There’s a bizarre passage between Aaron’s death and the Israelites’ journey towards Edom. Numbers Chapter 21 verses 1-3 read “When the Canaanite, king of Arad, who dwelt in the Negev, heard that Israel was coming by way of the Atarim, he engaged Israel in battle and took some Israelites as captive. Israel made a vow to God, saying ‘If you deliver this people into our hand, we will proscribe their towns.’ God agrees to do so, delivering the Canaanites, and they and their cities were proscribed. That place was named Hormah.”
What does Hormah mean? It comes from the root herem, which many have heard as “excommunication.” The biblical meaning of herem, however, is a complete conquest, with no survivors, and with all the property consecrated to God. Our ancestors were instructed to kill all of the Canaanites, as they were one of the seven nations whose land Israel was to inherit. According to Numbers 21, they did just that.
This text has a very different outcome than that from two weeks ago, immediately following the incident of the spies, when we read in Numbers Chapter 14 Verse 45: “The Amalekites and the Canaanites who dwelt in the hill country came down and dealt them (the Israelites) a shattering blow at Hormah.” Why the discrepancy between the two texts? Why in one is Israel triumphant whereas in the other they are defeated?
Both texts begin with the Canaanites attacking Israel: the ending, however, is different. Rashi, the biblical commentator par excellence, who lived in the 11th century and who also worked as a vintner, references Tractate Rosh Hashnah in the Babylonian Talmud, which states that the Canaanite King heard that Aaron had died and that therefore the cloud of God’s presence was no longer on the Jewish people. Without their spiritual leader, our ancestors lost sight of God and were vulnerable to attack. Rashbam, Rashi’s grandson who lived in 12th century France, points out that Israel came “by way of the Atarim” and if one removes the letter “aleph” you get “tarim,” one of the names for the spies. In other words, the spies who said “the enemies are too big and numerous for us” receive their worst nightmare-those very enemies come after them, taking captives. Hayim ben Moshe ibn Attar, an 18th century Moroccan commentator who made Aliyah, points out what a major test this was for our ancestors, for if Israelites were being taken captive outside of the land of Israel, who knows what would happen when they reached the promised land?
Unlike the incident with the spies, however, the Israelites turned to God this time. They vowed to destroy all that was the Canaanites, as they had been commanded, if God delivered the Canaanites into their hands. God heard their voice and fulfilled his end of the bargain, delivering the Canaanites into the Israelites’ hands. The Israelites likewise fulfilled their vow, destroying the Canaanites.
What lessons can this section of the portion teach us? One is that our outlook often leads to the result that we achieve. The spies caused the Israelites not to believe they could succeed against the people of the land of Canaan-and so they got routed by the Canaanites. In contrast, two portions later the Israelites have learned their lesson: to have trust and faith in God. As a result, this time they succeed in defeating the Canaanites.
This lesson hit too close to home with the recent shooting of nine individuals at the Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. This atrocity would lead most people to want the perpetrator, Dylan Roof, to be given a swift execution. Interestingly, however, the families and friends of the victims had a different message: they wanted Dylan to repent and put his faith in God! One even told Dylan that he’s welcome back to the Bible study at any time! These responses are difficult for us to understand. After all, we are the people who never forget the atrocities that have befallen our people-and rightly so. Perhaps the worshippers of Emmanuel AME have a lesson to teach us: we cannot control what comes our way but our challenge is to continue to have faith in God when atrocities occur. That does not mean that we do not seek justice but rather that we do not let the tragedies that come our way shatter our faith. My prayer for us on this Shabbat is that we remain steadfast and confident in our beliefs as to who we are and what our mission is in this world and that we do not allow anything to shake that core. In that way we will be victorious like our ancestors were. As it states in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers): “Who is strong? One who controls his/her inclinations.” May we use all our thoughts and actions for good, and may they strengthen our faith in God, in ourselves and in one another-for each of us is made in the image of God. Shabbat Shalom.