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Have you ever read a verse from the Torah that left you very confused? You read it and reread it, but you still can't make heads or tails of it. Some parts of the Torah read like a code, intriguing but difficult to decipher. For example, in the narrative describing the Jews' attempt to enter Canaan via the land of the Emorites, the Torah says the following:
Concerning this will be told in the Book of the Wars of G-d: He gave at the Reed Sea and the valleys of Arnon. And the spillage in the valleys when it turned to dwell at Ar and then leaned on the border of Moab. From there to the well; this is the well of which G-d said to Moses, "Gather the people and I will give them water." It was then that Israel sang this song: "Arise, O well, sing to it."
Now, I ask you, do you understand that?
Let me give you some context to these verses: The Jewish people were traveling for nearly forty years through the Sinai Desert, and they were desperate to finally enter into the land of Canaan. But the neighboring countries blockaded the eastern border, making it clear that any trespassing would be met with violence.
So the Jews decided to ask the Emorite king for passage into the land of Canaan. They planned to travel through the Arnon valley, a deep, narrow passageway between the lands of the Emorites and of Moab.
Okay, now read the verses again. What story do they tell? What is the Book of the Wars of G-d? What does the Reed Sea have to do with the valleys of Arnon? What was the spillage? What leaned on the border? Why did the people sing to the well?
As with all of the Written Torah, we can decode these verses only through the Oral Torah, the oral tradition that was transmitted to Moses at Mount Sinai. Here's how the Midrash, part of the Oral Torah, fleshes out the story. (The words explicitly stated in the Written Torah are in bold.)
Concerning this it will be told, when the Jews retell the Wars of G-d (the miracles that happened to our ancestors): They will tell the miracles of the splitting of the Reed Sea and the valleys of Arnon. The Emorites hid in the cliffside caves above the Arnon valley, planning to ambush and kill the Jews when they passed through. But the blood of the Emorites spilled in the valleys before they had a chance to attack the Jews.
For G-d caused the Emorite mountain to turn to dwell at Ar, a Moabite city, and then lean on the border of Moab. Outcroppings of rock on the Moabite mountainside pushed into the caves on the Emorite side, like pieces of a puzzle fitting together, crushing the Emorites who were hiding in the caves. Then the mountains returned to their places, and the Jews peacefully passed through the valley of Arnon, oblivious to the potential danger that they miraculously avoided.
Later, when the Jews saw the blood of the Emorites that flowed from there to the well of Miriam, they realized they had been saved from terrible danger. With gratitude to G-d, Israel sang this song: "Arise, O well, sing to it."
Thanks to the Midrash, we now understand that these cryptic verses convey one of the most dramatic miracles that the Jews experienced in the desert.
Did you notice the one ambiguous phrase that seems quite irrelevant to the story? "He gave at the Reeds Sea and the valleys of Arnon." What does the Reed Sea have anything to do with this? The Midrash explains, "Just like you retell the miracle of the splitting of the Reed Sea, you should retell the miracle of the Arnon valley." But why are these two specific miracles lumped together, to the exclusion of the many other miraculous events that happened to the Jews in the desert?
There is one similarity between the splitting of the Sea and the moving mountains of the Arnon valley. After the sea split, the Jews sang, "I will sing to G-d, for He is most exalted; the horse with its rider He cast into the sea." And forty years later, after they crossed through the Arnon valley, they sang, "Arise, O well, sing to it."
What was so unique about these two events that they evoked songs of appreciation? When the Jews reached the Reed Sea, with Pharaoh's army chasing behind them, they were stuck between a rock and a wet place. Moses said, "The L-rd will fight for you, but you shall remain silent." And in the Arnon valley, the Jews didn't even know that they were under threat of attack until it was all over.
The Jews had fought and won multiple wars. But when G-d fought their battles on His own, the songs of gratitude flowed from their mouths.
This teaching of the Rebbe has given me a fresh perspective on human suffering. It's so painful to see someone suffer. And along with compassion for them comes a sense of my own helplessness: "This could easily happen to me. Maybe it will. Maybe I'm next (G-d forbid)." And then that thought is often followed by a secondary defensive thought: "That couldn't happen to me because ... I'm a careful driver, I'm careful about what I eat, I have better genes, I make better choices, I wouldn't stand for that abuse, I have a better relationship." All these excuses can effectively distance ourselves from personalizing the pain.Thank You, G-d, for the battles that I'm not fighting
But perhaps, along with the sincere compassion for another person's pain comes the sense of gratitude for not having that particular struggle in my life: "Thank You, G-d, for the battles that I'm not fighting. You've chosen to remove them from my path for now and, hopefully, forever. Thank You, G-d, for the financial crisis I'm not experiencing, the health issues I can't relate to, the broken relationship I'm not in." Contrary to my inner voice, I'm not immune to those challenges, and I'm not responsible for avoiding them. I'm just thankful that G-d has spared me from them.
So the next time you pass by a car accident on the side of the road, you can say a chapter of Psalms for the well being of the people involved. And then roll down your window and sing, "G-d, thank You for an uneventful ride home."
As recounted in this week's Torah portion, Korach led a rebellion against Moses and Aaron. Two hundred and fifty of Korach's followers brazenly performed the rite of incense offering -- a rite reserved only for the high priest. They were punished, but the brass pans they used in their misguided offering were salvaged. G-d instructed that they be utilized as a covering for the altar. Why would a sinner's pan be incorporated into the altar of atonement?
The simple reason given is that this would serve as a reminder to the nation never to engage in rebellion again. Yet there must be a deeper dimension, a positive aspect, to this remarkable twist in the tale.
It was perhaps the single greatest collective failure of leadership in the Torah. Ten of the spies whom Moses had sent to spy out the land came back with a report calculated to demoralize the nation:
"We came to the land to which you sent us. It flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. However, the people who dwell in the land are strong, and the cities are fortified and very large ... We are not able to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we are ... The land, through which we have gone to spy it out, is a land that devours its inhabitants, and all the people that we saw in it are of great height ... We seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them."