Saturday, July 5, 2008

Chukat: Wandering Jews

It seems the Jews have been wandering around for a long time indeed. This week's Parsha, Chukat, has two stories about Jews asking for rights of passage and being refused:

First they ask Edom (descendants of Jacob's twin, Esav) to pass through their land, but are refused permission:

"Now we are here at Kadesh, a town on the edge of your territory. Please let us pass through your country. We will not go through any field or vineyard, or drink water from any well. We will travel along the king's highway and not turn to the right or to the left until we have passed through your territory. But Edom answered: "You may not pass through here; if you try, we will march out and attack you with the sword." The Israelites replied: "We will go along the main road, and if we or our livestock drink any of your water, we will pay for it. We only want to pass through on foot—nothing else." Again they answered: "You may not pass through."

and then, after a detour:

Israel sent messengers to say to Sihon king of the Amorites: "Let us pass through your country. We will not turn aside into any field or vineyard, or drink water from any well. We will travel along the king's highway until we have passed through your territory." But Sihon would not let Israel pass through his territory. He mustered his entire army and marched out into the desert against Israel. When he reached Jahaz, he fought with Israel.

I couldn't help but be reminded of the story of the St Louis, the Havana bound ship containing 936 Jews fleeing Nazi Germany in 1939. First, the Cubans said no, then, the U.S and Canada also denied them entry. Eventually, Hitler's foes (the U.K, France, Belgium and Holland) took them in.

There are claims on Wikipedia that the purpose of Germany's sending the St Louis across the world was to demonstrate that the world agreed that the Jews were an unwanted problem. The passengers were given asylum, (and apparently their fate is unknown) but the humiliation suffered was of historical proportions.

Of course, the parallel between the St Louis story and this week's Parsha is not wholly accurate. In Parshat Chukat the Jews are fully capable of fighting Edom, but choose not to. Also later, when the Amorites attack, Israel chooses to fight and wins.

But then again, 9 years after the St Louis story Israel did decide to fight, and also won. So perhaps the parallel isn't such a bad one after all.

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