Judaism: Hukkat: The Pivot of History
The Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 3:5) notes that when recounting the first day of Creation, the Torah uses the word “light” five times, corresponding to the Five Books of the Torah.
“‘G-d said, Let there be light’ (Genesis 1:3) which corresponds to Genesis, in which G-d was involved in creating His world.
‘And there was light’ (ibid.) corresponds to Exodus, in which Israel went out from darkness to light.
‘And G-d saw the light that it was good’ (ibid. v. 4) corresponds to Leviticus, the whole of which is full of many halakhot.
‘And G-d separated between the light and the darkness’ (ibid.) corresponds to Numbers, which separates between those who left Egypt and those who came to the Land.
‘And G-d called the light day’ (ibid. v. 5) corresponds to Deuteronomy, which is full of many halakhot”.
If the identity of the Book of Numbers is that it “separates between those who left Egypt and those who came to the Land”, then Parashat Hukkat epitomises the entire Book.
Parashat Hukkat begins with G-d giving us the statute of the Red Heifer (Numbers Chapter 19), about a year and a half after the Exodus. Then, immediately after completing this topic, the Torah continues, “The Children of Israel, the entire community, came to the Zin Desert in the first month…” (Numbers 20:1), meaning either Rosh Chodesh Nissan thirty-nine years after the Exodus (Seder Olam Rabbah 9), or the 10th of Nissan (Targum Yonatan).
There is a hiatus of some thirty-eight years – a blank page of history, during which the generation of “those who left Egypt” died out, and the generation of “those who came to the Land” was born and matured.
The inference of all this is that the statute of the Red Heifer is G-d’s “farewell” to Israel. He gave us this quintessential hok (“statute”) – a law which has no humanly comprehensible reason whatsoever, a law which defies all human logic – and then bade farewell to the generation who left Egypt. They would never hear from Him again.
The younger generation, those destined to enter the Land of Israel, would live through thirty-eight years of silence, thirty-eight years of Divine concealment, thirty-eight years in the desert during which nothing of permanent importance would happen.
The Talmud (Gittin 60a-b) cites Rabbi Levi who said that the section of the Red Heifer is one of eight sections which were originally said on the day that the Mishkan was erected, which was on the 1st of Nissan, two weeks shy of a year after the Exodus (Exodus 40:2, 17).
According to Rabbi Levi, then, the section of the Red Heifer is out of its chronological sequence. The Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, Spain and Israel, 1195-c.1270) seems to address this: “This section complements the Book of Leviticus, however it is written here after the section of gifts to the Priesthood so say that Israel’s purification is also carried out by the Kohen” (Commentary to Numbers 19:2).
The Ba’al ha-Turim (Rabbi Ya’akov ben Asher, Germany and Spain, c.1275-1343) has a very different explanation as to why G-d inserted the section of the Red Heifer here: “The Torah juxtaposed ‘the statute of the Torah’ to ‘…when you raise up the choicest part [of the Terumah]…’ (Numbers 18:32) to imply that the Torah was given only to those who ate Manna, who are likened to those who eat Terumah”.
This is a somewhat cryptic remark, which seems to refer back to the Midrash: “Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochay said: Only to those who ate the Manna was the Torah given to be studied. For how can one sit and study if one doesn’t know where his food and drink will come from, where his clothing and covering will come from?! Hence only by those who ate the Manna could the Torah be fully studied; and those who eat the Terumah are equal to them” (Mechilta de-Rabbi Yshma’el, Beshallach, Vayassa’ 3).
On a simple physical level, the Midrash says that only someone whose physical sustenance is guaranteed can have the peace of mind necessary for Torah study, and the only people who have that guarantee were the generation of the desert who were sustained by being given Manna, and the Kohanim who were sustained by the Terumah (the Priestly-dues) which they are give by the nation.
But the Midrash is telling us something far deeper: only a nation and a generation which was fed directly by G-d, which ate “grain of the Heavens,… bread of angels” (Psalms 78:24-25) was on a high enough level to be given the Torah.
The Ba’al ha-Turim notes the juxtaposition, that immediately after commanding the Terumah, the Torah commands the Red Heifer. It then leaves the generation of “those who left Egypt”, and without a break takes up the story of “those who came to the Land”. And following the Ba’al ha-Turim, the generation which left Egypt and the generation which entered the Land of Israel both had the merit of eating the Manna, and therefore both had the merit of receiving the Torah.
True, the actual Giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai was only for that first generation. But G-d continued to give us mitzvot throughout the forty years in the Sinai Desert, even until Moshe’s last day in this world, as the nation stood in Arvot Moav (the Plains of Moab) on the east bank of the River Jordan, on the very threshold of Israel.
All those who ate Manna – both the generation which left Egypt and the generation which came to the Land – merited to be given mitzvot directly by G-d. The Book of Numbers, and specifically Parashat Hukkat, is the bridge (as the Midrash with which we began expressed it) “between those who left Egypt and those who came to the Land”.
It is the bridge in two opposite senses: like a bridge it both separates between them and also connects them.
It is usual to think of the generation of the desert as a lost generation, a generation which left behind nothing of lasting worth. After all, Parashat Hukkat skips over that thirty-eight year period without a single word. And for sure, the simple reading of Parashat Shelach Lecha and the sin of the spies is that G-d punished that generation for rejecting the good Land.
The Ibn Ezra (Spain, Morocco, England, Israel, and France, 1092-1167) writes, “The Torah records nothing at all – no events, no prophecies – apart from the first year and the fortieth year” (Commentary to Numbers 20:1).
Rabbi Yosef Tzvi Hertz (Chief Rabbi of Britain and the British Empire 1913-1946) expands on this: “The reason is not far to seek. The men of that generation had been found wanting, and condemned to a dying life in the wilderness. Their story was, therefore, of no further spiritual value to the Israel of the future”.
But the Midrash has a far more inspiring and optimistic understanding. Earlier we quoted the Mechilta de-Rabbi Yshma’el, that the Torah could only be given to those who ate Manna.
Earlier, the Mechilta says something similar, but with a slightly different perspective: “Should G-d not have brought [the Children of Israel] to the Land of Israel by a direct route? – However, He said: If I bring Israel into the Land now [immediately after the Exodus], then each person will immediately take hold of his field and his vineyard, and they will neglect the Torah. Rather, I will make them wander through the desert for forty years, thus they will eat Manna and drink water from the [miraculous] well, and the Torah will be absorbed into their bodies. From here Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochay inferred: Only to those who ate the Manna was the Torah given to be studied, and those who eat the Terumah are equal to them” (Mechilta de-Rabbi Yshma’el, Beshallach, Vayechi 1).
The Midrash, then, suggests that our forty-year desert trek was not solely a punishment for the sin of the spies and of that generation. It was, rather, G-d’s plan to infuse an entire generation with Manna and with the water from Miriam’s miraculous well which accompanied them during those decades (Ta’anit 9a, Bava Metzi’a 86b, Vayikra Rabbah 27:6, Bamidbar Rabbah 1:2 et. al.).
Only those generations whose very food and water was miraculous could be so exalted as to receive G-d’s mitzvot. For sure, there was a thirty-eight year break in which nothing worth recording happened. But that thirty-eight year break was both the separation and the continuity between the generation which left Egypt and the generation which entered the Land of Israel.
And those four decades were not wasted. They were decades during which the nation was nourished from the holiest of sources, decades during which the nation reached its spiritual pinnacle.
And that generation, which had been nourished from infancy by Manna from Heaven and by water from the miraculous well, merited both Torah and the Land of Israel.