On one foot: Parashat Chukat begins by describing the ritual slaughter and sacrifice of the parah adumah, the red cow, and the ritual cleansing for those who touch a dead body. The next episode is 38 years later. Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron, dies at Kadesh. Again the people complain that they have no water to drink. God tells Moses what to do, but he is not following the instructions correctly. God informs Moses that because of his anger he will not be allowed to lead the Israelites into the Promised Land. A bit later, after a short encounter with the king of Edom, Aaron dies, too, and his priestly authority is passed on to his son Elazar. Afterwards the Israelites are attacked by the Canaanites, whom they conquer with God’s help. However, the people continue to complain to Moses. God sends snakes to punish the people, but Moses begs forgiveness, what God grants. Again the Israelites are attacked, but in each battle the Israelites emerge victorious, acquiring new territories.
Rashi writes (20:1) that although Parashat Chukat begins by describing events which took place during the second year of the Jewish people’s sojourn in the wilderness, the parashah then skips 38 years to discuss episodes that occurred during the last of their forty years of wandering in the desert, including the aforementioned incident with Moshe and the water. In other words, most of the Torah (without the first book) occurred either in the first 18 months after the Exodus from Egypt or in the final year just prior to their entry into the Promised Land. What happened during the 38 years inbetween?
We don’t know. According to the tradition, the entire nation was able to remain pure and unsullied for 38 consecutive years. The first year and a half, and the final year were periods of transition, as the Jewish people were switching from one stage of life and spiritual development to the next. Their initial entry into the wilderness came just after they had been redeemed from slavery in Egypt Similarly, during their final year in the wilderness, they recognized that they were about to enter the land of Israel, leaving behind an idyllic existence of eating Manna and drinking water from a rock to live a more natural lifestyle which would require them to farm the land in order to sustain themselves. (R’ Simcha Zissel).
The common thread is that both the first year and the last year were periods of a tremendous change in their lives. When a person is in a state of flux, he is by definition unsettled and not at peace, and he is, therefore, vulnerable to errors and oversights that he would never make under stable and serene conditions. Therefore, when a person is about to transition into a new situation in life, whether it is a new job, a new home, getting married, or becoming a parent, it is essential to be aware that upheaval – even for a good cause – inherently reduces a person’s tranquillity and sense of balance, and at such moments, we must offer him or her an extra hand of help and forgiveness.