What is the true message of an entire Torah portion of Balak dedicated to the hiring of a Gentile soothsayer to curse the Israelite nation – but whom instead becomes inspired to bless Israel and portray the ultimate messianic destiny of Israel in the most exalted and majestic of poetic metaphors? Are there indeed individuals with true power to foretell future? And if indeed Balak is a superior human being with profound prophetic insights emanating from a Divine source, why does the Torah triumphantly record the fact that “Balaam Ben Beor the magician” was killed by Israel with the sword together with the corpses of our Midianite enemies during the conquest of Israel (Joshua 13:22)? And why does our Biblical text juxtapose the sublime poetry of Balaam with the seemingly ridiculous tale of the talking donkey?
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin explains: I believe that the entire portion of Balaam is a study in contrast between the legitimately earned prophecy of Moses and the venally inspired sorcery of Balaam. The Torah understands that there exist individuals who seem to have been born with special powers: superior physical strength, a phenomenal photographic memory, sharp vision which can penetrate the thickest of partitions, intense concentration that can cause physical objects to explode, and can perhaps even bring messages from the dead. There is even a difference of opinion amongst our Sages as to whether such phenomena reflect actual occurrences or are merely slight-of-hand trickery.
In a later generation, the arch-rationalist Maimonides calls all pronouncements emanating from supernatural communications and insights – including the writing and wearing of mystical amulets (kameyot)- “false and vain”, bordering on idolatry (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Idolatry 1, 16 and Guide, Part 1, Chapter 61); on this basis, Rav Yosef Karo similarly dismisses all magical incantations as “not availing in the least,” but merely exercising positive psychological influence upon individuals in distress (Shulhan Aruch, Yoreh Deah, 179, 6). The Vilna Gaon, on the other hand, suggests that Maimonides’ philosophical study “misled or corrupted him,” insisting that there are amulets and incantations, perhaps and perhaps even communications from the beyond, which are rooted in the sacred and the divine. Perhaps the most important and representative view on the issue is presented by Rav Shlomo Ben Aderet (Rashba, Responsa 548), when he had to judge the credibility of a Reb Nissim who claimed to have received the messages from an angel; the great Talmudic scholar Rashba insists that divine communication akin to Prophesy can only rest on one who is truly wise and pious, strong and courageous, and sufficiently wealthy as to not be in need of monetary contributions from those seeking his advice. Claims, and even what seems to be empirical facts, of supernatural abilities by individuals who are not outstanding in Torah scholarship and piety dare not be taken seriously – at the risk of flirting with idolatrous and even demonic blandishments.
The truth is that the Bible is indubitably clear when it warns us against seeking after any manner of magic or sorcery and exhorts us to be whole-hearted and pure in our service of the Divine (Deuteronomy 18:9-14). Our prophets did not major in futuristic prophecies but rather in chastising towards more ethical and genuine behavior; they certainly did not take remuneration for their words. And individual devoid of the proper – difficult to acquire – intellectual and spiritual prophetic attainments who makes pronouncements which even may appear to be vindicated by future discoveries is no better than the “talking donkey” in our Torah portion; a prophet of G-d must first and foremost be a model of Torah scholarship and piety.
Moses was a prophet of G-d; Balaam was a soothsayer. Moses sought Divine truth while Balaam yearned for gold and silver. The conclusion of our Torah portion is most succinct and specific: ”There is no sorcery for Jacob or magic for Israel.”
Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim
The Torah states the following: “The Children of Israel, the whole community, arrived in the desert of Tzin in the first month and the people settled in Kadesh. Miriam died there and was buried there.” (Numbers, 20:1). There are many questions that need to be answered from this seemingly simple verse such as: Why does the Torah tell us what month the Israelites arrived – not usually found when the Torah reports arrivals; Why did the Torah emphasize that the whole congregation arrived?; Why did Miriam’s burial have to be mentioned and later on the absence of water as affecting the entire congregation? Torat Moshe explains that our sages say that Moses and Aaron were busy with the funeral arrangements for Miriam, when they saw a multitude approaching. Moses was somewhat nonplussed, but Aaron felt that the people had surely come to pay their last respects to Miriam. Moses did not think so, for that if Aaron had been correct, the people would have approached in an orderly procession. The confused mob approaching suggested to Moses that these people had something to complain about. When the people overheard this, they quarreled with Moses, and left Aaron out of it. In fact, they should have paid their respects to Miriam for a variety of reasons, not the least of it the fact that they had enjoyed a water supply for 40 years due to her merit. It was due to their indifference that God let it come to a critical situation. Should one argue that the people had been unaware that their water supply had been due to Miriam’s merit, God had stopped the supply IMMEDIATELY when Miriam had died, to bring home this lesson to the people who had either not known or had pretended not to know. Mention of their arrival in the desert, and the date, is to tell us that lack of water was not due to the natural habitat, nor to the time of year. At winter’s end, there is plenty of moisture remaining from the rainy season. Neither was the absence of water due to unfriendly terrain, since the people had settled there – in Kadesh – obviously a place fit for habitation. Water disappeared ONLY with the death of Miriam. This proved that the death of the righteous woman had caused the absence of water. The congregation was denied water now, because they had neglected to give water to Miriam after her death.
The red heifer plays a central role in the process of purifying someone who becomes “tamei”, i.e., spiritually tainted. A Jew becomes tamei when he or she comes into contact with a corpse, and as long as you are tamei you may not enter the Holy Temple in Jerusalem (Bamidbar 19:13,21). However, this condition is treatable. A red heifer is slaughtered and burned, and its ashes are used to create a mystical potion with purifying powers. A Kohen sprinkles the contaminated Jew with the red heifer ash mixture and the Jew then returns to a normal state of tahara, i.e. spiritual purity (19:1-12). (Obviously, these laws have been out of use ever since the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE.) This procedure is hard enough to understand, but here’s the clincher: The Kohen who administers the sprinkling becomes tamei! The very same process that purifies the contaminated Jew contaminates the Kohen (19:21). Several great medieval rabbis independently compiled listings of the 613 biblical mitzvot. But the most innovative of these works is undoubtedly the Chinuch (anonymous, 13th century). Besides the basic listing, the Chinuch also speculates about the meaning and purpose of every mitzvah. This makes for a fascinating blend of law, ethics, and philosophy. When it comes to the red heifer, however, the Chinuch throws in the towel. “Although my heart emboldened me to write hints of the reasons for the other mitzvot… when it comes to this mitzvah my hand goes weak and I am frightened to open my mouth about it at all. For I have seen how our sages of blessed memory wrote at length of its deep mysteries and the vastness of its theme…” (Chinuch, mitzvah 397). Rabbi Yaakov Kamanetzky (1891-1986) questions the Chinuch’s nervous reaction to the red heifer. The Chinuch knew that all mitzvot are ultimately beyond our understanding. Mortals can’t expect to fathom the myriad of divine reasons for mitzvot. Although we certainly do appreciate the beauty and relevance of every mitzvah, we need to remember that we are only dipping beneath the surface of great depths of meaning. As the Chinuch himself admits, his explanations of the mitzvot are no more than surface level interpretations. He never claimed that his suggestions were all there is to it. So why won’t the Chinuch provide us with some insights into the red heifer? If he managed to supply a reason or a message for each of 612 other mitzvot in the Torah, why not finish the job? Rabbi Kamanetzky explains that the Chinuch did not at all give up when it came to the red heifer. He indeed does reveal its message. The red heifer’s message is the very fact that it is completely unknowable. This is a fundamental principle for all of Torah. There comes a point with every mitzvah where we must recognize that our human minds are limited. There is more to this world than we can ever know. There is a spiritual reality.
Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim
In Ethics of the Fathers 5:17 it states: ‘Every controversy that is pursued in a heavenly cause is destined to be perpetuated; and that which is not pursued in a heavenly cause is not destined to be perpetuated. Which can be considered a controversy pursued in a heavenly cause? This is the controversy of Hillel and Shammai. And that not pursued in a heavenly cause? This is the controversy of Korach and his congregation.’
This week’s parashah focuses on Korach and his assembly rallying against Moses and Aaron in the belief that they are worthy of more distinctive roles as Israelites. In discussing controversies, the Malbim draws an interesting and penetrating distinction between two different kinds of controversies. He explains: ‘Our Sages wished to point out that in a holy or heavenly cause both sides are, in fact, united by one purpose, to further unselfish, Divine ends. However, in a controversy pursued for unholy ends and for personal advancements and the like, then even those who have come together on one side are not really united. Each are governed by their own calculations of what they stand to gain and are ready to cut each other’s throats, if it so serves their interests. This was the case as far as the controversy of Korach and his congregation. Korach was interested in High Priesthood, since he contended that Amram had received the firstborn share as the eldest son of Kehat, in the fact that his son, Moses, had been appointed leader and king over the people. It was therefore only right, so Korach claimed, that the High Priesthood be given to himself as the son of Yitzhar, the next in line of succession. Dathan and Aviram and On ben Peleth, on the other hand, were animated by their considerations in their opposition to Moses. Their grievance lay in the fact that they belonged to the tribe of Reuben who, as the firstborn son of Jacob, was entitled to all the highest offices – that of spiritual and political leadership. Instead, they complained that the priesthood and Divine service had been given to the tribe of Levi and leadership of the tribes to Judah and Joseph. Similarly, the 250 men contended that, as they were “princes of the assembly, famous in the congregation, men of renown”, they should be accorded the priesthood. They were against conferring a hereditary title on a tribe but asserted that individual prestige and distinction should be considered. Ibn Ezra suggests that these 250 rebels were in actuality firstborn who considered that the priesthood was their natural privilege.
Moses, in response, said the following statement to all those who had rallied against himself and Aaron: “Through this shall you know that God has sent me to perform these acts; that it was not from my heart” (Numbers 16:28). The Alshekh comments that it would be totally out of character for a man like Moses who always defended his people, even the sinners, to now announce an especially cruel fate for Korach and his associates. He therefore prefaces his announcement and the impending punishment of the rebels by explaining that only in this way could the fact that he had not appointed himself to a position of leadership be demonstrated. Just as his own appointment had been through supernatural power, so the death of the challengers would occur through supernatural power. When a body has been invaded by cancer or some other deadly disease, only the surgical removal of the infected part of the body can stave off total disaster. In this instance too, only the excision of these rebels could prevent the rebellion from infecting the whole nation with fatal results. Theirs was a spiritual disease; the disbelief in the Divine nature of Moses’ prophecy. Moses therefore made the point that the very death of the rebels represented the greatest act of mercy by God, since it saved mankind.
Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim
“We felt like tiny grasshoppers, and that’s how we appeared to them!”
With this comment the spies ended their slanderous and dispiriting report about the land of Israel and its inhabitants. This statement speaks volumes about why they were afraid to continue their destiny to inherit the land.
The spies had no contact with the locals. The Torah records them traveling through the land, collecting a bit of fruit, sizing up the cities and lay of the land and assessing the population. Nowhere is there any indication of conflict or even contact. The Midrash teaches that the residents were preoccupied with their own doings and paid no mind to the small group of travelers.
If that is the case, then how could the Israelites know how they appeared to the Canaanites? What made them think that the residents saw them as grasshoppers?
Rabbi Efraim Davidson comments: It is simply because that is how they saw themselves. “We felt like tiny grasshoppers.” As former slaves their view of themselves was as small and powerless. That led them to project those feelings and perceptions upon the Canaanites. “And that’s how we appeared to them.” They thought of themselves as weak, and therefore they were. They thus paralyzed themselves into fearful rebellion and retreat. They forgot that it was God who fought for them against Egypt, and who would insure their victory in Israel.
Have you ever faced a challenge and withered, feeling that you were too small or weak to succeed? It is possible that your own self-doubt, rather than the challenge itself, kept you from succeeding. We have enormous power to do great things. We are not too weak to make a hard marriage better. We are not so puny that we can’t retrain ourselves toward a more lucrative career. We are not so powerless over our own character that we can’t become spiritually elevated and highly ethical people. If you think of yourself as weak, you certainly will be. However, if you see yourself as capable and strong, and you think big, you can accomplish great things for yourself and for those around you.
There is a Midrash that imagines God responding to the spies: “I take no objection to your saying, ‘we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves.’ But I take offense when you say ‘so we must have looked to them.’ How do you know how I made you look to them? Perhaps you appeared to them as an angel!”
Rabbi Salomon Gruenwald explains: “You see, according to the Midrash, God did not punish the spies for their fear. After all, you can’t blame someone for how they honestly feel. What God objected to was how the spies saw themselves through the eyes of the Canaanites. Their sin was to project their fears and insecurities onto others. Their sin is was taking responsibility for their fears. And it occurs to me – thinking about the parashah in this way – which we are all at times guilty of this sin. Often when we are afraid or unhappy we blame others for how we feel. Perhaps it is too painful to confront our own fears and shortcomings. So we project those feeling onto others – we blame others for our feelings or we convince ourselves that it is only others who stand in the way of our success and happiness. I don’t mean to say that our fears are baseless or imaginary. Like the spies, our assessment may be factually correct. And I also don’t think that we should beat ourselves up for what we feel. After all, the spies were not condemned for their fear or self-doubt. The sin of which we are guilty – the sin of the spies – is the sin of lacking vision. It is a failure of imagination that leads us to blame others for our shortcomings. It is the failure to see possibilities in the midst of great challenges.”
Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim
In the opening verse of chapter 12 in this week’s parashah, it states: “Miriam and Aaron spoke out against Moses, the Cushite woman he had married, for he had married a Cushite woman. They said: Was it only to Moses that G-d spoke? Did he not speak to us as well? And G-d heard…” There are many questions that arise from this statement, including the following: 1) why would Tzipporah, who had converted to Judaism, still be described as a Cushite – a Midianite? 2) Why does the Torah first report Miriam and Aaron speaking harshly, i.e. va-te-dabber, whereas in v.2, the expression vayomru, they spoke, i.e. in a friendly manner, is used? 3) If one reads the Hebrew text, one will note that the opening sentence is in the feminine and in the singular, though both Miriam and Aaron are listed as doing the speaking. In v.2, however, the Torah employs the word vayomru, which is in the plural form. 4) Why does the Torah use two successive diminutive expressions such as ach and rak? 5) What are the words G-d heard supposed to teach us? Does G-d not hear everything?
The Alshekh offers his interpretation of these events and puzzling issues. He explains that we have a tradition that Moses was king in a country called Cush for 40 years – prior to becoming leader in Israel. While king, he had married a local woman who had converted, but had not consummated that marriage. Miriam and Aaron criticized Moses for divorcing Tzipporah who had been a Jewess already when he had married her. They criticized his reason for divorcing her. If it had to do with Moses’ status as a prophet, they felt that the difference in status between themselves and Moses was not all that great, since G-d had talked with them as well in broad daylight. This is banu dibber, i.e. He spoke DIRECTLY to us. This was as if to say that they maintain normal family relations with their spouses considering the fact that they have a high degree of holiness, and why therefore, cannot Moses do the same? Moses’ behavior seemed overbearing to them. The words ach and rak refer to Aaron and Miriam respectively. They both did not require an angel as an intermediary when G-d communicated with them.
Since the Torah reports Miriam and Aaron as speaking in the third person about Moses, i.e. he married, He spoke with Moses, it is clear that they were too modest to confront Moses directly with their criticism. The reason G-d singled out Miriam for punishments was that the more serious accusation came from her. This is why she is mentioned as va-te-dabber, i.e. she spoke harshly. When it came to amirah – the more friendly kind of criticism – Aaron also did his share. This is why it says vayomru, they said. It is natural for Miriam, a woman, to be upset that her sister-in-law also a woman had been abandoned by her husband. This sentiment could not be shared entirely by Aaron, a male. Tzipporah’s abandonment might give rise to outsiders viewing her as unworthy to be Moses’ wife. Since Miriam and Aaron considered Moses’ motivation as due to his holiness, not to his trying to denigrate Tzipporah in any way, vayomru, they couched their criticism in a friendly manner.
G-d heard, is to underline that even if evil gossip – lashon hara – is not motivated by malice, as in this instance, and even if it’s purpose is constructive – such as protecting the reputation of Tzipporah – G-d reacts to it. How much more so will G-d react to malicious slander??!! Also, if G-d reacts in this manner when there was no confrontation with the object of the gossip and therefore no embarrassment for him, how much more serious would be such talk when it causes embarrassment to the person who is subject to such talk. Since Miriam and Aaron, whose remarks had been overheard only by G-d, were disciplined, how much more would others whose remarks are heard by fellow human beings be punished for such talk?
Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim
In Parashat Nasso, Hashem commands Moshe to teach Birkat Kohanim to Aharon and his sons. The third verse of Birkat Kohanim reads, “May Hashem lift His face towards you (yisa Hashem panav eilecha) and give you peace.” (Bamidbar6:26) The Hebrew phrase nesi’ut panim – lifting the face – is interpreted in numerous ways. Chazal explain that it involves G-d granting favor to Israel, or, more specifically, treating them with favoritism. For this reason, the verses of Birkat Kohanim are read but not translated during kriat haTorah in the synagogue (as other verses were, according to the practice at the time of the Gemara); so that the listeners would not be confused by the concept that G-d favors one nation. (Megillah 25b)
The idea that Hashem shows favoritism, however, is more than confusing; it directly contradicts another pasuk in the Torah: “For Hashem your G-d is the G-d of all power, and Master of all masters, the great, mighty, and awesome G-d who shows no favoritism (lo yisa panim) and takes no bribes.” (Devarim10:17) Indeed, the Gemara itself is puzzled by this contradiction: “The ministering angels said before the Holy One, Blessed be He, Master of the Universe! It is written in your Torah, ‘[He] shows no favoritism and takes no bribes,’ yet behold You favor Israel, as it is written, ‘May Hashem lift His face towards you!’ He answered them, Should I not favor Israel, for whom I wrote in the Torah, ‘You shall eat and be satisfied and bless Hashem your G-d,’ yet they are careful about themselves for a kezayit and a kebeitzah [i.e., they bless even after eating less than is necessary to be satiated]?!”
The Gemara’s explanation seems to be that G-d certainly does favor Israel, but they deserve this special treatment because of their willingness to do more than the law demands. But how does that answer the question? Despite Israel’s righteousness which makes G-d want to favor them, the pasuk nonetheless states that Hashem does not show favoritism!
One possible answer is based on the important idea that G-d acts toward us in the way that we act toward Him. In a real sense, we create the framework in which we live. In the words of the Chafetz Chaim, “It is known that according to how a person directs his attributes in this world, he correspondingly arouses G-d’s attributes in the world above. If his way is to ignore slights and to act with kindness and mercy towards people, he correspondingly arouses the attribute of mercy above, and the Holy One, Blessed be He, has mercy on the world because of him. He merits also that the Holy One, Blessed be He, has mercy on him and ignores his sins.”
(Shmirat HaLashon, Shaar HaZechira, Perek Sheini)
Thus, G-d’s favoritism – that is, going beyond the demands of strict justice – is a direct result of Israel’s willingness to do more than the law demands. The verse stating that G-d does not show favoritism refers to a normal case that demands justice. Israel does more than G-d’s law demands, however, so G-d acts toward Israel beyond the letter of the law. That is, in its own way, an aspect of justice.
Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim