Parashat Chukat, found in the book of Numbers, contains a series of challenging events and lessons that hold deep significance for a religious Jewish audience. Within this parashah, we encounter the Israelites being forced to head in the wrong direction due to their inability to pass through Edom, their complaints about the manna, and the subsequent outbreak of snakes.
The parasha for Chukat delves into the laws of the red heifer, the deaths of Aaron and also Miriam reflected in the events around Miriam’s Well and Moshe striking the rock in anger causing him to lose his right to enter the Land of Israel, and the journey toward the Promised Land that is far from the direct, obvious path. It highlights the intricate relationship between obedience to God’s commandments together with the covenants He establishes in return. Through these experiences, we glean a profound message about the importance of embracing God’s miracles with gratitude and trust.
As the Israelites journeyed towards the Promised Land, they encountered various obstacles, including their inability to pass through Edom. This detour forced them to travel in an unfavorable direction, leading to frustration and feelings of being off course. This situation serves as a reminder that sometimes, despite our best intentions and plans, we may face unexpected detours or challenges on our spiritual journey.
One of the most famous, pivotal events in Parashat Chukat is the Israelites’ discontentment and complaint about the manna, the miraculous grain that sustained them throughout their wilderness journey. Despite God’s provision of this heavenly sustenance, they expressed dissatisfaction and a longing for other types of food. Their lack of gratitude and appreciation for this divine miracle led to further consequences. Understandably, this complain first begins as they have to make a detour around the length of the Kingdom of Edom in order to reach the Promised Land; firstly because for the generation who grew up in the wilderness, this would have been its first sight of other food by and large. They knew that they would eventually start to eat regular food in Eretz Yisrael, but having had a sense of what their lives might look like soon, their excitement was dashed by travelling in the opposite direction. It might be hard to see why a nation whose material life was entirely cared for directly by God would be ungrateful for food of all things, but by this point they were yearning for a sense of independence and responsibility.
In response to their lack of appreciation and gratitude, God allowed the Israelites to be plagued by venomous snakes. This painful and life-threatening experience served as a wake-up call, prompting them to recognize their error and seek divine intervention. It is not that God sent the snakes as a punishment, but the snakes that were found abundantly in the desert were no longer prevented by God’s power from attacking the Israelites. This is to say, God made it clear that if they wished to reject His miracles, they should be reminded how many more miracles could be taken away.
Parashat Chukat emphasizes the importance of cultivating gratitude for the miracles and blessings that God bestows upon us. When the Israelites rejected the manna, God withheld not only that specific miracle but also other miraculous protections, including safeguarding them from the naturally abundant snakes in the wilderness. This event underscores the importance of embracing and valuing the miracles bestowed upon us, for when we disregard or dismiss them, we risk losing the ongoing flow of divine blessings and protection. It is not to say that people should be encouraged to never stand up for themselves, but rather than even the ability to be independant, so to speak, only comes from God’s granting us our power. As it says later, in Devarim 8:
“…who led you through the great and terrible wilderness with its fiery serpents and scorpions, … who fed you in the wilderness with manna…And you say to yourselves, “my own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me”. Remember that it is your God who gives you the power to get wealth, in fulfillment of the covenant made on oath with your fathers, as is still the case”.
Cherish the miracles you have, and do not overlook them, or you will have snakes instead of manna.