Parashat Hukkat 5781

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A D’var Torah for Parashat Hukkat
By Rabbi Cantor Sam Levine (’19)

Of all the noteworthy events and passages in parashat Hukkat – the impenetrable red heifer; the death of Miriam; the incident at the waters of Merivah and God’s pronouncement that Moshe and Aharon will not enter the land; the death of Aharon and the succession of his son Elazar; the plague of venomous snakes and the miraculous healing copper serpent; and the prelude to the conquest of Canaan – there is one event that is startling in its omission. Parashat Hukkat sees the passage of 38 years in the desert, never noted, only inferred. Moshe, at the beginning of the parasha, is 82 years old. At its conclusion, he is 120, in his last year of life.

As the previous several parshiyot reveal, it has not been an easy time. Indeed, from the beginning, Moshe’s leadership has seen one trial after another. His people, whom he reluctantly agreed to lead, have been stiff-necked, to say the least, and have left their mark on him.

At the very end of our parasha, we find a curious passage that may help to put a frame around Moshe’s experience. By the end of chapter 21, the Israelites have sought and been denied passage through Edom. They have battled the Canaanite King Arad, been attacked by Sihon, King of the Amorites, and now, in the final verses of Hukkat, Og, King of Bashan is gathering an army against them. In this moment, God says to Moshe, al tira oto, ki veyadkha natati oto… “Do not fear him, for I give him into your hand…” (21:34).

Why should Moshe be afraid? He does not express any fear himself, and God offers no similar encouragements with regard to any of the other kings or conquests. Yet God seems to intuit an unspoken fear (as we read in Proverbs 12:10, Yode’a tzaddik nefesh beheimto / “A righteous man knows the soul of his beast”). Moshe’s soul is troubled, and the One who knows him best recognizes his unease.

The commentators offer explanations for this angst. Rashi (based on Midrash Tanhuma, Hukkat, 25) suggests that Og is the same person as the palit, the fugitive who informs Avraham that Lot has been kidnapped in Genesis 14:13. In acknowledgment of his meritorious action, God rewards him with long life. All these years later, Moshe is afraid, Rashi explains, because he fears that the merit of Avraham “will stand up for” Og in battle, and Moshe will be put in a difficult situation, both morally and militarily (Rashi 21:34). Ramban offers a different explanation (based on the same passage from Tanhuma): Moshe is concerned that perhaps the people had “committed a trespass” and “become defiled by sin” in their war against Sihon (Ramban on 21:34), and hence God will not protect them.

Rashi and Ramban notwithstanding, the fact is that Og cuts a fearsome figure in Tanakh. There are several references to his association with the Repha’im, a tribe of giants, and In Devarim 3:11 there is a description of his bed, made of iron, being “nine cubits long and four cubits wide according to standard measure” – in other words, a pretty giant bed! Rabbinic literature takes the “giant” theme to extremes. In a variety of sources (Berakhot 54b, for example), Og is described as being able to uproot a mountain in order to throw it on the Israelites, with the aim of destroying them in one fell swoop: “I will go and uproot a mountain three parasangs long and I will hurl it upon them and kill them. He went, uprooted a mountain three parasangs long, and brought it on his head.”

But perhaps God’s statement to Moshe, Do not fear, comes from God recognizing an altogether different kind of anxiety in his most trusted servant. Moshe has just been informed that he will not lead the Children of Israel into the promised land. His sister and his brother, the only two people with whom he could share the burden of leadership, have recently died. He has seen, at the waters of Merivah, a new generation plagued by the same doubts and rebelliousness as their parents and the potential unraveling of God’s entire project, of which he has been the primary agent and advocate. On multiple occasions, he has saved this people from God’s wrath, only to be rewarded with more rebellion and derision. “I have not taken the ass of any one of them, nor have I wronged any one of them,” he complains to God in last week’s parasha (16:15), and yet they continue to treat him abominably, even as he continues to nurture them. At the age of 120, Moshe’s fears and frustrations are burgeoning; they have taken on giant proportions. Battered, dejected, frustrated, aged, seeing his life’s work as a failure, perhaps, Og, King of Bashan becomes the ferocious giant inside of Moshe – the one that won’t leave him alone, won’t give his mind a moment’s rest. Moshe is the parent of troubled children, carrying a constant burden, flung between love and angst, profound affection and exasperation. What he needs right now, as he enters his final days, is some peace of mind.

And so, in a profound act of love, God delivers Og, the terrible giant, into Moshe’s hand. God gives him the gift of being able to tame the gargantuan doubts, fears, and disappointments that he carries with him. The only entity who can truly understand Moshe gives him the gift of being seen and furnishes him with the tools for self-healing that he needs in that exact moment. Maybe this is what the sages were getting at in the Berakhot text; picking up on the language in God’s promise to “give him… into your (singular) hand,” the tale concludes with Moshe single-handedly killing Og: How tall was Moshe? He was ten cubits tall. He took an axe ten cubits long, jumped up ten cubits, and struck Og in the ankle and killed him. While he never fully overcomes the trauma of leadership (Devarim has Moshe expressing his frustrations in several places), the overpowering internal turmoil – the dominating giant – has been vanquished by his own hand.

Much of the attention in parashat Hukkat is on what was taken away from Moshe. As the parasha ends and we enter into the final chronological chapter of the sojourn in the desert, we might do well to look at what was given to him.

Shabbat shalom.
Sam Levine is the rabbi and cantor of East Midwood Jewish Center in Brooklyn. He received rabbinical ordination from AJR in 2019 and cantorial investiture from JTS in 2004.