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The Torah's Weekly Portions
Numbers / Chukat
Jujy 2008, Contributed by Asher ben Shimon
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In this week's Torah portion, Chukat, we read about the passing of Moshe's siblings, Miriam and Aharon. Not only was their passing, naturally, a cause of grief, but also, it directly affected the lives of the entire Jewish people.

After telling us of the passing of Miriam, the Torah lets us know that there wasn't any water. From that we learn that the Traveling Well that had accompanied and supplied the people with water for forty years had only existed in the merit of Miriam.

After the passing of Aharon, the Torah says: "And the Canaanites heard...[that Aharon had passed away and that the Clouds of Glory had disappeared – Rashi] ...And they attacked the Jewish people". [The Canaanites thought Hashem had now given permission –Rashi]. From here we know that the Clouds of Glory that had surrounded and protected the people for forty years had been there in the merit of Aharon.

After the well had ceased to exist the people came to Moshe to ask for water. Then Hashem instructed how to make the water flow once more, as we read in the Parsha. From then until after Moshe passed away, the well continued to supply the Jewish people with water. Although it would seem plausible to say that the clouds also returned after Aharon's passing, again in the merit of Moshe, it is interesting to note that the Torah doesn't mention anything about the clouds returning at all. It is even more interesting when we realize that there is no mention of an uproar caused by the disappearance of the clouds. No revolution against Moshe or even a small complaint is ever mentioned in the Torah!

What were those clouds?
During their stay in the desert, seven clouds surrounded the Jewish nation. There were four on each side of them, one above and one below, and there was one more cloud going ahead at all times. The clouds had several purposes. They would protect the people from the burning sun, they would clean and press the Jewish people's clothes (they only owned one pair of clothing which would miraculously grow with them as they were growing). The clouds would show the Jewish people the way (whenever the cloud moved, they followed wherever it went). The clouds would kill all scorpions, snakes, etc. hidden in the desert sand. It would flatten out the desert (from dunes or irregularities of slope), filling in all holes and removing all mountains. Only three mountains were not levelled - the Sinai, on which the Torah was given, and the mountains on which Moshe and Aharon passed away.

One might suggest that the clouds never returned after the passing of Aharon based on what we just said. Aharon passed away on Rosh Chodesh Av, which is towards the end of the summer. Although we find that the Torah considers the months of Av, Elul, and half of Tishrei to be the warmest days, it must be taken into consideration that the heat is actually because the sun has warmed the earth for many months prior. However, the true heat of the sun begins to lessen in the month of Av. Since the ground where the Jewish people had been walking wasn't "pre-heated" months earlier because the clouds had been under their feet, they did not have a need for clouds to protect them from the sun in those later months.

In addition, at the time of Aharon's passing, the Jewish people were stationed near well-populated areas. Therefore, there wasn't too much of a need for the clouds to clean their clothes, as new clothing could easily be purchased in the surrounding villages. It also wasn't necessary for the clouds to kill any snakes or scorpions, as they weren't usually found in populated areas. At this point it also wasn't necessary for a cloud to show the way as the Jewish land was now in full view, and it was unlikely that they would lose their way.

It didn't seem likely that the clouds were further needed to flatten the desert as that one cloud that travelled in front of them was normally a distance of three days ahead. It is therefore possible that the cloud had previously flattened whatever pathways they would still need to use.

However, there are a few problems with this theory. First of all, when it states that the cloud showed the way, it doesn't just mean that the cloud ensured that the Jewish people wouldn't get lost in the desert. Rather, it was an indication of the places where Hashem wanted his chosen nation to be at that time. The Torah gives us a list of 42 stops on the journey between Egypt and Israel. Some of those stops took place after Aharon's passing. Obviously the clouds were still there to show them where to go. (After Moshe's passing, under Yehoshua's rule, the Holy Ark used to show the way.) In fact, the Jewish people ran seven stops back into the desert after Aharon had passed away. The clouds were certainly needed at that time to get them back. Not only did the clouds indicate WHERE to go, they also indicated WHEN to go. That also had to continue after Aharon's passing.

There was one more purpose of the clouds that we haven't yet mentioned, namely, they served as a shield against enemy arrows. This protection was definitely needed after Aharon's passing. We mentioned previously that the first attack on the Jewish people took place as soon as the clouds had been taken away. Since no one was hurt at the time, we must say that the protecting clouds were still there.

When we take a closer look at how our Sages talk about the clouds, we note that at times they are simply called `clouds', and at times they are called `Ananei Ha'kavod', `Clouds of Glory'. There were two sorts of clouds.

A) Clouds that provided protection from the burning sun and enemy attacks. These clouds also flattened the desert and killed any snakes. Although the mere fact that these clouds existed, showed that Hashem had great affection for the people they were protecting, they also had practical and much needed purposes.

B) Clouds of Glory. These clouds were only there to show the world that Hashem held the Jewish people in very high esteem. The clouds that washed and pressed the Jewish people's clothes, for instance, were not really needed. They could have washed their own clothes, as the rest of the world does. There was also no real need for the miracle of the Jewish people's clothing growing with them. They had brought enough clothing with them from Egypt and had enough money to buy more from the other nations when they were near any villages. They even had sheep with them so that there was no lack of wool to make new clothes. The fact that Hashem performed this miracle for them was ONLY to show the Jewish people's greatness to the world.

When Aharon passed away, Rashi tells us that the 'Clouds of Glory' were taken away. Those clouds probably never returned. Therefore we do not find any clear and explicit mention in the Torah that the clouds returned, (after Aharon's passing) though we do find mention of the return of the well after Miriam's passing.

It is also now understood why there weren't any complaints from the Jewish people, as they weren't lacking anything they needed. The protection etc. was still there. Only their honorary "guards" had been taken away - obviously not something they could have demanded back, as one cannot demand honor.

There is a famous question regarding the way we build a Succah. The Succah is built to commemorate the clouds that we had in the desert. According to Halacha, (Jewish Law), it is enough to have 2 and a half walls in order to make a proper Succah. If there were seven clouds in the desert, why don't we have to build four walls, and a roof, a floor and a one wall in front of our Succah, to remember the cloud preceding us?

According to what we previously explained, the Succah comes to commemorate only the Clouds of Glory, not the clouds of protection. The number of protecting clouds changed from time to time. At times of an attack from the left, for instance, the cloud on the left side would be considered a protecting cloud. After the skirmish, it would again be considered an honorary cloud. Therefore, we cannot connect the amount of walls of the Succah with a specific number of clouds. (The reason why we need 2 ½ walls is to give it the name, "Succah". Less would not make it recognizable as a hut.)

We quoted Rashi in the beginning, saying that when the Canaanites heard that the Clouds of Glory were removed, they thought that Hashem had given PERMISSION to attack the Jewish people. Rashi does not say that they thought they now had the POSSIBILITY to win the Jewish people. They knew very well that the protecting clouds were still in their place, but because the Clouds of Glory had been removed, they figured Hashem wasn't on the Jewish nation's side any longer. The protecting cloud only protected those who stayed "inside" and would not guarantee that active battle would be won.

At an earlier battle, Hashem instructs Moshe to: "Leave the cloud and go to war." In the skirmish with the Canaanites, the Jewish people's army left the cloud and returned fire. Since Canaan (who were actually the already infamous Amalek dressed up as Canaan) had made the wrong conclusion and Hashem was still on the side of his chosen nation, the Canaanites lost the war, their land was conquered, and their army taken captive.

There is still one detail that we have yet to understand. If the well returned because of Moshe's merit, why didn't the Clouds of Glory return in his merit as well? The truth is that the well didn't actually return in the MERIT of Moshe. Miriam and Aharon were very holy and special people. Their merit was so great that the entire Jewish nation had a Travelling Well with them and Clouds of Glory surrounding them for forty years until Miriam and Aharon's passing. When they passed on, their merit was no longer there and automatically the well and clouds were removed.

Moshe was a leader. A leader provides his people with their needs. The Clouds of Glory therefore did not return because they were no longer a necessity. The protecting clouds returned because they were needed to ensure the safety of the Jewish nation. The well was a NEED, therefore Moshe made sure it returned. After his passing, there wasn't any need for a well since the Jews' were already near the Jordan River. The same is true for the manna, the heavenly food. Although it stopped coming down after Moshe passed away, there was still enough to last until the first harvest in Israel. In the desert the manna would get spoiled after a day, but now it remained fresh for many months. When Moshe "left" his people, he ensured that all their needs continued to be met. That is the difference between a special person and a leader.

May we soon merit to be led by our final Moshe, our final leader, Moshiach Tzidkeinu to Yerushalayim Ir Hakodesh!


Translations in Torah Portions of the week are partially taken from the ArtScroll Stone Edition Chumash and from Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch Chumash

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