers (1:12) to emulate Aharon’s peacemaking qualities:

יב) הִלֵּל אוֹמֵר, הֱוֵי מִתַּלְמִידָיו שֶׁל אַהֲרֹן, אוֹהֵב שָׁלוֹם וְרוֹדֵף שָׁלוֹם, אוֹהֵב אֶת הַבְּרִיּוֹת וּמְקָרְבָן לַתּוֹרָה

Hillel says, “Be one of Aharon’s students; Aharon loved peace and ran after peace. He loved Hashem’s creatures, and brought them close to the Torah.”

What does it mean to “run after peace?” The Sages explain that when Aharon knew that two people had an argument, he would approach one and tell him that his friend feels really terrible about the argument and that he would really like to make up. He would go to the other person and tell him the same thing. When they next met, each thinking that the other person wanted to make up with him, they would embrace and make up.

This also means, for us, that when we have an argument with someone, we should go to them and try to make up with them. We should pursue the peace.

How involved was Aharon in bringing peace between husband and wife? Very, based on the following statistic.  Masechet Kallah (chapter 3) says that after Aharon died, 80,000 boys were named Aharon in his honor. These were the first boys born to couples who were undergoing difficulties, and to whom Aharon had restored peace. It sounds like Aharon was quite busy with peacemaking!

Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato  writes in  מאמר החכמה :

וצריך שתדע שהנה האדון ב”ה הוא אחד, ואין הארתו מתחזקת אלא במה שמתאחד, והנה ישראל אע”פ שבאישיהם הם רבים נקראים גוי אחד, והם ראוים לשתתחזק בם הארתו ית’

And you must know that Hashem is One, and His holy light can only be manifest in something that is unified and one. The Jewish people, even though they are many persons, are called one nation, and only they are appropriate for the holy light of Hashem to shine in them.

To the degree that we are unified, Hashem’s holy light can shine on us. The clouds of glory that surrounded the Jewish people as they journeyed through the wilderness, represented the Hashem’s Glory and its manifestation in the Jewish people. When Aharon was doing his peacemaking, the nation was completely unified to the degree that the presence of Hashem was evident in the clouds that surrounded them. When Aharon died, the clouds vanished, to symbolize the unity that would be missing without him.

There is, though, a deeper understanding of this concept.

The Talmud tells us that שלום  is one of Hashem’s names. Hashem’s holy names are not to be mentioned in a bathroom. Therefore, one must be careful not to say שבת שלום  or  שלום עליכם  in a bathroom. Why would such a common word be the name of Hashem? This strikes us as unusual.

For something to be a name of Hashem, it must be something that only Hashem can do. If a human being is capable of doing it, it cannot be a name for Hashem. Hashem has every good quality. He is the essence of חסד – kindness, but חסד is not one of Hashem’s names because Avraham Avinu reached the ultimate level of חסד  – kindness. Hashem is אמת  – truth,  but man can also reach a level of absolute truth.

In our daily prayers, we quote the verse from Job (25:2) עֹשֶׂה שָׁלוֹם בִּמְרוֹמָיו – Hashem makes peace in His high places. What is the need for peace in the high places?  Where is the conflict that needs appeasement?

Rashi explains. עושה שלום במרומיו – אש ומים בלולין ואין מים מכבין את האש  Fire and water mixed up, and the water doesn’t extinguish the fire (and the fire doesn’t evaporate the water).

Rashi’s source, the Midrash, similarly tells us:

ילקוט שמעוני שמות – פרק ט – רמז קפו

אפילו מלאך עצמו חציו אש וחציו מים והוא עושה שלום בו


The angels are half water and half fire, and Hashem makes peace in them. The water doesn’t extinguish the fire and the fire doesn’t evaporate the water.

To create peace between fire and water — two opposing forces– Hashem must know the exact point, down to the atom, at which the heat of the fire does not evaporate the water and the wetness of the water does not extinguish the fire. That line, allowing the perfect balance between these two opposite forces, is something that only Hashem knows, therefore, only Hashem can make peace between the opposing forces in the world. This is why שלום is a name for Hashem.

Wherever there are two opposing forces, there must be a balance between them, or one will eliminate the other. The word שלום  – peace, is related to the word שלם  which means whole. When each component has what it needs to be complete and needs nothing from its opponent, there will be peace.

This is the secret to a peaceful relationship. When each party gives the other person in the relationship all that is necessary to feel complete, peace has been achieved, because no one has any demands on the other. But when one party needs something from the other and is not getting it, peace cannot reign because they do not feel whole.

This also includes giving someone their space and not encroaching on it.

Hashem also makes שלום  – the proper balance- in the entire universe. The balance in creation is astounding. From the perfect balance among the hundreds of billions of stars galaxies, the celestial beings that orbit our solar system, and down to the balance in the electron’s orbit as it circles the nucleus millions of times per second, and everything in between. In every corner of our universe, Hashem maintains the perfect balance necessary for the universe and everything in it to exist.

The earth is situated the perfect distance from the sun. Any closer, we would be toast, any farther, we would be freeze-pops. The moon is the exact size needed to create the gravitational pull on the earth to keep its axial tilt, which gives us a stable climate.

In this magnificent world that Hashem created, there are billions of creatures large and small. The large eat the small, and the small eat the smaller, and with this the balance in nature is maintained.

Scientists tell us that if not for bats, who eat millions of insects a day, we would be overrun by insects. In a recent study published in the April 2017 issue of The Science of Nature, scientists Martin Nyffeler and Klaus Birkhofer discovered that the world’s spider population, which itself weighs around 25 million tons, takes out between 400 and 800 million tons of prey each year, mostly insects. Can you imagine the world with 400 million more tons of insects? But there are enough spiders to keep things in balance.

In all pristine natural habitats, each creature has its prey and its predator. No predator proliferates enough to make his prey extinct. Once in a nature reserve, the supervisors were concerned that the natural predators would kill too many of an endangered species. So they constructed a fence around the endangered animals to keep the natural predators out. After a while they discovered that more animals were dying in the enclosed area than would have died from the natural predators. An investigation revealed that the predators feed on the weak and the sick animals who cannot outrun them. By weeding out the sick animals, the healthy animals remained robust and healthy. By preventing the natural predators from weeding out the sick animals, however, more healthy animals became sick and died.

One time in Alabama the farmers decided to go on a campaign to eliminate rattlesnakes. The next year they were overrun by mice.

The human body also operates on a very delicate balance. Hashem created us in a most miraculous way. Without the slightest thought, our inner organs maintain a healthy balance of chemicals in our bodies. They are cleaning out poisons, making sure we don’t have too much sugar, too little salt, too little water. When the doctor calls you with the results of your blood test and tells you your numbers fall in the normal range, do you realize how narrow that range is? The balance is so crucial.

Just as there is a very delicate balance in the physical world, a very delicate balance is also maintained in the spiritual world that is behind this world. This concept is hinted to in the statement mentioned earlier that Hashem makes peace in His holy places.

The Malbim in his commentary on the Chumash, puts it this way  (Numbers 6:26):

שהשלום הוא שם כולל כל ההצלחות וקיום כל העולמות שכולם נבראו ממזגים מתחלפים וכחות מתנגדים זה לזה, לא לבד עולמות החומרים כי גם בעליונים יש כחות מתנגדים זה לזה… רק האלהות המתפשט בכל העולמות כנפש המתפשטת בגויה הוא השלום הכללי המעמיד כל המציאות ומקשר את כולם ומשיבם לאחדות גמורה כגוף אחד

Shalom is the name (of Hashem) that encompasses all areas of success and the existence of all the worlds created from the combinations of changing and different forces, many which are contradictory to each other. Not only in the physical world, but in the spiritual realms where there are also contradictory forces. Hashem’s presence, which permeates all the worlds in the way the soul permeates the body, creates the peace that allows for the existence of the entire creation and ties them all together to become a whole.   

Since Shalom is the basis for the entire existence, when the Jewish nation- the purpose of the world- are at peace with each other, they, provide the foundation for peace in the universe. Shalom is the source of all blessing in the world; without it, no blessing has any value.

Considering this, we would be wise to follow the advice of Hillel the Elder, becoming students of Aharon, loving peace and pursuing it.

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