The parshah breaks down into two main parts:
- From Chapter 19 until 20, 22 psukim on the halachos of para aduma
- From then on, the story of the next generation in the desert.
Shlach, Korach were about the first generation, the one’s who left Egypt and their challenges. Chukas now begins to address the challenges of the first generation born outside of Egypt. They deal with the lack of water at the rock; sending emissaries to Edom for water and food and having to go around; the deaths of Aaron and Miriam and Moshe being left alone to guide the next generation.
It’s a very different sort of generation. They complain about the mann in 21:5. The parshah contains a shir which demonstrates the difference between the two generations. The song compares two types of rock: tzur and sela. Malbim explains that: tzur is a hard rock like granite and sela is soft like sandstone. The first generation came from the harsh life and difficulty of Egypt, they required a stern discipline represented by hitting the rock. The new generation was coddled in Sinai and thus needed a softer touch, Moshe needed to talk to the rock.
The Parshah underlines the natural tension between the older generation in it’s position as guide and mentor to the younger generation.