Parshat Ki Tisa “Obstacles”

Parshat Ki Tisa “Obstacles”

My mom earned the nickname “the cat” as she seemed to have at least 9 lives. So many close calls and yet she would miraculously pull through. I remember after she passed away numerous people remarking “I really was expecting one more miracle”. This year her yahrtzeit falls just after purim and parshat Tetzaveh and before parshat Ki Tisa. This happens many years that are not leap years.

For my d’var torah in her memory I want to focus on the luchot the tablets with the 10 commandments. It is interesting to note that there were two versions of the tablets one that was written by Hashem that Moshe shattered, and a second pair written painstakingly by Moshe’s own hand. We are told how Hashem wanted to destroy us when we sinned with the Golden Calf and how Moshe fought on our behalf. Hashem accepts Moshe’s prayers and gives Moshe a formula of 13 attributes pertaining to Hashem’s mercy that will assuage Hashem’s anger, and the section ends with Moshe brazenly saying to gd that you will “forgive our iniquity and error, and make us Your heritage” (Ex 34:9)

In life we are given hurdles to rise above. The original tablets are broken and Gd who loves us wants to destroy us. All is lost. Moshe and the Torah say no. Moshe tells Gd to forgive us. Mom said no. Born a preemie in the 1960s she fought to stay alive as a baby. She was told she may never have kids, and my sisters and I proved the doctors wrong. When told she may never walk again she countered with “that’s what wheelchairs are for”. After the second tablets were made both the new and the old were housed together in the Temple. The Jewish spirit, my mother’s spirit, is one and the same. Together we look at hurdles and challenges as opportunities for growth to be overcome.To see the handmade tablets next to the broken Gdly ones, is to look at what could have been and feeling accomplished with the new version while never forgetting the old version.

My mother was one of the strongest, kindest, and most resilient people I know. Knowing and loving her have made me strong. It is her example I strive for daily. For a woman so worried about her legacy, mom your accomplishments still ring true in my heart, and everyone else’s that you touched.

Parshat Pinchas — The Covenant of Peace

Parshat Pinchas — The Covenant of Peace

The first portion of the Torah that I ever layned was one that has a very strong connection with this week’s parsha. It actually wasn’t from it, but rather from the very end of last week’s parsha, Balak, and it wasn’t a particularly happy episode. I still remember that paragraph, as if it were today:

“Pinchas son of Elazar son of Aaron HaKohen saw and he stood up amid the assembly and he took a spear in his hand. He followed the Israelite man into the tent and pierced them both, the Israelite man and the woman into her stomach – and the plague was halted from upon the children of Israel. Those who died in the plague were twenty-four thousand.” – Bamidbar 25:7-9

Indeed, not a pretty episode… Not only because we learn in it that 24,000 people died during the plague, but also – in my opinion – because an act of violence was necessary for this terrible plague to end. (more…)

A Broken Matzah

A Broken Matzah

On Passover night we break the middle Matzah for numerous reasons. Tonight is a night of duality where we balance signs of slavery with signs of freedom. Some of the answers are as following. Simply to get the children’s attention, encouraging them to ask questions. Our Joy cannot be  complete because we are still in exile waiting for Mashiach. As poor slaves we know to always save some for a later time. It is also a sign of freedom and hope to quote Lenard Cohen “There’s a crack in everything that’s where the light comes in”. Lastly it is because we are sharing. No matter how dire our situation as Jews we are compelled to help someone less fortunate than ourselves. When we have 2 pennies to our name we still give 1 of them to charity. Chag Sameach

 

Parashat Ki Tisa on Love

Parashat Ki Tisa on Love

For over 15 years now, since I was still working for the Jewish Community in Bucharest, I have been writing weekly Divrei Torah in Romanian for the benefit of the Jews there. It was, I guess, my way of giving back to the community I once belonged to, the community that formed me as an individual.

Writing those materials has not always been easy. There were a few “broken” cycles, where I could not – for various reasons – produce a commentary every week. There were times when I felt like stopping it altogether, especially when I was not living there but rather far away, in New York or here in Montreal. It’s also been hard to write because of my lack of inspiration, my own limitations, especially after a few cycles have passed.

Last year, as we began reading the Torah anew on Simchat Torah, I took on a slightly different enterprise: instead of the parsha, I started writing about the Haftarah. Almost immediately, new challenges arose. The texts sometimes looked rather cryptic, other times they seemed repetitive and hard to digest, and yet other times it was not easy to connect the Haftarah back to the associated parsha.

The Haftarah we read this week is no exception to these rules.

First – we don’t read it very often, and that makes is harder to study in detail. More than half the years, Shabbat Ki Tisa coincides with Shabbat Parah, when we read instead a special portion dedicated to the laws of the red heifer.

Secondly – Ashkenazim begin reading the Haftarah at the beginning of chapter 18 in the Book of Kings, while the Sefaradim skip the first 19 verses altogether and only start with the second part of the story. And this poses a challenge because you have to wonder why that is and also to try and connect the two halves.

Thirdly – the connection to the Torah portion is not so obvious. In the parsha, we begin by discussing מחצית השקל – the half-shekel offering taken from the Jews in order that “no plague come among them when counting them.” (Ex. 30:12) Then, the Torah moves on to describe – in painstaking detail – the episode of the Golden Calf and its tragic aftermath, and finally it concludes with G-d’s gifts to Moses and the Jewish nation: the forgiveness for sin, the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) and the receiving of the Second Tablets.

There seems however to be a disconnect between the first half of the parsha and the second half. What would be, at first glance, the link between the half-a-shekel offering and the atonement for the sin of the Golden Calf? Surely none…

But this apparent disconnect is actually mirrored in the Haftarah.

The first half of the Haftarah (read only by Ashkenazim) describes a meeting between Elyiahu HaNavi (Elijah the Prophet) and the prophet Ovadiah who – we learn in the text – is responsible for the saving of a hundred of Hashem’s prophets, persecuted and hunted down by the evil queen Jezebel. The second half of the Haftarah describes in detail the “contest” on Mount Carmel between Elijah the Prophet on one hand, and 450 prophets of Baal. The contest is meant to establish – in the eyes of the Jewish nation – who indeed is the one and true G-d. Again, seemingly no connection between the two halves…

In order to understand this, we have to take a closer look at a very inconspicuous couple of verses at the very end of our Haftarah. After the challenge between Elijah and the false prophets is set, after the offerings are slaughtered and placed on the altars and the 450 false prophets try in vain to get their idol to bring down fire on the altar, after water is poured – at Elijah’s request – over the offering to Hashem in order to make the miracle of divine fire even more obvious, Elijah prays to G-d saying:

Hashem, G-d of Abraham, Isaac and Israel! Today it will become known that You G-d are with Israel and that I am Your servant, and that at Your word have I done all these things. Answer me, Hashem, answer me – and let this people know that You are Hashem, the G-d, אחרנית לבם את הסבת ואתה – and You will turn their heart backward. (Kings I 18:36-37)

Dozens of commentators have tried to understand these verses. What exactly does Elijah mean when he says that “G-d will turn the heart of the people backward”?

In the Talmud (Tractate Brachot 31a), Rabi Eleazar reads it as a past statement and concludes that Elijah spoke insolently toward G-d, implying it was G‑d’s fault for the fact the people turned to idolatry. “You turned their heart backward” – i.e. You allowed them to become idol worshippers.

A Midrash quoted in the Jerusalem Talmud takes a different, but even more outrageous approach. “You turned the heart backward” actually is a direct threat (or shall we call it blackmail?) to G-d: “If You don’t answer me now” ­– says Elijah – “I will deny and say that You turned their hearts backward (to idol worshipping).”

A 12th century commentator known as the Ralbag, Rabbi Levi ben Gershom, takes a similar position. In his view, it was G-d’s constant protection that caused the people to stray. Too much good – he implies – is prone to lead individuals and nations to a life without challenges, which, in turn, makes it easy to turn idolatrous by means of association. People ask themselves: How come I get all this good for nothing? It must be that either I am a G-d myself OR whatever action that goes on around me is bringing about this good. In a time when idol worshipping was the societal norm, that was a very dangerous thing to think and – in the eyes of the Ralbag – that actually led people to believe that all their blessing and wealth came from the idol Baal.

In a very difficult position as a global commentator, Rashi takes the middle approach between the earlier sources. He doesn’t actually point a finger at G-d, but he does say: “You allowed them to turn away from You, it is in Your hands to turn their hearts back to You.”

What do we do with all these statements and accusations? Do we need to start looking for a lawyer for G-d, as “charges” are brought against Him at such intense levels?

What is amazing is that none of this is actually new… From the very heart of our parsha, a similar episode comes to mind. From up on Mount Sinai, G-d sees the Jews worshipping the Golden Calf. His answer is swift and harsh. He turns to Moshe (Moses) and says:

I have seen this people and behold, they are a stiff-necked people! And now, let Me be! Let My anger burn against them and I shall annihilate them; and I shall make you a great nation. (Ex. 32:10)

Moses is quick on the uptake. How can You think about killing them? Remember the Patriarhs. Remember Your promises. Remember the Exodus. What will the nations of the earth say if you destroy them? And finally – just like Elijah centuries later – the final “blows”:

I implore! This people has sinned a great sin and thus made for themselves a god of gold. And now, if You would but bear their sin! – but if not, erase me now from Your book that You have written. (Ex. 32:31) If Your Presence does not go with us, don’t bring us onward from here. (Ex. 33:15) Show me Your glory! (Ex. 33:18)

To all that Moses asked on Mount Sinai, G-d acquiesced. Centuries later, He did the same for Elyiahu HaNavi on Mount Carmel.

And this is where the answer to all our questions truly lies: in a relationship that is built on pure love.

Arrogant or not, Elijah was right in asking G-d for a miracle at Carmel. Those were times of crisis, times when the Jews needed reminding who they were and Whom they were serving. At Sinai, Moses had a similar crisis. G-d was angry, but what was more problematic was that He was right to be angry. The Jews had just broken every promise, they fell from the highest top into the lower abyss and nothing short of miraculous was able to save them. The dictum that urges us to “not rely on miracles” (לא סומכים על נס) was temporarily suspended, because people were dying, physically and spiritually.

But in both cases – it was not the righteousness of the requests or the dire circumstances in which they were made that prompted G-d’s positive response. It was that the requests originated in love.

In the Haftarah, it was Ovadiah’s love for Hashem and for his fellow human beings that prompted him to risk his own life to save the hundred prophets of Hashem. In the parsha, it all started with a contribution of half a shekel, G‑d’s way of making sure everyone counts in the relationship with Him and with others. Commentators point out that it was because G-d loved the Jews so much that He repeatedly counted them throughout the Book of Numbers, as well as at the beginning of our parsha. He counted them with half a shekel because He wanted them to stay safe – “so that no plague come among them” (Ex. 30:12) – and so that each person understands that they are only half of a shekel, half of a relationship. The other half is found when we become part of a relationship of love, when we find our bashert, when we engage with another and together we become a whole.

In both cases – after love is established as the true leitmotiv of the story – the relationship gets bumpy and needs fixing. (What relationships don’t really?) And the fix is possible specifically because of the beginning, because the love that started everything simply cannot be ignored. The enormous love Hashem has for us was the fuel that kept it all going.

But equally important was the courage, self-sacrifice and devotion of a few individuals who understood the real power of that love and did not fear to use it for good. One of my Rabbis at the yeshivah – interestingly or fatefully named Rabbi Yaakov Love – once said that Yom Kippur, the day when G‑d forgives our sins is an amazing day. Because G-d does not forgive believing that we will stop sinning, but rather knowing that we will be back next year in front of Him with our sins. He doesn’t forgive because of who we are or what we do, but because He loves us unquestionably, unconditionally and unequivocally.

For love, Moses turned G-d’s words on their head and said: Yes, the Jews are a stiff-necked people, and that is precisely why You should save them, because once You make them Yours they will never really leave You. Yes, they have sinned, but it is You who gave them the ability to sin through the gift of free will, Your greatest gift of love. And now, because You love them and they love You (though they keep forgetting that) – You should continue to lead them from this place on, through the ages of history.

For love, Ovadiah conquered his fears of the establishment and kept the hundred prophets of Hashem in a cave, with bread and water. For love, Elijah “blackmailed” G-d and challenged Him into showing His glory to a nation that did not deserve to witness it. For love, all these individuals did things that were never expected and never fully understood, but which brought about the salvation and consolation we so desperately needed.

And so the pieces of the puzzle come together under the roof of relationship and love.

One of my Rabbis, Rabbi Avi Weiss, once pointed out that the Hebrew word אהבה (love) comes from the Aramaic root הב (hav) – to give. So, what do we give for our loves?

When our relationships falter or when important things are at stake, what do we do? Do we really give our best to fix them, to prevent bad things from happening? Do we sacrifice our time and energy – for real, not just for show – to make it work? Do we go through fire and water to protect and save our brothers and sisters, our loved ones, to shield them from harm? Do we fight for the values we inherited from people we loved in the past or which we miracle when it is discovered in people we know in the present? Do we pass along those values, so that our children can benefit from them as well? Do we raise a prayer (or sometimes even a fist) at G-d to bring about a desperately needed?

Do we truly love? And if the answer is YES, how far are we prepared to go for that?

Shabbat Shalom!

Prepared by Rabbi Sorin Rosen
Delivered on February February 27, 2016

The Hidden Miracles of Chanukah

The Hidden Miracles of Chanukah

A few moments ago, we concluded the holiday Haftarah and read a beautiful verse uttered by the prophet Zechariah (4:6): לֹא בְחַיִל וְלֹא בְכֹחַ כִּי אִם־בְּרוּחִי אָמַר ה’ צְבָאקוֹת — “Not by might and not by strength, but by My spirit, says the L-rd.”

The connection with Chanukah is straightforward: in the times of the Greeks, the Jews fighting for Jerusalem were fewer and weaker, yet they won the battle. It was — as we all know and say in our prayers — the victory of the “few against the many, the weak against the strong, the pure against the impure”. A handful of motivated people, the Maccabim, changed the world as we know it, and wrote the history of our nation. This miracle of our triumph is one that we still celebrate today, for eight days and nights every winter.

But Chanukah is much more than that…

I recently came across a series of very short Chanukah thoughts in the writings of the former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. And what I would like to do today is to share some of these thoughts with you, as we explore together the very question that the Gemara (Tractate Shabbat 21b) asks in one of the few Talmudic sources we have about this holiday: מאי חנוכה — What is really Chanukah?

It’s a funny question, isn’t it? We don’t ask this about other holidays, because we know the answer already: Rosh Hashanah is the beginning of the Jewish year, Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement, Pesach is the holiday of our freedom, Shavuot is when we received the Torah on Mount Sinai… But the Talmud does ask this question about Chanukah, which must mean that there is something more to this holiday than meets the eye.

In the Talmud, the answer given is simple, though not directly related to the victory against the Greeks: Chanukah is the holiday celebrating the miracle of oil. One jar of oil sufficient for one day burned for eight straight days, until more oil could be produced to keep the Menorah alit.

But if that is the case, what was the miracle on the first day? The oil was indeed supposed to be enough for that day, so what are we celebrating on the first night of Chanukah?

One beautiful answer is that there was actually an additional miracle of Chanukah: the miracle that we would probably call in modern terms “perseverance”. The Maccabim probably had many important things on their mind at the time, other than lighting the Menorah. Even considering that the leaders of the Jewish rebellion were kohanim, the Hasmonean family — who, by their function, were the ones in charge with the ritual of the Temple — I’m quite sure there were more pressing issues to attend to than searching in a desecrated Temple for a jar of pure oil. And yet, they didn’t just say “let’s leave it for when we will have the time or for when circumstances are more favorable”. They rather made time for it, seized the moment, and did not let the opportunity pass. They searched the Temple assiduously and didn’t stop until the light was back on the branches of the Menorah.

There is a very valuable lesson to be learned here… We are busy people today, we live busy lives. If right after a war, the Maccabim found time to חנו כ”ה, to rest on the 25th day of Kislev — an acronym which actually spells the name of the holiday — shouldn’t we follow their example? Shouldn’t we also “rest” from our daily grind and look for the “jars of pure oil” in our lives? Shouldn’t we actively make time in our busy schedules for our kids, our families, our spiritual encounters, our learning, our growth? The story of Chanukah emphatically tells us that we should!

* * *

A second idea originates in what is known as “the clash of civilisations”. The Ancient Greeks — the enemies of the Jews in the Chanukah story — were actually a great people with a great culture. They produced art, architecture, philosophy and mathematics. Also, at one point in history, they were controlling more than half of the known world. However, the ancient Greek civilisation is no longer around, while the Jewish culture is very much alive.

Why? What did we have that the Greeks didn’t? Well, listen closely to Rabbi Sacks’ answer:

“The Greeks, who did not believe in a single, loving G-d, gave the world the concept of tragedy. We strive, we struggle, at times we achieve greatness, but life has no ultimate purpose. The universe neither knows nor cares that we are here. [By contrast], ancient Israel gave the world the idea of hope. We are here because G-d created us in love, and through love we discover the meaning and purpose of life.”

What an amazing thought! Chanukah is really the victory of hope over despair, of love over indifference, as much as it the miracle of light and of military triumph. Without the concept of G-d and the desire to worship Him and to fulfill His commandments, there would not have been any need for the Maccabim to look for the oil, or to light the Menorah, or even to fight the Greeks altogether. The Greeks were not against the Jews as a people, they were just against us being a different people. They were not Amalek to seek our physical annihilation, nor were they the Pharaoh of Egypt, interested in turning us into slaves. What they were after was much more subtle: they wanted to make us assimilate into their culture and to forget our true raison d’être. They were willing to provide for us and even to welcome us fully into their society… as long as we became them. So, really, the only reason we fought that war against them was to preserve our Jewish identity, our beliefs, our faith.

Chanukah is the reminder of that battle, and of all the other similar battles we fought and are still fighting today. When the Pew report talks about over 50% assimilation, about dwindling communities and diminished enrollment in our Jewish day schools — the re-celebrated miracle of Chanukah happens when we succeed in our goal to remain Jewish. Our modern challenge is to keep the flame alive, in any way we can, so that generations after us will continue to be Jewish and to celebrate the miracles that G-d did לאבתינו ולנו, בימים ההם בזמן הזה, “for our ancestors and for us, in those days, at this time.”

* * *

Reaching out to the world is yet another message that Chanukah brings.

Unlike the Shabbat or the Yizkor candles, which we light inside our homes, the Chanukah candles are lit outside, for everyone to see. The Talmud rules that the time for lighting the Chanukah menorah extends from sundown עד שתכלה רגל מן השוק — “until all passersby have vanished from the marketplace.” The Talmud doesn’t say “until all Jews go home”, but rather includes Jews and Gentiles alike. The mitzvah of lighting the Menorah is for the benefit of all mankind.

In Judaism, light must be shared with the entire world. In the Midrash, we are told that “when King Solomon built the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, he made the windows narrow within and wide without, so that the light should emanate to the outside and illuminate the world.” G-d’s sanctuary did not need the light of the Menorah. The world, however, did need it, as it still does, desperately, to this very day.

In a similar vein, the Talmud records a fascinating argument between two sages, Rav and Shmuel, over the question of whether we can light a Chanukah candle from another Chanukah candle. Rav says no, because the light of the first candle would be “diminished” by the act of taking the flame, as this will likely make us spill a bit of the oil or wax. However, Shmuel says we can, and that is the opinion that is brought down in the Shulchan Aruch as halakhah. (Note: the Rama reminds us that the prevalent custom to be followed is to use a shamash.)

When it comes to sharing light and spirituality, we don’t step back for fear that our own light will be “diminished” or “polluted”. We engage with others who are less observant, less connected, less knowledgeable than us. We give them and we inspire them and, in doing so, we also grow ourselves. “Love is something if you give it away, you’ll end up having more…”

* * *

And one more idea before we conclude. A question is asked implicitly in the Talmud (Shabbat 23b): “If on Friday afternoon before Shabbat Chanukah, a person only has one candle, what should that candle be used as? Should it be lit as a Shabbat candle or as a Chanukah candle?”

Listen to the answer as it was brought down into practical halakhah by the Rambam (Maimonides):

“The Shabbat light takes priority, because it symbolizes shalom bayit, domestic peace. And great is peace because the entire Torah was given in order to make peace in the world.”

Chanukah, with its great military victory against the Greeks, does not compete with a simple Shabbat light, that we kindle anyway every single week. And that is because — in the spirit of what Judaism has brought into the world — peace in the home and in society is much more valuable than the greatest military victory.

We live today in a world full of conflict. As human beings, we have very difficult choices to make and an enormous responsibility in making them. The values that inspire our decisions and actions are shaping the world for our children and grandchildren. Do we choose to live by the sword, to frighten and terrorize others into submission, to celebrate the defeat and destruction of those we consider “our enemies”, or do we light the candle of peace in every place we happen to be? Judaism has already provided the answer and it is, it has always been, the answer of peace. It is time for the world to take heed and follow.

* * *

So here are, in summary, a few “hidden” values of the holiday of Chanukah:

  1. perseverance in pursuing the worthy goals and causes in our lives;
  2. living with hope, in the light of G-d’s plan for us and for the world;
  3. reaching out and sharing the light with others;
  4. valuing peace in every decision we make and every action we take.

This is a Chanukah dimension that we can all relate to. This is a commitment that we can all make for ourselves, to carry out our lives לֹא בְחַיִל וְלֹא בְכֹחַ כִּי אִם־בְּרוּחִי — “not by might and not by strength, but by the spirit of G-d.”

Shabbat Shalom and Chanukah Sameach!

Prepared by Rabbi Sorin Rosen
Delivered on Shabbat Chanukah, December 12, 2015

The New “Book” of the Torah

The New “Book” of the Torah

There is a special opinion, which the Talmud quotes in Tractate Bava Batra 14b: “Who wrote the Scriptures? – Moses wrote his own book and the portion of Bilaam.” If we start counting according to this opinion, the five books of the Torah are actually seven: Bereshit, Shemot, Vaikra, Bamidbar chapters 1-21, the story of Bilaam which the Torah records in Bamidbar chapters 22-24, Bamidbar chapters 25 to its end, and Devarim.

The story of Bilaam makes the bulk of this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Balak. The tale of Bilaam (or Balaam, as tradition sometimes calls him) is one of those intriguing passages of the Torah that appear simple and straightforward on the surface, yet are complex when studied in detail. There is prose and poetry in the story. There is prophesy and the expectation of magic. There is money involved, and glory, and disappointment. We even make acquaintance with a talking donkey, able to see what people cannot.

The plot itself is rather simple. The Jewish people are at the gates of the Promised Land. King Balak of Moab, witness to all the Jewish triumphs against the bigger and stronger nations of the area, decides to hire Bilaam, a pagan prophet, to curse the Jewish people. With a reluctant permission from G-d, Bilaam goes with the emissaries of Balak and tries repeatedly but unsuccessfully to utter a curse. Instead, in the end, he issues a famous blessing that has made its way even in our daily prayers: ”Ma tovu ohalecha Yaakov, mishkenotecha Yisrael!” – ”How good are your tents, o Jacob, your dwelling places, o Israel!” (24:5)

But when we look closely at the details of the story, a whole new world of inferences, symbols and peculiar connections opens before our very eyes… Let’s explore it together!

The first is the connection – or, better said, connections in the plural – which the Torah makes with the Book of Genesis. Although it is placed in the midst of the Book of Bamidbar, the story of Bilaam abounds in Bereshit references.

For example, Bilaam tries to be like Abraham, and the Torah uses the same language as in the story of the Binding of Isaac: “Vaiakom Bilaam baboker va’yachvosh et atono” – “Balaam arose early in the morning and saddled his donkey.” (22:21).

Also, the talking donkey of our parasha constitutes the second and only other instance in the Torah of an animal speaking, the first instance being when the serpent addresses Eve in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:1).

But the connections with the Book of Genesis go much deeper…

In chapter 22 verse 9, Hashem appears for the first time to Bilaam, immediately after the first set of envoys from King Balak arrive at his home: “G­­­‑d came to Balaam and said: What do these emissaries want of you?” The language is parallel to that of the Book of Genesis, in the stories of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel and Abraham and Sarah. Curiously enough, in all these stories, the verse in question is always the 9th verse of the respective chapter. And – more importantly – in all these stories, G-d asks a rhetorical question to which He already knows the answer: ”Aieka? Where are you?”, He asks Adam in Genesis 3:9; “Where is Abel your brother?”, He inquires of Cain in Genesis 4:9; “Where is your wife Sarah?”, He asks Abraham in Genesis 18:9. In our parasha, the question is not one of location (“where”), but  one of direction and purpose: “Where are you going? What do these people want with you?” (Numbers 22:9)

In all these cases, this question is only the trigger, and the continuation is always the same: exile. With Adam and Eve, G-d is about to punish them with exile from the Garden of Eden for having eaten of the Tree of Knowledge. With Cain and Abel, we are about to discover Cain’s punishment of exile for having murdered his brother Abel. With Abraham and Sarah, we are about to discover G-d’s promise to bring about the birth of Yitzchak (Isaac), which – following the opinion of many commentators – marks the beginning of the 400 years of exile for Abraham and his descendants in a “land not their own”, according to G-d’s promise in Genesis 15:13.

Here too, in our parasha, Bilaam is about to undergo a deep and painful personal exile. First, we are told of high expectations, as King Balak tells Bilaam through his emissaries: “I know that he whom you bless is indeed blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed” (22:6). We learn about the wealth and honor being promised, presumably accompanied in Bilaam’s mind by a high status and a luxurious life at Balak’s court.

And then things start falling apart with every step along the way. First – in order to even attempt to become a hero of might and magic – Bilaam must leave the comfort of his home and go with the emissaries of Balak. As the Torah tells us, this in itself is an endeavor that G-d despises and is quickly to point out to him: “Do not go with them and do not curse that people, for they are blessed”, he tells Bilaam in 22:12. Then, a mere few verses later, G-d softens a bit, but makes it crystal clear Who is really in control here: “If these envoys come to invite you, you may go with them, but whatever I command you, that you shall do.” (22:20)

Along the way, Bilaam’s next taste of exile is when he is ridiculed by his own talking donkey, able to see G-d’s angel when the great prophet Bilaam is blind and mute. Then he builds seven altars and offers sacrifices, only to discover that they are built and used in vain: his mouth just cannot bring itself to utter the fatal curse. Then Bilaam moves from place to place, trying to find a vantage point from where to sneak in at least a smaller, perhaps less fatal but still harm-inflicting curse. In the end – after a journey of failures and disappointments – the Torah puts a definitive end to Bilaam’s quest for evil glory by stating simply: “Then Bilaam set out on his journey back home.” (24:25) Broken, his reputation destroyed, his dreams of power and wealth shattered, Bilaam returns to his home with a simple life lesson: “Man proposes and G-d disposes.” Or, as they say in Yiddish: “Der mentsh trakht und G-t lakht.”

* * *

Of course, if it were only for the personal exile, the story of Bilaam might not have been as interesting… But the four oracles in the story, the four instances in which the Torah switches from prose to poetry in a mixture of reality and fortune-telling, take matters one level higher. The prophecies here contain references to the entire history of the Jewish nation. Bilaam talks about the promises G-d made to Jacob, about the Exodus from Egypt, about the forty years in the desert, about the battles G-d fought with Israel’s enemies of their behalf and – even more interesting – makes mention of Israel’s ultimate future.

In a few verses in the middle of the fourth and final of Bilaam’s oracles, the Torah tells us the following:

“I see it, but not now.
I view it, but it is not near.
A star rises from Jacob
And a scepter has shot forth from Israel,
And he shall strike down the sides of Moab
And undermine all the children of Seth.
Edom shall be a conquest
And Seir shall be a conquest of his enemies
And Israel will be triumphant.
(Numbers 24:17-18)

Multiple interpretations were offered for these verses. They vary based on the commentator, the historical period of the commentary, as well as the focus of the interpretation.

For example, Ibn Ezra and others see in the verse “A star rises from Jacob” a reference to King David and his royal dynasty. Onkelos (the famous translation of the Torah into Aramaic), as well as Ramban (Nachmanides) see here a prophecy about the arrival of not only David, but also – from his lineage – the Mashiach, marking what we pray for every day: the establishment of G-d’s Kingdom in Israel and the whole world. The Midrash on Megillat Eicha – the famous Lamentation of the prophet Yeremiahu (Jeremiah) which we will read in only a few weeks on Tisha Be’Av – takes the verse in our parasha to mean a reference made by Rabbi Akiva to the rebellion of Bar Kochba, in the time of the Romans. In other words, a verse about three important concepts: the role of royalty, our quest to fight oppression and tyranny, and G-d’s ultimate redemption, the Messianic Era.

And then, of course, is the mentioning by Bilaam of all those foreign nations: Moab, Seth, Edom, Seir, Ir and – the Torah continues in the subsequent verses – Amalek, Cain, Ashur, Eber and the Kenites and Kittites. All – with the exception of Seth who is a symbol of mankind as a whole (Seth was the third son of Adam and Eve, from which all humans descend) – are historical enemies of the Jewish people. But there is a lot more to the story than meets the eye, more specifically because of the way in which they became our enemies…

Moab is so bad that the Torah tells us in Devarim 23:4 to never allow a male Moabite to enter the Jewish people by conversion, “even in the tenth generation”. The reason is made apparent at the end of this week’s parasha: “While Israel settled in Shittim, the people defiled themselves by being promiscuous with Moabite women.” (25:1) The Midrash tells us that – in their zeal to corrupt and destroy – the Moabites send even their royal princesses to seduce Jews into immorality and idolatry. Such a reprehensible behaviour – where the destruction of the other is more important than respecting yourself and keeping away from self-defilement – was indicative of sinat chinam, a boundless and reasonless hatred, later embodied by anti-Semitism, persecutions and the Shoah. It was this hatred that disqualified the Moabites from ever joining the Jewish nation. (Strangely enough, Ruth the Moabite, a female, is the exception to the rule, as the Torah only made reference in its prohibition to male Moabites, which the Torah hold responsible for maintaining the societal morality at the time, in the context of a patriarchal society.)

With Amalek, the message is even easier to recognize. Throughout the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy, on multiple occasions, the Torah reminds us of Amalek’s evil and commands us to wipe out its memory and legacy, for “attacking the weak at the end of the convoy” and for “not fearing G-d”.

Cain – another name mentioned by Bilaam – is the universal human symbol of evil. He is the author of the first murder in history, perpetrated when G-d favours his brother’s sacrifice over his own. He is also the first to be so callous as to not care at all for his own brother, Abel, about whom he inquires: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 3:9). Cain is the incarnation of the dictums: “Every man for himself” and “The end justifies the means”, which are the complete opposite of the Jewish view of “Kol Israel arevim ze laze” – “Every Jew is responsible for one another” and “Ein mitzvah ha’ba be’aveira” – “A good deed fulfilled through a transgression is null and void.”

Edom, Seir and Ir are all – in the interpretation of Rashi and the Midrash – a symbol of Rome, the culture that always valued idolatry and promiscuity over monotheism and chastity.

And Ashur (Assyria), the Kenites, the Kittites and Eber are all symbols of Israel’s enemies in the times before entering the Land of Israel under the leadership of Joshua. They are the nations that stood against – in the most literal manner – G-d’s plan of giving the Promised Land to the Jewish nation.

About all these nations, Bilaam’s prophecy declares that their ultimate fate is to fall before the Jews. In essence, the prophecy is the history of the Jewish people, intertwined with their destiny as G-d’s chosen people, “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” Israel’s destiny – in the hands of G-d as opposed to the hands of mortal kings – transpires in this prophecy as one of fulfillment and endurance.

* * *

We cannot thus be surprised that the two chapters of our week’s parasha have been imagined by the Talmud as a standalone book of the Torah. A summary of our history and destiny, a story of action and faith, of symbolism and connections, of promises and deceptions… A story of G-d’s ultimate goal: rebalancing the world through diminishing and rebuking of evil, corroborated with uplifting and encouraging the good, the spirituality, the morality and the strong attachment – both as individuals and as a nation – to G-d’s message for all humankind.

In today’s world, when values get so easily corrupted, when the lines between right and wrong are often blurred beyond recognition, the message of Parashat Balak is that we have to make our choices. Almost 3,500 years ago, Bilaam made his choice and lost everything. It is our duty today to choose the winning side, a side of morality, spirituality and devotion to G-d and his Torah. It is our duty to choose the destiny that was given us, one of acknowledging and living G-d’s blessings every day, every minute. It is our task to continue to walk – as our ancestors have walked in the past – the often difficult but always rewarding mesilat yesharim – the path of the upright. Or, to quote the very opening chapter of the true Mesilat Yesharim, The Path of the Upright, in the words of the Ramchal, Rabbi Chaim Moshe Luzzato:

“The foundation of saintliness and the root of perfection in the service of God lie in a man’s coming to see clearly and to recognize as a truth, the nature of his duty in the world, and the end towards which he should direct his vision and his aspiration in all of his labors, all the days of his life.”

 Shabbat Shalom!

Prepared by Rabbi Sorin Rosen
Delivered on June 6, 2015