Judaism: Chukat: The King of Arad Takes a Captive
Parashat Chukat opens with the mitzvah of the red heifer, which is subdivided into 3 mitzvot and which spans 22 verses (the whole of Numbers Chapter 19). And with this mitzvah the narrative of the generation which exited from Egypt concludes.
The Torah continues: “The Children of Israel – the entire community – came to the Zin Desert in the first month” (Numbers 20:1), the first month of the fortieth and final year of their desert wandering, either on the 1st of Nissan (Megillat Ta’anit 17, Seder Olam Rabbah 9) or the 10th of Nisan (Targum Yonatan to Numbers 20:1).
Some thirty-eight silent years are unaccounted for between the mitzvah of the red cow and the Children of Israel coming to the Zin Desert – thirty-eight years during which the adult men who had left Egypt and had been infused with slave mentality had passed from the world and died in the desert.
The “entire community” who came to the Zin Desert was the new generation – the generation which had been forged in the desert, free and unafraid, the generation which had not been raised in slavery, the generation which would be worthy of inheriting the Land of Israel.
And their first test was not long in coming: “The Canaanite, king of Arad, the Negev-dweller, heard that Israel had come by the way of the spies [derech ha-atarim], and he warred against Israel and captured a prisoner from it”.
The translation of “atarim” as “spies” follows Targum Onkelos, Targum Yonatan, Rashbam, and Ibn Ezra. That is to say, the king of Arad, in the south of Israel, 40 km (25 miles) due east of Beer Sheva (8 km/5 miles west of the present-day town of Arad), saw the Children of Israel approaching along the same route that the spies had followed a generation earlier, and realised that their time had come to enter and conquer their Land. Realising that he was inevitably going to be dispossessed by the Israelites who were coming home, the king of Arad initiated combat with the Israelites and took a prisoner of war.
The Talmud Yerushalmi (Yoma 1:1 and Sotah 1:10) and the Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 19:20 and Sifrei Bamidbar, Beha’alot’cha 82 among others) understand “atarim” to be a cognate of “tayyar” (leader, guide), and apply this appellation to Aaron who had just died in the immediately preceding verses and to the Ark of the Covenant which travelled a three-day journey ahead of the Children of Israel to guide them (Numbers 10:33).
“‘The entire community saw that Aaron had passed away’ (Numbers 20:29) – and what is written immediately afterwards? – ‘The Canaanite, king of Arad, the Negev-dweller, heard…’ You find that when Aaron died the Clouds of Glory vanished, and they [Israel] appeared like a woman with uncovered hair. Who was the king of Arad? – He was Amalek, as it says ‘Amalek dwells in the Negev [south] land’ (Numbers 13:29)… – he dwelt on the border. When he heard that Aaron had died and the Clouds of Glory had vanished, he immediately attacked them. ‘Derech ha-atarim’ [which above we translated ‘by the way of the spies] means following the great Guide which led them along their way, as it says ‘the Ark of Hashem’s Covenant travelled ahead of them a three-day journey to seek out a resting-place for them’ (Numbers 10:33). ‘And he [Amalek] warred against Israel’ (Numbers 21:1)” (Bamidbar Rabbah 19:20).
The Targum Yonatan (Numbers 21:1) has a slightly different exposition: “Amalek, who was dwelling in the south-land, who came and disguised himself and ruled in Arad, heard that Aaron’s soul had gone to its rest and that the Pillar of Cloud which in his merit had guided the nation of the House of Israel had vanished, and that Israel had come by the same way as the spies to the place wherein they had rebelled against the Lord of the Universe. When the spies had returned, the Children of Israel were encamped in Rekam [an alternative name for Kadesh Barnea], and they turned back from Rekam and returned to Moseroth, six journeys . For 40 years they travelled from Moseroth, then they returned to Rekam by way of the spies and they came to Taurus Amanus , where Aaron died. And thus [Amalek] came and waged war against Israel and took from them much captivity”.
Or, in the terser words of the Talmud, “‘The Canaanite, king of Arad, the Negev-dweller, heard’. What did he hear? – He heard that Aaron had died and that the Clouds of Glory had vanished, so he reckoned that he now had permission to war against Israel” (Rosh Hashanah 3a, Ta’anit 9a).
A generation earlier, when the Children of Israel saw the scattered remnants of the recently-decimated Egyptian Army approaching them when they stood on the sands of the beach of the Red Sea, they were terrified and had no fighting spirit (Exodus 14:10-12). A few weeks later, when Amalek attacked them in the desert, they had barely more fighting spirit; as the Ibn Ezra notes, “Amalek came with a small nation, yet had it not been for Moshe’s prayer, he [Amalek] would have overpowered Israel” (commentary to Exodus 14:13).
And a little more than a year after that, when the spies returned from their mission, they managed to cast the entire nation into unreasoning panic simply by invoking the name of Amalek and relating that “Amalek dwells in the Negev land” (Numbers 13:29).
Now, a generation later, their response was totally different. This generation who had been nurtured in the harsh freedom of the desert had no fear of fighting. When Amalek, the king of Arad, attacked them and took a captive, they did not flee from this enemy king, neither did they attempt to make peace with him; they did not negotiate for the return of this captive, nor did they organise a brief foray into his territory with the intention of withdrawing as soon as possible; nor even did they call on an outside force to help settle their differences.
Rather, Moshe led Israel in battle to defeat this king, and the nation stood solidly behind Moshe in his response. They annihilated his city and renamed it Hormah (“utter destruction”) to eternalize the lesson of how the Jewish nation responds to a captive who is captured by an enemy.
This, even though the enemy captured only one captive, a slave-woman (Yalkut Shimoni 764; Rashi, Numbers 21:1), “and he killed no one” (Sforno, Numbers 21:1).
So responds a nation free and self-confident. Thus acts a nation that is worthy of independence in its homeland. It goes to all-out war to defend its own – and even to bring back a servant who is held captive. Let everyone know that they are safer as a servant of Israel than as a free citizen of an enemy of Israel!
And this free generation of the desert, the generation which will begin to conquer and inherit the Land of Israel less than a year hence, felt no need to justify what they had done, felt no embarrassment at violating the civil rights of the king of Arad and his people. Far from using euphemisms to express their military action, and far from insisting that their response was and would remain “proportionate” and that they really desired nothing more than peace if only the enemy would agree to talk, they unashamedly renamed the city “Utter Destruction”.
Following this, the Children of Israel continued on their approach to the border with the Land of Israel, encamping at Oboth, then onto Zered, and then onto Arnon on the border of Amorite territory (Numbers 21:10-13). And there, to celebrate a well which they encountered, “then Israel sang this song: Arise, O well, declare unto it! O well which was dug by princes, excavated by the nobles of the nation by a lawgiver, by their staves, and a gift from the desert…” (vs. 17-20).
This is the third of ten songs that Israel would ever sing, nine in the days of the Tanach and the tenth destined to be sung in the days of mashiach (Mechilta de-Rabbi Yishmael, Shirata 1; Tanhuma, Beshallach 10; Yalkut Shimoni, Exodus 242 et. al.).
The Ben Ish Chai (Rabbi Yosef Chayim, Baghdad, 1832-1909) expounds upon this: “It is known that the source of Israel’s souls is called ‘a well’, and there everything is unity, which is why Israel are called ‘a nation’, and therefore the Torah says that ‘with seventy souls [“nefesh”, literally “soul” in the singular] your fathers went down to Egypt’ (Deuteronomy 10:22), calling them ‘nefesh’ (soul) in the singular and not ‘nefashot’ (souls) in the plural. Such was not the case with Esau, whose family are called ‘nefashot’, because the source of the souls of the nations of the world is separateness” (Ben Ish Chai Halachot, Parashat Hukkat year 2).
The generation that had grown up never tasting slavery, free in the desert, untainted by fear of the nations, was the generation that fully internalized and epitomized this unity, the brotherhood of all Jews. This was the generation that fully knew how to respond to attacks, knew the appropriate response to an enemy who dares to take one of our nation captive.
And such was the generation that was worthy of inheriting the Land of Israel.