One of the placenames in the Torah that gets little play but has the fortune of being named twice is Chormah. The first time it appears is in Shelach Lecha, after the spies have managed to convince our ancestors that they should not attempt a military invasion of Eretz Yisrael. As a result, they are punished even though Moshe Rabeinu, a"h, tries to intercede on their behalf. The day after, a group of men try to start an invasion of their own, only to be beaten thoroughly by the locals living in the mountains above:
"Then the Amalekite and the Canaanite who dwelt in that hill country came down and smote them, and beat them down even unto Chormah." (Bamidbar 14:45)
The second mention comes soon after in parashah, Chukas. Aharon HaKohen had just died and Chazal tell us that as a result the Divine clouds of glory that had surrounded our ancestors ever since leaving Egypt disappeared. As a result, our ancestors were attacked by the local King of Arad. Revenge was sworn and a second battle was joined:
"And the Lord hearkened to the voice of Israel, and delivered them and their cities, and the name of the place was called Chormah." (Bamidbar 21:3)
Now, there is a general rule Ein mukdam ume'uchar b'Torah. The Torah does not tell its narrative in a strictly chronological nature. This is quite easy to prove, of course, since examples abound everywher. The major disagreement between the commentators is on whether or not this rule is a constant implying that one can interpret any narrative as happening at any time within reason, or must one assume that the narrative is following a chronological order unless the narrative clearly states otherwise.
Most commentaries I've read do not ascribe anything special to the story of the battle of Arad. Indeed, Chazal use its juxtaposition with the story of the death of Aharon HaKohen to teach a lesson about the Divine clouds of glory. However, I found thought in the Hertz Chumash (remember that ol' faithful?) by a non-Jewish commentator named H.M. Wiener that greatly interested me:
"This incident cannot be assignd to the period where the Israelites had begun to compass the land of Edom, for they were nowhere in the neighbourhood of Arad. It theremust must precede that event. 'After leaving Sinai, the Israelites proceeded to Kadesh Barnea. From this base, they could march due north and invade southern Palestine (the Negeb). This they did, and the result is given in the above three verses. It ended in the annihilation of the Canaanite rule, and his chief city was henceforth called Hormah. Spies where thereupon sent out to explore Canaan prope, as related in chapter 13. But their report was unfavourable. On hearing it, the people lost heart and it became clear that success could not be expected until a new generation had grown up. The order was therefore given to evacuate Kadesh and proceed towards Edom. But the people suddenly veered round, and refused to obey. In defiance of the Divine command, they embarked on a campaign of conquest. The result was disastrous. They were utterly routed and chased to Hormah, the scene of their former triumph.'"
What hint is there in the text that this supposition might indeed be correct? At the battle of Arad, we are told:
"And Israel vowed a vow unto the Lord and said: 'If Thou wilt indeed deliver this people into my hand, then I will utterly destroy their cities.'" (Bamidbar 21:2)
Now we do not find the concept of dedicating the entire spoils of one's war effort to God again in the Torah. Indeed, when we are told of battles, there is either no mention of the booty or details are listed to show how much the soldiers got to keep and how much they had to give to the Mishkan. But there is another episode where this dedication happens, after the conquest of Yericho by Yehoshua after our ancestors enter Eretz Yisrael:
"And the city shall be devoted; it and all that is in it to the Lord; only Rachav the harlot shall live, she and all that is with her in the house, because she hid the messengers that we sent. And only keep yourselves from the devoted thing (cherem), lest you make yourselves condemned when you take of the devoted thing and make the camp of Israel a ruin, and trouble it." (Yehoshua 6:17-18)
What is the meaning behind these two devotions? Both the battle of Arad and the battle of Yericho are "firsts" in terms of the conquest of Israel. The former was the first formal engagement between our ancestors and the occupants of the Land, the second the first actual battle fought to acquire territory within the Land. This might explain why both battles called for a dedication of the spoils, in the same way the first of everything we produce is dedicated to God (eg. terumah, pidyon haBen etc.)
But the wording of the narrative in Bamidbar is curious. Significantly, Moshe Rabeinu is not mentioned, rather Israel is the name used. One might suggest that the reason for this is because the very nature of the nation was to change when the conquest began. As is well known from the explanations of why the meraglim did what they did, the entire existence of our ancestors in the desert was a miraculous and spiritual one. They had man, water, protective clouds and all day long to study Torah. Once they entered Eretz Yisrael, they would have to go through a major change. The physical world would now be a constant concern. After finishing their conquest, the Bnei Yisrael would then have to engage in farming, building and commerce. As a result, they would cease to be a band of people led by Moshe Rabeinu and become a nation: Israel. Perhaps this is the reason the name Israel is used in the narrative of the battle of Arad: this was the first step the nation Israel was taking to begin its new existence. And since it was their first victory, they dedicated the spoils to God.
And if Wiener's supposition is correct, and the narrative of the Meraglim follows this battle in proper chronological order, then the reason for Yehoshua's cherem on Yericho now becomes clear. After the ma'apilim were defeated in their attempt to invade the Land, God calls off the whole enterprise. The generation will have to die in the desert and the next will then start from scratch 38 years later. This is why Yehoshua's victory at Yericho is really the first battle for Eretz Yisrael since the battle of Arad no longer counted.
And perhaps we can learn a lesson from this in what is happening in our day. For a long time after the miraculous establishment of the State of Israel, there was tremendous optimism amongst the secular population about their chances for creating a "Jewish state" imbued with all the non-Jewish values of Western society. The result is plain for all to see: a society that has lost all sense of direction, self-confidence and values. Indeed, is the government of Israel today not trying to do, in its own way, what the meraglim did to our ancestors: demoralize our people, convince them that a strong and proud Jewish state is not in our interests, and that all the great salvations God has showered upon us are of no value any more? But we who are a new generation must remember that God has provided us with the greatest opportunity to bring forth our final redemption in almost 2000 years. Just as our ancestors should have ignored the betrayal of the meraglim, we must ignore the pessimism and lack of faith of our leaders. We must remember that the land of Israel is, in the words of Kaleiv and Yehoshua, a very, very good land and that if God wants us to have posession of it, then we need only believe in Him and His Torah and strive to fulfill them in this Land to succeed.