Parshas Chukas, by virtue of its very name tells us there are things we aren’t going to understand. That after all is the meaning of a chok – something we won’t understand. The epitome of chok is the Parah Adumah – the red heifer. This, the chazal tell us is a secret that even Shlomo Hamelech in his great wisdom couldn’t understand. So you will forgive me if I skip that part of the parsha.
For that matter, I think I’ll skip most of the parsha. There are too many depressing parts. Miriam dies. Moshe and Aharon are told they won’t be able to enter Eretz Yisroel. Aharon dies. Amalek attacks. Edom attacks. Not exactly the bright and cheery subjects people expect me to address.
The situation is compounded by the fact that this Shabbos is the 17th of Tamuz. In addition to being a day of multiple tragedies, itis the beginning of the three weeks. The period of mourning begins. Of course the actual fast is postponed, but the day remains a day of tragedy. Events are clearly working against me.
So let me move to an interesting interlude at the end of the parsha and see if we can find an approach to allow us to find some solace on a Shabbos when we are required to be b’simcha, or we will really get into trouble.
The forty years of wandering in the desert finally come to an end and for the third time the B’nei Yisroel begin their triumphant march into Eretz Yisroel. They quickly capture the east bank of the Jordan and defeat the evil Amorite kings Sichon and Og. This at least is a good part from our point of view. But with the fall of Sichon and his capital city of Cheshbon, the Torah introduces a number of unusual possukim.
Starting in Perek 21 posuk 26 the translation from Rabbi Aryeh Kaplans “Living Torah” reads as follows: Cheshbon was the capital city of the Amorites. He had fought against the first king of Moav and taken all his land as far as the Arnon. The minstrels therefore say “Come to Cheshbon! Let Sichons city be built and established! For a fire has come out of Cheshbon and a flame from Sichons capital and it has consumed Ar of Moav, the masters of Arnon’s altars. Woe is to you Moav; you are destroyed, nation of Kemosh. Your sons have become refugees, your daughters are captives to Sichon, King of the Amorites”.
Even if you take into account Rabbi Kaplan’s eclectic vernacular and you choose instead to translate “moshlim” as Rashi does, “those who speak in parables”, you still need to wonder why the Torah saw fit to include the latest clever observations of the poets, minstrels or parabalers. This situation is of course compounded by the gemera in Baba Basra, which apparently translates the phrase completely out of context! “’And the moshlim said’ this means those who are in control (as in melech v’moshel) of their evil inclinations. ’Come to Cheshbon’ come and make a calculation (not the city Cheshbon, but a cheshbon hanefesh). Figure out the reward for a mitzva versus its’ loss and the pleasure of a sin versus its’ punishment.”
We know that there is a general rule that a possuk shouldn’t leave its simple explanation, but here the Chazal apparently twist a verse out of context, in order to tell us an interesting mussar idea. The Maharal however, explains that really the concept that the gemera explains fits perfectly into the posuk we quoted.
What did the moshlim, those who speak in parables really come to teach people? When the B’nei Yisroel began their march to Eretz Yisroel, Moshe warned them that Hashem would not allow them to capture the land of Ammon and Moav. However, years before, in a major battle, Sichon, with the help of the evil prophet Bilaam, captured the city of Cheshbon and the surrounding area from Moav. The neighboring peoples were awed by the might of the Amorite campaign and of course pitied poor Moav for their terrible loss.
With the arrival of the B’nei Yisroel and their miraculous destruction of the Amorite empire, the parabalers, the repository of wit and wisdom, observed the appropriateness of the city’s name – Cheshbon. The Amorites thought they had captured the city for themselves, when in truth all they did was create the possibility for the B’nei Yisroel to take possession of the land – land they would have otherwise been forbidden to capture.
The Chazal understood the real reason Hashem wanted this observation in the Torah. Make a Cheshbon! Things are seldom the way they appear at first blush. That’s why the chazal enjoin you to think about everything you do or every place you go. The good time you are looking forward to attending may have tragic repercussions, while the good time you turn down might really be the key to your salvation.
Mishlei tells us it is better to go to a shiva call than to a wedding reception. Tell me the truth, forgetting the obvious philosophical observations on the transitory nature of life – who wants to go to a shiva house? It’s depressing. For a wedding, people get all dressed up. People seldom dress for a shiva call. And what do they serve at a shiva house? Did you ever get a shnitzel? A boureka with congealed mushroom soup? Make a cheshbon though - what’s really a better time? I’m not talking about the potential for kedusha, but rather where do you actually walk away more elevated?
The unfortunate reality is that the kalus rosh usually associated with a chasuna tends to lead to opportunities for lashon hora, gayva and breaches of tznius that one seldom sees at a shiva house. I recently had the unfortunate experience of paying a shiva call to my friend and chavrusa Dr. Gedalya Mordechai Stern. His approach was that although the darkness is intense, there are stars that you can only see twinkling when it’s very dark. He spoke about his father, the past generation, what he had learnt and had gained, and the hashgacha pratis he experienced throughout the ordeal. I thought of my father a”h, my children, my own life and personal potential. A shiva call is never something I look forward to, certainly not as much as a wedding, but I usually gain more from the experience.
Make a Cheshbon. Think about life. Think about death. Yes, even about the depressing parts of the story we would rather skip. Think about a Moshe and an Aharon and a Miriam and how they lived their lives right up to the last day. Think about who you want to be when you must reach the end of the road. About the things that look like they aren’t going your way, but might end up being the song sung by the minstrels of tomorrow.
Remember from the Parah Adumah that there are some details we don’t understand, but we can still know that HaKadosh Boruch Hu is watching out for our best. Even when we knew the walls of the city of Yerushalayim had been breached and the enemies were on their way to destroy the Bais HaMikdash, the medrash says we could see the two Keruvim on top of the Aron Hakodesh embracing. We thought our relationship with Hakadosh Boruch Hu had come to an end, but the two keruvim embracing told us that there was more to the story than we could see. Even in the tragedy the love was still there.
That’s the focus we need if we want to live quality lives in this world. Make a Cheshbon, especially during this time of communal tragedy. Remember why things happen and who is in charge. If we don’t take the time to make a cheshbon where we’re going in life – the odds are we’ll never get there. May we all be zocheh to see the Bais Hamikdash rebuilt speedily in our days.