Chukat | When Peace isn’t Possible
Updated: Apr 23
One thing that people talk about all the time is this concept of peace. Everyone wants to pursue peace and we know that it’s a very important value of Judaism – the pursuit of peace. However; life is often very complex and sometimes the pursuit of peace is not something which is easy. In fact, in the parsha that we are going to be reading this Shabbos we discover something very interesting.
Always aim for peace
Moses, Moshe Rabeinu, is leading the people and as they come closer to the Promised Land, to Eretz Israel, the land of Israel, they come closer to a king named Sichon so they send forward messengers for peace. Moshe sends this peace delegation in order to try to create peace because we always try to make peace first. However, sometimes peace is not possible and although Moshe tried to make peace with Sichon – who was a mighty king in that area – in the end he was actually unsuccessful in that attempt. But you have always got to try even if in the end it is unsuccessful. You have always got to try.
In this week’s portion we read about one of the great icons of peace, Moshe’s brother Aaron. Aaron Ha’Kohen as we know him, Aaron the High Priest was the epitome, the personification of the concept of peace. It says in the Mishnah of Pirkei Avot – the Ethics of our Fathers – that the students of Aaron should love peace, pursue peace, love people and bring them close to Torah. So Aaron was the first person who personified all of these values. And the Talmud relates how he went about it; he would try all kinds of ingenious and creative methods to create peace between people. If there was a dispute, he would go to the one party and tell them you know the other party want to make peace and he would go to the other one and tell them the same thing. And he would go up and down trying to make peace. He would sometimes even be a bit creative with the truth and reality of the situation in order to pursue peace and bring the two parties close together.
The Talmud says that truth is a very important value. And, according to the Talmud the Holy One blessed be He, His Signet, His Sign is that of truth. Nevertheless in the pursuit of peace, one can be creative with the truth so to speak. And the classic example of this is when G-d Himself was reporting over the words of Sarah. When G-d came to Sarah and told her that she was going to have a child she said, but how is that possible? I am so old and my husband Abraham is so old. But when G-d reported it over to Abraham, he omitted to say that Sarah had said that he, Abraham was old. He just said, Sarah your wife said she is too old. The omission of something is also a distortion of the truth. But we learn from the Talmud the principle that in order to bring peace between people one can be creative, so to speak, with the truth, similarly to how G-d omitted and in a sense distorted the truth so that there would be no friction and discomfort between Abraham and Sarah. And even through Avraham was almost 100 years old and Sarah was almost 90 and they had easily been married for more than 50, 60 years, probably 70 years. It was a long time they had been married and you can imagine they had a good solid marriage by that stage. But even for that little bit of discomfort, G-d Himself was prepared to distort the truth so that there would be no disruption of the peace between them.
So the value of peace is very important and this is what Aaron stood for. When we read about his death in this week’s portion, we read how he had such a tremendous impact on people. Because it says when Aaron died everybody mourned for him. When Moses died, and we read about his death at the end of the Book of Devarim, the Book of Deuteronomy, it says that the House of Israel mourned for him – not the entire House of Israel. Because Moses was a man of truth, he clashed with people because he was a leader, he stood for and taught truth at all times in a very firm fashion and for that reason he did clash with people. And so when he passed away it was not the same level of mourning. When it came to his brother Aaron, everybody loved Aaron Ha’Kohen. He was the man of peace and his death had a devastating impact on the people – the entire House of Israel mourned for him as we read in this week’s portion.
Peace versus Truth
But this clash between truth and peace is actually an interesting one because firstly it highlights the fact that in life nothing is simple. That’s why we always need instructions from G-d, that’s what Judaism is all about – the complexities of life; the fact that there aren’t easy answers necessarily. It requires a careful and detailed analysis of the situation, and careful and detailed analysis of what G-d wants from us based on what we have received in our traditions throughout the generations. And, therefore, it’s often a complex exercise because there are difficult situations that arise. And in this clash between truth and peace there are some very interesting dynamics that take place, and there is one situation that I wanted to discuss with you because it’s an interesting example of it.
In last week’s portion we read of this clash between Moses, on the one hand, and Korach on the other. Korach was a charismatic, highly talented person who led a rebellion against Moses and if you are looking for the example or the personification of the opposite of peace, of shalom, it is Korach. In other words, whatever Aaron is to the concept of peace; Korach is to the concept of what we call in the language of our Sages machlochet – dispute, dissension, tension between people. So Aaron is the personification of peace; Korach is the personification of conflict. And so in last week’s portion we read about Korach who rises up with this tremendous conflict and a rebellion against Moses. This was an enormous test for Moses because he has Korach who rises up to challenge his authority. How will he respond? And generally we find that Moses responds to any kind of crises within the people by begging G-d to forgive the people who have done wrong. And in this instance he doesn’t. Here is where it becomes very interesting.
Why is it that when Moses was confronted with the conflict and rebellion of Korach, he says to G-d and pleads to G-d that this conflict has to be resolved in a way where the truth comes out. Korach is making all these accusations. He calls upon G-d to clear his reputation. What kind of accusations was Korach making? Korach was saying to Moses, you made yourself the leader, you made your brother the High Priest, you didn’t lead us into the Promised Land, the land flowing with milk and honey, you have let us down as a leader and, therefore, I challenge your authority. That’s what Korach was saying. In fact, Moses had done everything in his life based on the direct instructions from G-d. He was a leader because G-d appointed him, in fact he didn’t even want the job as is clear from the text. When he appointed Aaron the High Priest that was on the instructions of G-d. And then when the people didn’t go into the Land of Israel that was on the instructions of G-d because they had followed the negative reports of the spies. And so each and every step of the way, Moses had followed directly the instructions of G-d. He didn’t deviate one iota from it. And he realised that Korach was challenging whether he was a truthful emissary from G-d; whether indeed he was a truthful shaliach, a truthful agent carrying out exactly what G-d was instructing him to do. And it is for that reason that he could not try to make peace with Korach.
Why? Because the Malbim – one of our great commentators from the end of the 19th century, early 20th century – says this was a different kind of a challenge because Korach’s challenge was actually challenging the very foundations of our faith. Because the foundations of our faith are the fact that G-d gave us this whole body of knowledge that we call the Torah – Judaism. That was a revelation by G-d on Mount Sinai. And all of that information was given over to Moses our teacher and transmitted to the people. If that transmission was called into question and Moses was accused of inventing for example, the appointment of Aaron and the decision not to enter the Land of Israel – if those accusations were in fact true it would mean that the entirety of the Torah as handed to the people via Moses would actually be brought into question. And, therefore, it was important for there to be an unequivocal declaration of the fact that Korach and his rebellion were wrong to rise up against Moses. And there could be no compromise on it.
That explains something else. It explains the tremendous risk that Moses took. Because what happened? Korach comes along and he says to Moses you did not follow the Word of G-d, you invented this yourself, there is nepotism, there is corruption. He made the most terrible allegations against Moses. Moses says to Korach, in response, I challenge. Come tomorrow morning, bring the pans for incense offered, let us all bring our offerings before G-d and the one whose offering G-d accepts, he is right; and the one whose offering G-d rejects he is wrong. And he says, I challenge you. That is, in fact what happened. The next day Korach came with his congregation and in the end the earth opened up and swallowed him. Why did Moses make that challenge? Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky, in fact, says Moses didn’t even check with G-d. He didn’t check with G-d, you know, can I issue the challenge. Are you going to back me up on this? Says Reb Yaakov, the reason that Moses didn’t check with G-d is because he knew that this was a moment for bold leadership. He knew that if he didn’t lay down a clear challenge and that the challenge would be clarified by G-d that his entire mission was in jeopardy. Because if in the generation in which the Torah itself was given, there had been doubts cast about the authenticity of these claims and there had been doubts cast about the Divine Origins of the Torah and there had been doubts cast about the integrity of the mission of Moses; and those doubts had not been clarified then and there the entire enterprise of the giving of the Torah would be called into question.
And that was Moses’ entire mission. His entire mission was in order to transmit to the people the principles of the Torah. So he had to clarify that he was, indeed, the mandated agent of G-d and he was being loyal to the transmission of everything that was contained and he was being loyal to that transmission. He was being loyal to the content and to the exact word and letter of G-d’s Will as it was being conveyed to the people. And he had to clarify that, because if he didn’t clarify that there would be nothing else to talk about. Everything would unravel. Therefore, he realised then and there that what was required to defeat Korach was an unequivocal public demonstration of G-d’s authenticating him – Moses – as a loyal servant and as the loyal transmitter of all of the content of the Torah to the people. His reputation had to be cleared then and there in the presence of all and sundry so that it would be cleared once and for all that Korach was wrong in his accusations and Moses was right and, therefore, the entirety of the Torah came from G-d. And that’s why he took the chance. He didn’t check with G-d first. He had to take the chance and he had to declare and he had to challenge Korach then and there. And that’s why there wasn’t really room for shalom, for peace in this situation because there was too much at stake. The whole truth of the Torah was at stake. And so for once Moses had to turn and try to actually declare and stand firm on his principles of truth.
And that’s why we say life is complex. Sometimes there are times of peace, sometimes there are times for truth and one has to try and work out when is which time. And that’s why we see in our portion that we are going to be reading this Shabbos, Moses makes a peace overture to Sichon. And yet in last week’s portion he stands firm on truth when he confronts Korach because they are different situations. He tries to make peace in this week’s portion, but in last week’s portion he didn’t even try to make peace because there was too much at stake. Korach was challenging the very foundations of everything and, therefore, Moses had to rise to that challenge and confirm the integrity of his mission.
“I didn’t take even one donkey”
In addition, Moses says a magnificent phrase that’s applicable to the whole concept of leadership in general and should apply to the whole concept of government. In particular, it’s a very important phrase that every society should lead by. Moses says to Korach, “I didn’t take even one donkey from them”. What case is it referring to? According to Rashi quoting from the Sages of the Midrash it’s referring to when Moses was appointed. He was appointed in Midian, the country where he had fled because Pharaoh was trying to kill him. So he is there in Midian, and he gets appointed and he returns to Egypt in order to carry out the mission. Even then, he didn’t use a donkey paid for by the community. He actually took his own donkey. I mean he was entitled to transport costs, surely? But yet he was so devoted to the mission he went to his own expenditure in order to travel back to Egypt.
In fact the Netziv of Volozhin, one of our commentators from the 19th Century, says that it’s such an unusual move. He actually interprets that line in Rashi slightly differently. He says it’s referring to a later stage when Moses wanted to bring his wife and children to join him in Egypt. Because his wife and children started the journey and then he sent them back to Midian on the advice of his brother Aaron, because Aaron said look you are bringing your wife and children, we have got all this trouble here and it’s not really a time and a place for them. We have got to deal with Pharaoh and we could be adding to our difficulties. So he sent them back to Midian.
But we have a tradition in the Talmud that says his wife wanted to come and be part of the Exodus. You know this was a ringside seat – the Exodus from Egypt with all the ten plagues and the splitting of the sea. That’s not something you can get the video on afterwards. You are either there or you weren’t there and there was no CNN to cover it. So she wanted to go and participate in this momentous, historic event. So she sent a message to Moses – I want to come. And he sent a donkey for her to bring her and his children to Egypt so they could be there at the time of the Exodus. And the Netziv says he didn’t charge out the donkey to the community because that was for his own personal use. His wife wanted to come so he paid for the donkey himself so that it wouldn’t come out of the coffers of the community.
That was the level of his integrity. He didn’t want to take anything for personal gain from the community. He could hold his head up high and say everything that I have done, I’ve done for the sake of the community. This is not for my own personal enrichment or my own personal gain. Why was it so important to establish his integrity in terms of monetary matters then and there at that point when he is confronting Korach? We see how important it was because there is an account which is recorded in the Talmud that there was once a great Greek king who wanted to get a translation of the Torah, of the Five Books. So he convened all of the Great Talmudic Sages of that time and put them in 72 different rooms because he was concerned that they may come and edit the text for his benefit. And he wanted to get as close to 100% accurate translation.
The Talmud records that there was a great miracle that took place, because all of them changed certain things so that he wouldn’t get the wrong impression. One of the things, for example, where it says let us make man in our image – and we know that a foundation principle of Judaism is that there is only one G-d. So they changed that to let Me make man in My Image because when G-d said let us make man in our image he was talking to the angels. And the Talmud says it was actually just a courtesy to include them in a decision even though it wasn’t theirs. We learn that kind of sensitivity, what we call derech eretz, sensitivity to people. You try to include people. Don’t exclude them. Make them feel part of things that you are doing, even if you don’t really need them. And so G-d was teaching us that lesson, even though there is one G-d and it was His decision alone. But the Sages were concerned that the Greek king wouldn’t get that, so they specifically changed it. All 72 of them, separately, in separate rooms made the same change on that point and on a number of others.
I have heard actually recently in the name of Rav Yitzchok Hutner a humorous side. He says that the miracle would have been great if all 72 of the Sages had been in the same room and then had made the same changes. But be that humorous comment side, the reality is they changed all of those things. Two things, just two, so there wouldn’t be the wrong impression created.
One of the things they changed was this verse, it was the verse that says, “I didn’t take one donkey from you”. They were worried it could be read as, I didn’t take a donkey but I took a house and I took money and I took this and I took that. Therefore, they changed it to the Hebrew word chemord to chemed which means any object of desire. I took no physical object from them so there would be no possibility of misinterpreting what Moses had said. You have got to ask why all of the emphasis on this? Is that one of the things you understand, you need to change a verse so that it shouldn’t give the wrong impression about the unity of G-d, but the wrong impression about Moses’ dealings with money. Why was it important for them to change that?
The answer is clear. Leadership is about integrity, it’s about accountability. And that means everybody – even a person like Moses who was the greatest of all the Prophets. It says, “no-one rose like Moshe”. So I mean if you can’t trust Moses, who can you trust? So, of course, you can trust Moses. Everyone has to show not only that they are a person of integrity, but they must be able to demonstrate it and prove it to everybody. And that’s why it says that even after he received all the donations from the temple to build the Tabernacle, we have a portion that these are the accounts. And Moses then says I collected X amount of gold and this amount of silver and this is what I did with it. And this amount of the copper and the bronze and this is what I did with it. And he explains everything. And the Talmud, the Midrash says we learn from here that if you are collecting public money, you have to give a clear and open account of everything that you do and how the money is used. And it actually mentions a point in the Code of Jewish Law, the Shulchan Aruch.
The importance of integrity
So Moses comes before Korach and says I can hold up my head proud that I didn’t take anything that I wasn’t entitled to. I didn’t take anything for self-enrichment, not even one donkey, nothing. I didn’t touch a single object that didn’t belong to me. Why is that important? Because he says to Korach, the whole authenticity of the Torah stands on my integrity. Because Moses was the one who was coming to the people and saying, this is what G-d told me. And how do we know G-d said that to Moses? Because Moses tells us. We had better be able to trust Moses. And Korach was coming along to question the whole integrity of Moses. So Moses comes to Korach and he says you can trust me, you must trust me because my entire mission depends on my integrity, on the truth of my word. That’s why this was not a time for peace, this was a time for truth. Moses had to say to Korach, I am truthful, I have integrity, I haven’t touched anything that’s not mine and I will prove it to you tomorrow morning. You come with your incense pans tomorrow and G-d will declare in front of the entire Jewish public and all of world history, Moses is truth, Moses has integrity and you cannot question it.
And that was so important, because the whole authenticity and truth of Judaism rests on the shoulders of the integrity of Moses – and in a sense it rests on mine and your shoulders as well. The Talmud says, how do you get people to love G-d? How do people get attracted to G-d and to His Word? It says when they see from the followers of G-d, integrity, honesty and kindliness – in the Talmudic Tractate of Yoma (pg 86) – it says that when people see gentleness and kindness and honesty and integrity in those who follow G-d’s Word then they are drawn after G-d himself.
And that’s it. When we can show integrity and honesty and decency that brings everybody closer to G-d. And that’s why Moses knew that. And that’s why that wasn’t a time for peace. Sometimes there is a time for peace, sometimes there is a time for truth. And Moses knew that was a time to defend the truth. That was a time for strength. As the verse in Psalms says, “G-d blesses His nation with strength and G-d blesses His nation with peace”. First the strength and then the peace.
The Talmud, in fact, says what is strength? That is the Torah, that’s the truth – and from the truth flows the peace. Sometimes you have to sacrifice truth in order to achieve peace. But we have to constantly be aware of the strength that we get from maintaining truthfulness, integrity, honesty, that can lead to peace. We always have to go from that premise. It’s the same as any situation. Even when one is talking about global conflict without wanting to wade into the controversies of politics and Middle East politics – what one has to bear in mind is there has to be a role for truth. There has to be a concept of right and wrong. It can’t be that there is a moral equivalence between two parties and all of the truths and the rights and the wrongs of a situation are ignored. We always have to pursue peace. But we also have to pursue truth. And truth is also an important value of the world, and so is peace and we always have to work and try to bring the two together. And really that was the joint mission of the two brothers. Aaron, on the one hand, the personification of peace; Moses, on the other hand, the personification of truth. And G-d made both of them leaders coming to us with a message that says in life we have to strive for peace, we have to strive for truth, we have to work together. Sometimes there are going to be conflicts within these values. We have to strive to uphold both because both are so important and valuable to G-d and that’s why, in a sense, he gave us two brothers; two brothers to lead the people together with their sister Miriam. The two brothers representing the peace and the truth to say in our lives we have to strive for peace, we have to strive for truth.
And so as we head towards this Shabbos lets think about the message that Aaron gives to us, the message that his brother Moses gives to us – the message of truth, the message of peace.