There’s a famous saying in yeshivot, that you don’t die from a kasha (an unresolved difficulty). I would even say that the opposite is often true – the tension created can actually be very life-giving. For facing such a difficulty, we feel the crisp air of unchartered territory, and intuit the opportunity to make a true contribution.
I have had such an issue for years, in the list of the Israelites’ stops on the journey to Israel in this week’s pasha. To be specific, only one (actually one and two halves) event is mentioned between the final leaving of Egypt 33:10) and the arrival of the Jews to their last destination before coming to Israel (33:49). Had that been THE event, meaning the giving of the Torah, there would be no difficulty. Had it even been the sin of the spies or the golden calf, I would have considered it curious, but moved on. But instead, the only event fully mentioned is… the death of Aharon. I have tried to explain this before, but never felt completely comfortable with any of my explanations.
However this time I think I have it! And the key is literally between the lines. What I mean is that the mention of Aaron’s death results in the only paragraph break (parsha stumah) in the entire story. In connection with a few other things soon to be mentioned, I realized that the verse and the paragraph break are doing the exact same thing, if we only pay attention: The Torah knows that we are likely to understand the journey in the desert as essentially one long trip. And so it tries to make us stop and realize that there were actually two journeys and not just one. The first one ended with the death of Aharon, and the second one began with the Jews meeting resistance from the Canaanite king of Arad immediately after Aharon’s death. (The latter is only alluded to here, one of the half events mentioned earlier.)
Once we trace the surrounding events and movements a bit closer, we will see that the first journey was to go into Israel through the “front door.” This is what the Jews originally planned to do before sending the scouts. And this seems to be what they were gearing up to do again, now that they were in the fortieth year. But once Aharon dies and they confront the king of Arad, they decide upon a different journey in which they will enter Israel through the “side door.”
One way to understand further what is happening is the location of the battle between the Israelites and the king of Arad, in Chormah. That is exactly the same place some Jews had tried to fight their way into Canaan immediately after the episode with the scouts. At the time they suffered a noble defeat. Thirty-eight years later they come back to the exact same gateway to Canaan only to win a dismal victory. The noble defeat came because they believed God would miraculously fight for them when He no longer would. The dismal victory came as a result of acknowledging – mid-battle – that they had pushed God away, and that they now had to work around that. This meant that the Israelites would need to come into the land at its weakest point of entry. It also meant that they would need to get used to adversity. Finally, it meant that the leadership so connected with the miracles of Egypt would have to be slowly phased out.
Once we know this, we can appreciate the strange turn that the journey takes at this point. Aharon dies on the Jordanian side of the Aravah valley (Hor HaHar is an adjacent mountaintop). This region straddles southern Israel and Jordan today. This means that, were it not for the border, one would follow the same routes to go in any particular direction from Israel, or from Jordan. The road to the ancestral home in Hevron, for example, would basically be to go north. And that seems to be the road the Israelites begin to follow in the fortieth year. But then something strange happens, right after Aharon dies and they fight the king of Arad. For no explained reason the Jews change directions and turn east, once they have gone far enough north to bypass Edom. Unexplained though it may be, once we realize this was a new journey through the “side door,” we understand why they must travel east.
Our approach also explains the timing of Aharon’s death: If Aharon received the same punishment as Moshe of not being allowed to enter the land, why did he have to die before the end of the journey? It would seem, however, that Aharon’s death is what precipitated the acknowledgement of Israel’s newly understood weakness, both externally and internally. The rabbis’ understanding is that the king of Arad was only willing to attack once he heard that Aharon died and that the Jews enjoyed a lower level of Divine oversight. When he did so and was able to take captives, the Jews also fully realized that it was a completely new field upon which they were playing.
Solving difficult textual questions often just requires that we look at the Torah with fresh eyes. In this case, we are so used to thinking of the forty years in the desert as one journey that we too easily miss what should be fairly obvious, once we read between the lines!