Chukat – Acknowledging a Gift
“It is therefore said in the book of the wars of God: The gift at the Reed Sea and the rivers of Arnon. And the rapids which turn at the settlement of Ar, close to the border of Moab.”(Numbers 21:13-14)
These verses are especially challenging to translate, and I’ve taken assistance from both the Artscroll rendition as well as Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s The Living Torah. These verses are followed by a note about the well whose water quenched the thirst of Israel. A short song of praise about the well follows. The Midrash relates that this was actually a song of thanksgiving for a miraculous intervention by the Almighty, unbeknownst to the Israelites while it was happening.
The Midrash explains that there was a narrow passage between two mountains which the people were to walk through on their journey. The local tribes prepared an ambush, hiding in the rocks and caves above the narrow pass. Their plan was to roll large boulders and hurl projectiles down at the Israelites while they were defenceless and had no escape. God caused the earth to move, bringing the upper two cliffs together, thereby crushing the forces hiding in the crevices and cavities of the cliffs.
The Midrash continues with the tale. After it was done God said, “Who will inform my children of the miracle?” After the Israelites passed, the cliffs returned to their previous position and the well of water accompanying the nation spit out the blood and remains of the ambushers. The realization of what happened then prompted the people to sing God’s praises.
The Midrashic explanation raises an obvious question. Why did God need to “inform” His children of the miracle? Do Jewish parents need to remind their children how much they sacrificed to raise them? (read with appropriate sarcastic humor) On a more serious note, we know that a charitable gift has more virtue when is done anonymously. The fewer people who know about the gift, the better. Ideally the giver should not know to whom the money is distributed, and the recipient should not be aware of the giver’s identity. Thus there is no feeling of indebtedness that the recipient has to live with, and similarly there is no feeling of pity or derision from the giver toward the recipient. If God did a charitable act for His children, wouldn’t it have been more “charitable” if they were not informed?
Anonymity is certainly a great value in charity, generally speaking. Rashi, however, when citing this Midrash, provides an answer to our question, directing us to a statement in the Talmud. “Rava bar Mechasiya states in the name of R’ Chama bar Giyura who taught in the name of Rav: “One who gives a gift to a friend must inform him, as the verse states, ‘to know that I am the Lord Who sanctifies you.'” The Talmud continues on the topic, and R’ Shimon ben Gamliel states that we learn from here that one who feeds the child of another must leave crumbs or some other indication of the snack, so that the child’s mother will ask the child and the gift will be revealed.
The main difference between a case of charity and a gift is that the charity is given to the poor, who may feel ashamed by his neediness, whereas a gift does not imply neediness. To the contrary (as my good wife explained to me), the beauty of a gift is that it is entirely unnecessary. The function of the gift, therefore, is to promote a love and kindness between people, and if there is no awareness of the gift it will fail to achieve that. A gift to a child, who may not be in a position to feel gratitude or appreciate the benevolence, must be communicated to the parent, so that the value of fostering love and friendship is retained.
When God gave a gift to His children, in the form of eliminating the ambush, it was important that the people become aware of it. This is not because God needs the thanks and praise. But it was critical that Israel recognize God’s benevolence to them so that their love toward God should increase. Rabbi Mordechai Rhine points out that the blessings we recite each morning share a similar rationale. We express praise and gratitude to God for our physical faculties as well as for the daily functions that enable civilization to continue. God does not need our praise. God ego needs no stoking. We, however, need to recognize and acknowledge God’s continuing gifts to us so that we can feel His love for us, and in return we will love Him back.
One of the four Mitzvot of Purim is Mishloach Manot, delivering gifts of food to others. The poor also benefit on Purim, but this particular Mitzvah applies to everyone, regardless of their financial state. One of the reasons Esther succeeded in her quest to save her people was the people’s unity. They all fasted and prayed for her success as well as their own salvation. We celebrate the occasion and commemorate that unity by enhancing our unity through these gifts to one another. The relationships repaired through this practice, the friendships started or rekindled because of the gifts, are one of the drivers of the Mitzvah, an important element of the Purim experience.