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P A R A S H A - P A G E
by Mordecai Kornfeld
of Har Nof, Jerusalem
Founder of the Dafyomi Advancement Forum

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Parashat Chukat 5758


The name "Agadah" is often used to refer to the broad range of non- Halachic comments that can be found in the Talmud and Midrash. This wealth of literature includes moral insights, practical advice, exegetical comments, episodes from the lives of the Talmudists, glimpses into the character of Tanachic personalities, and much more.

Often, Agaddic statements have many levels of meaning, seeming to convey one message at first glance but quite another upon more careful analysis. To fully appreciate the subtleties of Agadah, a broad familiarity with all Talmudic and Midrashic sources is required. Often, a statement in one section of the Talmud can only be understood by drawing parallels to statements in completely unrelated sections of the Talmud or Midrash. Frequently, our Sages intentionally hid the true meanings of their statements behind a curtain of veiled hints and metaphors, so that the lessons they taught should be all the more appreciated when finally understood.

One of the more frustrating experiences is the feeling of utter helplessness after reading a heavily cloaked Agaddic statement. One remains to wonder what metaphorical meaning our Sages could possibly have concealed under its surface. To our great fortune, the Rashba (Rav Shlomo ben Aderet of Spain, ~1300 C.E.), one of the early commentators to whom all the secrets of the Torah were revealed, left us comments on a select few Agadot, including one of the most baffling ones which relates to events discussed in this week's Parasha.


When one sees… the rock that the giant Og, king of the Bashan, planned to throw on the Jewish nation… he should offer thanks and praise to Hashem....
What is the story of the rock that Og wanted to throw on the Jews? Og said, "How large is the Jewish encampment? It is but three Parsa'ot by three Parsa'ot (~144 sq. km.). I will lift a mountain of those dimensions and throw it upon them and kill them all!" He went ahead and lifted a mountain and carried it on his head towards the Jewish encampment. Hashem sent ants which ate a hole through the middle of the mountain, so that the mountain sank down onto Og's neck. When Og tried to remove it, his teeth extended to either side and prevented him from lifting it up….
Moshe was 10 Amot (~18 feet) tall. He took in his hands a 10 Amah ax and jumped 10 Amot and struck Og in the ankle a blow which killed him. (Berachot 54b)
The Gemara relates how Hashem miraculously saved the Jews from being crushed by the mountain that the giant Og wanted to toss on them. What is the significance of this strange miracle, of which no mention is made in scriptures? How are we to understand the meaning of (a) the mountain that Og lifted; (b) the ants that ate through it; (c) Og's extended teeth; (d) Moshe's unique method of attack; and (e) Og's fall through a blow to his ankle (Achilles' heel?)? The RASHBA explains that this Gemara may be understood allegorically as follows.


(a) "I will lift a mountain of those dimensions and throw it upon them":

The key to understanding this Agadah, explains the Rashba, lies in a Gemara in Nidah:

"Hashem said to Moshe: Do not fear Og" (Bamidbar 1:34). Og and Sichon were brothers [and presumably equally strong]…; why was Moshe afraid of Og any more than he was of Sichon [whom he had already defeated]? …He was afraid that perhaps the merit of our forefather Avraham would stand in Og's favor, since Og once helped Avraham. We are told, "the fugitive came and told Avraham [that his nephew Lot was captured in battle]." Who was the fugitive? Said Rebbi Yochanan, it was Og, who is called "fugitive" since he was the only person outside of the ark who did not perish in the Great Flood. (Nidah 61a, cited in part in Rashi Bamidbar 21:34 and Bereishit 14:13)
Og knew that the Jews were coming to conquer Israel only in the merit of the promise that Hashem made to their forefathers (Devarim 9:5). They themselves were far from worthy, after having worshipped idols in Egypt and sinned with the Golden Calf and the spies after the Exodus. Og was convinced that he could uproot the protection afforded us by the merit of our forefathers and turn it around to his own benefit, since he merited Avraham's support even before there was a Jewish nation.

The Gemara (Rosh Hashanah 11a, Sanhedrin 81a) often uses mountains as a metaphor for the forefathers, due to their spiritual immutability. Og attempted to lift up the merit of Avraham onto his own shoulders and reverse its effects, using it to destroy the Jewish People instead of protecting them.

(b) "Hashem sent ants which ate a hole through the mountain and it crashed down onto Og's neck":
Voracious ants, in this case, are a metaphor for the multitudes of Israel. The verse compares Israel to an ox that completely *devours* all the grass around it (Bamidbar 22:4 and Rashi) because their strength is in their *mouth* (= prayer). For the same reason, they may be compared to ants that "eat through a mountain." Through the vehicle of prayer, the Jews overcame Og and reversed his plans. The merit of our forefather Avraham defended his descendants, the Jewish People, and fell heavily on Og.

(d) (Let us skip part (c) for a moment) "Moshe was 10 Amot tall. He took in his hands a 10 Amah ax and jumped 10 Amot":
Moshe was not able to conquer the mighty Og, without first invoking his own merits along with those of all of the nation of Israel and their forefathers.

"Moshe was ten Amot tall" -- this refers to Moshe own merits (Perhaps, more specifically, it refers to the merit of fearlessly bringing *ten* plagues on Egypt). "He took an ax ten Amot long in his hands" -- he used the combined merits of the Jewish People, whom he led through the desert and were like a tool in his hands. (Perhaps, more specifically, it refers to the merit of their agreeing to accept the *Ten* Commandments at Mt. Sinai.) "Moshe jumped up ten Amos" -- that is, he jumped up to the previous generations and asked Hashem to help him in the merit of the forefathers. (Perhaps, more specifically, it refers to the merit of Avraham who endured *ten* tests to prove the sincerity of his faith, Avot 5:2.) With this combined merit, he managed to strike down Og.

(e) "Moshe struck Og in the ankle a blow that killed him": As we saw, Moshe was afraid that Og would prevail in the merit of bringing Avraham the news of Lot's capture. Og was, in fact, "rewarded for his footsteps" with an extremely long life (Bereishit Raba 42:8). But when he made war with the Jewish nation, the merit of his footsteps no longer defended him. He was "struck in his ankle" and killed.


The Rashba does not explain the metaphor of the lengthening of Og's teeth, nor does he explain why indeed Og's plans were foiled and Avraham's merit did not protect him. We may complete the picture as follows.

The Midrash (Bereishit Raba 42:8) explains that even when Og informed Avraham of his nephew's capture, it was not without ulterior motives. "Let Avraham wage war against the kings that captured his nephew and get killed in the process, then I will take his beautiful wife Sarah for myself!" This reveals how great is the reward for even an insincere act of merit. The Jews undoubtedly prayed that Hashem bring an end to Og's reign and to have *him* fall in war, since that is what Og had intended to be the fate of Avraham.

Og's meritorious acts involved two parts of his body: "The fugitive *came* (= feet), and *told* Avraham that Lot was captured (= mouth)." Now that Og had been fully repaid for whatever good was brought about through those acts, those very acts, which were after all really meant to inflict *harm* on Avraham, brought about his fall. In the metaphor of the Gemara in Berachot this is symbolized by having his *teeth* trap him under the mountain he lifted, and by dying from a blow to his *ankle*.


What remains to be explained is how one may recite a blessing of praise to Hashem on seeing an "allegorical" rock, that never truly existed (according to the Rashba's explanation)?

The Rashba addresses this question. He explains that the blessing is recited upon a large rock, or group of rocks (catapult rocks), that Og had prepared as artillery to throw upon the Jews. Physically, Og was indeed a powerful king and ruled over a powerful nation. The tremendous rocks he prepared for waging war with the nation of Israel demonstrate the extent of the Jewish nation's miraculous salvation. The suggestion that Og lifted an entire 3 x 3 Parsa mountain above his head single-handedly, however, was only allegorical.

This, explains the Rashba, is why the Gemara says that the blessing is recited on the "rock" that Og wanted to throw, while the story describes the "mountain" with which he wanted to destroy the Jews!

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