Parshas Chukas 5774 The Second War with Amalek S. Rabinowitz, MD B”H
Parshas Chukas is the sixth of ten parshios in Sefer BaMidbar. The parsha contains 87 verses, including three positive mitzvos and no prohibitions. Amalek’s second attack on Israel is recorded in Chapter 21, verses 1-3 (translation adapted from R. Chaim Miller who bases it on Rashi (1040-1105)):
The first attack on Yisroel by Amalek, soon after the exodus from Egypt, is documented in Parshas BeShalach. After nearly 40 years in the desert, Amalek again attacks. The Artscroll edition of Gemara Rosh HaShanah 3a brings various commentaries to explain that we were enveloped by Clouds of Glory, and perhaps also ordinary clouds, during our years in the desert. Seven clouds surrounded us: on four sides, and above and below, and one in advance of us to guide and prepare our path. The clouds protected us from the sun, cleaned our clothes, guided us on all our journeys, flattened hills, raised valleys, destroyed snakes and scorpions, and protected us from arrows and catapults. HaShem provided us with the Clouds of Glory in the merit of Aharon. When he died, those clouds departed. The report of this loss prompted the Amalek king to attack, says the Gemara. He thought we would finally be vulnerable. The Gemara goes on to quote a Baraisa saying that Arod, Cana’an, and Sichon are all names for one person.
Ramban (1194-1270) says that the King of Arod lived near Chevron, in the south of Eretz Yisroel. When he heard the news from afar, he went to the trouble of moving his army eastward across the Jordan to the Moav desert near the land of Edom to attack us.
Rashi picks up on the phrase in verse one, “lived in the south.” BaMidbar 13:29 told us that Amalek lived in the south, but the real Cana’anites lived along the Mediterranean coast and along the Jordan River. Why, then, are these attackers called “Cana’anites,” rather than by their true identity, Amalekites? Rashi answers that Amalek knew HaShem would protect us if we prayed to him for victory over Amalek. They reasoned that they could only win if they deceived us into praying for victory over someone else. To execute this psychological warfare tactic, they taught their troops to speak the Cana’anite language. Tosfos (1100-1300) say that the king of Amalek pretended to be Sichon, the Cana’anite king of Arod. We observed, however, that they continued to dress as Amalekites. To defeat this ambiguity, we prayed, as our verse two states, for victory over “this people.” We see from this that the specific language of prayer is important, even though HaShem would certainly understand our needs in any case. People should therefore not tamper with the powerful prayer language that our ancestors transmitted to us.
A Chassidic Rebbe, possibly one of the Belzer Rebbeim, asked why the Amalekites took the difficult ruse of learning to speak Cana’anite, but did not also dress that way, which would have been easy. In a sly reference to the Chassidic lifestyle, his answer is that changing both their language and their dress would mean changing their identity, so then they really would be Cana’anites! R. Elie Munk (1900-1981) says that the wearing of costumes on Purim may relate to the disguises worn by the Amalekites, since Haman was descended from them. Maskil l’Dovid (1719-1792) notes some sources saying that Amalek did change their clothing, but he speculates that Amalek believed sorcery conferred protective properties on their own clothing and therefore did not change it. Rabbeinu Bachya (1255-1340) says a sorcerer had to wear special black clothing.
R. Yohonoson Eibeschutz (1690-1764) says that Amalek (Eisov’s grandson) and his descendants wanted to avenge Ya’akov’s taking of the brochos from Eisov. To receive the brochos from Yitzchok, Ya’akov wore Eisov’s clothing, but spoke in his own voice. This led Amalek to wear one tribe’s clothing while speaking in another tribe’s language. But why did they think they could win against us after being defeated so badly the first time? He quotes Gemara Yevamos 72a including Rashi’s commentary: Sunlight is beneficial for wound healing. The north wind in that region is mild, neither hot nor cold, and disperses clouds, permitting the healing sunrays to shine through. All through the 40 years that we were in the wilderness the north wind did not blow during the day, so as not to interfere with the Clouds of Glory. Deprived of the healing light beams, we did not perform bris milah while in the desert. Amalek calculated, to our credit, that we would rush to perform the mitzvoh of bris milah as soon as the Clouds departed. We would therefore be temporarily debilitated. Amalek would then have a brief opportunity to defeat us in the same way that Shimon and Levi conquered Shchem. The clouds, however, like Miriam’s well, returned to us in Moshe Rabbeinu’s merit. Bris milah was not resumed until Yehoshua assumed the leadership.
We see in our verse 1 that Amalek took a captive from us. Rashi says this was one slave woman. Ramban states that the person taken was literally already a captive, namely an Amalekite woman who had previously been captured by Yisroel and enslaved. A male captive from Amalek would have been executed. The verse also informs us that no one was killed in the attack. Ramban says he cannot exclude the possibility that a few of our people were taken captive, but returned when, as it says in our verse 3, “HaShem heard Yisroel’s voice.”
The Lubavitcher Rebbe (1902-1994) contrasts the two attacks of Amalek on Yisroel. At the time of the first attack, we were isolated in the desert, living a spiritual life, similar to life within the study hall and the synagogue. Amalek attacked us then without a disguise, to oppose Torah observance within a Jewish setting. On the second occasion, after 40 years in the desert and on the cusp of entrance into Eretz Yisroel, where we would be challenged to maintain our Yiddishkeit in the workplace and the marketplace, they came disguised as Cana’anites. Their message was, “We won’t bother you about what you do in the synagogue. But if you wish to be successful in the business world, forget about avoiding gossip, unfair competition, collecting interest, etc. You must act like a Cana’anite!” This is Amalek’s way of enticing us to evil. The gematria of Amalek is 240, the same as the gematria of suffek/doubt. Amalek tries to create doubt about our eternal values. One must be a proud and ethical Jew not only in the home and the synagogue, but also at work and wherever one goes in the world.
A key principle in learning Chumash is “ma’asei avos, siman l’vanim,” meaning the events of our ancestors lives are guidance for us, their children. Our weekly sedrah often has an uncanny correlation to the week’s news. We read in Parshas Chukas about Amalekites from the Chevron area who took one or more captives from us. These were released when HaShem heard our voice. Not our voices, but our united voice. May HaShem again hear the voice of Yisroel and speedily return to us unharmed the three teenage boys who were recently taken captive near Chevron.