Thursday, June 29, 2017

Guest Blogger Medad Lytton on Parashat Chukat

In this week’s parsha, Moshe sends messengers to the king of Edom to request passage for Bnai Yisrael through the land of Edom. In his request, he states that Bnai Yisrael will not turn right or left until they cross Edom’s border. Rabbeinu Bechaye explains that although Moshe’s intention was to say “until we come to the land,” he was afraid that the king of Edom would be reminded that Yaakov took the Bechor and Bracha from Esav which now enables Bnai Yisrael to inherit the land of Canaan. Even generations later, the tensions between Yaakov and Esav shine through the interactions between their descendants.

But this story is reminiscent of an interaction between Yaakov and Esav on an even deeper level. This incident eerily echoes an earlier portion of the Torah: parashat Vayishlach. Just as Yaakov sent messengers to his brother Esav as he reentered the land of Canaan, so too here, as Bnai Yisrael prepare to enter the land of Canaan, they send messengers to the nation of Edom, Esav’s descendants. Throughout these pesukim, the parallel to Yaakov’s messengers shines through. As in parashat Vayishlach, here in parashat Chukat the episode begins by stating in an almost formulaic phrase who sent messengers to whom.

וַיִּשְׁלַ֨ח יַעֲקֹ֤ב מַלְאָכִים֙ לְפָנָ֔יו אֶל־עֵשָׂ֖ו אָחִ֑יו . . . כֹּ֤ה אָמַר֙ עַבְדְּךָ֣ יַעֲקֹ֔ב

Jacob sent messengers ahead to his brother Esau . . . thus says your servant Jacob

וַיִּשְׁלַ֨ח מֹשֶׁ֧ה מַלְאָכִ֛ים מִקָּדֵ֖שׁ אֶל־מֶ֣לֶךְ אֱד֑וֹם כֹּ֤ה אָמַר֙ אָחִ֣יךָ יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל

From Kadesh, Moses sent messengers to the king of Edom: “Thus says your brother Israel

` The similarity of these two passages goes beyond the phrasing; the content of the message is also similar. In both cases, Yaakov and Moshe recount their difficult experiences in Lavan’s house and Egypt respectively. Yaakov explains to Esav that he has been a stranger in the house of Lavan and Moshe recounts Bnai Yisrael’s parallel experience in Mitzrayim (these two experiences are almost explicitly compared in the Haggadah).

Not only is this an example of Maaseh Avot Siman Lebanim, “the actions of the forefathers is a sign for their descendants,” but there is a deeper significance to these parallels. The Torah through these parallels seeks to frame this interaction between Bnai Yisrael and Edom as the conflict between Yaakov and Esav, a conflict which is epitomized by the phrase Hakol kol Yaakov, Vehayadayim yeday Esav, “the voice is the voice of Yaakov and the hands are the hands of Esav.” This verse can be interpreted as explaining the difference between Yaakov and Esav --Yaakov is a person who uses his voice while Esav uses his hands. Here in parashat Chukat we see these differences again. Moshe says (a bit strangely) to Edom --Vayishma Koleinu, "[Hashem] heard our voice." The King of Edom responds pen Bacherev eitzei licratecha, “lest with a sword I will come out to meet you.” Esav is still the person of the hand/sword and Yaakov a person of the voice.

The Torah is trying to teach us that Moshe’s message is not just a practical request for passage through the land. Moshe’s message is a way through which Bnai Yisrael can affirm their national identity. Before they can enter the land, Bnai Yisrael must define who they are as a nation. Historically, nationality has often been defined by contrast with an “other.” For instance Protestant Great Britain defined its national identity in the eighteenth century through a continual conflict with a Catholic France. Here Bnai Yisrael are defining themselves as a unique and chosen people of the voice as opposed to Edom, a people of the sword.