Friday, July 25, 2008

Matot II

Adapted From Based On What's Bothering Rashi:

Bamidbar 31:8 is where we’re told that Bilam is killed. Rashi says that Bilam tried to get Bnei Yisrael by using their weapon of the mouth – so he was “gotten” through the means usually employed by the Umot HaOlam – the sword. What pshat oriented purpose does this medrash serve that prompted Rashi to put it in his peirush?

The Nefesh HaGer points out that throughout all of Tanach there is an amazing Mesorah that lasted over a thousand years while tanach was written which employed the following code: Whenever non-Jewish nations attack The Jews (or other nations) the expression used is hargu bacherev. An example of this is Edom saying, "Lest with a sword (bacherev) I will approach you." – Bamidbar 20:18. When the Jews attack the nothern nations the expression used is hargu lefi cherev. (See Bamidbar 20:18 and Shmot 17:13).

The phrase Pi Cherev, on a superficial level, reflects that the sword is similar to a mouth. The mouth cuts (into foods like meat) and the sword cuts flesh/meat. A deeper meaning is that when Jews attack physically the component of prayer is always present. We see this first from Yaakov as he faces war with eisav. Rashi on Breishit 32:10 states that Yakov prepared 3 things before his confrontation with Eisav; gifts, prayer and battle. Yaakov, despite getting ready for a physical fight made sure to include the element of prayer. Similarly, Moshe raised his hands in prayer in the battle against Amalek.

When Jews fight it is with a double edged sword; the actual blade and the prayer which sharpens the blade.


Nechama Leibowitz tells us that children are taught (and hold on to the fact) that Bilam was the mastermind behind the plan to seduce the Jewish men into idolatry. Parshat Matot (31:16) - הֵן הֵנָּה הָיוּ לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, בִּדְבַר בִּלְעָם, לִמְסָר-מַעַל בַּיהוָה, עַל-דְּבַר-פְּעוֹר; וַתְּהִי הַמַּגֵּפָה, בַּעֲדַת יְהוָה - Behold, these caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to revolt so as to break faith with the L-rd in the matter of Peor, and so the plague was among the congregation of the L-rd (Machon Mamre traslation) is where the Torah reveales that it was Bilam's counsel that led to this tragedy. When the event is first describes, as it transpires, in Parshat Balak the people are blamed 25:1) וַיֵּשֶׁב יִשְׂרָאֵל, בַּשִּׁטִּים; וַיָּחֶל הָעָם, לִזְנוֹת אֶל-בְּנוֹת מוֹאָב - "And Israel abode in Shittim, and the people began to commit harlotry with the daughters of Moab." Shadal explains fills in the rest of the story, saying that on his way back to Aram Bilam passed through Midyan and heard the Israelites had sinned and worshipped idols through being involved with Bnot Moav. He then took this reality and ran with it upon realizing it was the only way to get at Bnei Yisrael. He advised the Midianites to send their women to lure Bnei Yisrael becuase this was the only way Bnei Yisrael would sin and forfeit God’s protection.

Nechama suggests that the reason for this spacing is to make clear that the people did what they did by choice. The Torah is blocking the option of passing responsibility off onto anyone else. As she puts it (in an English adaptation by Aryeh Newman), "The moral responsibility ultimately rested on the Israelites themselves. They were guilty."

This is a critical lesson. may we be blessed to integrate this kind of ethical responsibility into our lives.

Thursday, July 24, 2008


The following is largely an adaptation of the ideas of Rabbi Yitzchak Twersky:

Parshat Matot/Masei discusses the implementation of the revenge on Midyan which was introduced in the previous parsha. But this revenge is only addressed after a seemingly arbitrary insertion regarding the laws of nedarim and nedavot. This needs to be explored and explained. Also, Benot Tzlofchot are discussed here at the end of Bamidbar after a break from the start of their story. This also needs to be elucidated. There is another difficulty in this parsha which is the question of the status of Ever HaYarden. The answer to the pardox of Ever HaYarden will help to make sense of the entire parsha. Therefore we will delve into the question of Ever HaYarden.

There is a dichotomy in the Torah’s presentation of Ever HaYarden. On the one hand it appears to not be part of Israel. On the other hand it seems to be part of Israel. This is illustrated by the following examples on each side of the question of Ever HaYarden

2.5 Shvatim ask permission to live there
Moshe is allowed there (Sichon/Og)
Arei Miklat are singled out from Israel’s Arei Miklat
Mishna (R’ Yosi HaGlili) says no Bikurim there

Permission was granted to the 2.5 tribes to live there.
It is conquered first in the conquest of Israel
There are Arei Miklat there (they are only in Israel)
Most Mitzvot of Eretz Yisrael apply

Makkot 2:4 states there were 6 Arei Miklat, 3 in Ever HaYarden and 3 in Israel proper (as stated inBamidbar 35:14) The mishna states that the 3 in Ever HaYarden only took effect once the 3 in Israel were established. Bamidbar 35:9-14 clearly supports ruling of the mishnah of the mishna and the idea behind it - that the Arei Miklat of Ever HaYarden only become meaningful after the crossing of the Yarden, even though they are already called Arei Miklat before the rest were set. This shows that Ever HaYarden is an extension of Eretz Yisrael, but not Eretz Yisrael proper. This thesis explains a great deal.

The underlying concept of Arei Miklat is galut-exile. ( A side point: Arei Miklat are considered galut even though they ironically only exist in Israel - thus being in this Twilight Zone-esque category of being in Israel but being a state of Galut. One can't help but wonder if this concept applies to people as well. Can one be in Israel and yet in a spiritual state of Galut? A friend of mine once said that Galut is wanting to do the right thing but not knowing what it is. It seems to me that this Ir Miklat type mixture is quite relevant to each of us today in our pre-Mashiach era of Galut. There is a traditional concept of Galut hadaat, a state of mind which can possess a person even in Israel. Another way of phrasing this is to say that there are different types of Galut, one can be in galut from one's G-d, or in Galut from oneself). .

Galut in it’s literal sense means being removed from Eretz Yisrael. Arei Miklat are unique to Eretz Yisrael because they provide a kind of in-house galut. The solution to the Ever HaYarden question is that before kivush haaretz they were not part of Israel but they would eventually be a part of Israel. The explanation for this switch is that there can be no annex to a land until ownership of that land is established.

The fact that it was specifically Moshe who designates the Areki Miklat of Ever HaYarden is revealing. This alludes to a deep connection between Moshe and Ever HaYarden. Sefer Devarim highlights the relationship between Moshe’s designating this area and the theme of Devarim, which is the process of Mishna Torah (Moshe’s words of review and farewell).

In Devarim 4:41-44, the Torah connects Arei Miklat and the presentation of Mishna Torah. ( As Ibn Ezra points out in 4:41 on the words Az Yavdil Moshe “the explanation {for Arei Miklat being discussed here} is that the day that Moshe divided these cities is the same day that he spoke his words [Mishna Torah] of Brit. ”). The connection between Ever HaYarden and Moshe’s final words is a straightforward. Moshe needed to prepare this generation for their lives in Israel before they actually entered. A most appropriate place for such preparation is a place that, just like them, was not in Israel, but would one day be in Israel.

The opening pasukim of Deveraim 1:1-5 connect Moshe with Ever HaYarden (mentioning it twice, explicitly telling us this is where Moshe was to begin his Mishna Torah speech.) Within this link there lies a consolation for Moshe; even though Moshe was told that he would not be buried in Israel, his burial spot would one day be considered a part of Israel. There was a correlation between this place and this final speech both for those who would enter the land and for Moshe himself who would not enter Eretz Yisrael proper. For those who would enter Israel, Ever HaYaeden represented hope for the future, illustrated the idea that holiness can relace the mundane, that change can occur.

We can now understand the relevance of Nedarim and Nedavot at the start of the parsha. The underlying concept of a neder or a shevua is that man can create kedusha-holiness where the Torah has not explicitly established it. In other words nedarim and nedavot teach us that we may extend Torah categories of kedusha. (This fits with the idea of The Ramban that a major concept of Judaism is Kadeish Atznecha BeMutar Lach, to sanctify ourselves by extending holiness into our regular realm).

The above mentioned concept lies at the heart of the paradoxical kedusha of Ever HaYarden. Ever HaYarden has Kedushat HaAretz due to man’s divinely granted ability to make it holy. The kedusha of Ever HaYarden is based on the power we find in hafla'ah - oath making. It is this special status of Ever HaYarden that underscores this whole section of the Torah.

Ever HaYarden became holy through the actions of the 2 and ½ tribes. In Bamidbar 32:24 they are told to prepare cities for their children, fences for their sheep and then they are told “Vahytoze MiPichem Yaasu” . This echoes almost exactly the words used in regard to making a neder or a shevua. (Bamibar:36) where it states “kol hayotze mepiv yaaseh”. After the concept of extending kedusha is laid out in chapter 30 there is a foundation that leads directly to the discussion of Moshe’s death and transition to the next generation. In 31:2 the Torah stresses that the fight with Midian was a necessary precursor to Moshe’s death.

The fact that this is a time of transition is highlighted by the appearance of the chazotozrot hatruah, 31:6. The Truah indicates transition (see Bamidbar 10). The medrish tanchuma emphasizes the point that the truah represents transition.

The fact that this is a time of transition is highlighted by the appearance of the chazotozrot hatruah, 31:6. The Truah indicates transition (see Bamidbar 10). The Medrish Tanchuma quotes Bamidbar 31:1-2,6 in which vengeance is commanded together with the blowing of trumpets. Immediately following this quote the midrash lists the way the shofar was blown in the context of transition on many occasions.

1. Erev Shabbat (to signal people to stop work )
2. Rosh Chodesh
3. All holidays (2 and 3 are learned from Bamidbar 10:10 )
4. When they traveled (Bamidbar 10:6)
5. When the kahal was gathered. (Bamidbar 10:7)
6. When they went to war against oppressors (Bamidbar 10:9)
7. When they avenged themselves against Midyan.

The war against Midyan paved the way for the transition in leadership: The Torah in chapter 31, following this battle recaps the entire journey - which began with Yitziyat Mitzrayim and ends with Kivush HaAretz - which brought them at this moment to Arvot Moav. The Torah is pinpointing the moment of great transition. The first passuk of this perek mentions the leaving of Mitzrayim through the hands of Moshe and Aharon and then highlights the end of this generation. Later Ahron’s death is emphasized (33:38-40) and the encampment at Arvot Moav (33:48-49 ). The process of leaving is emphasized here. There is a refrain of “Motza’eiheim LeMas’eihem”. The leadership of Moshe and Ahron is intrinsically linked with Yiziyat Mizrayim. The entering of Eretz Yisrael is a second separate step. The mentioning here of Arvot Moav sets the stage for the next step, the conquest of Eretz Yisrael.

In chapter 34 the second step is explained in greater detail, with the boundaries of Eretz Yisrael being presented and a list of those in charge of the inheritance of the land. After the inheritance is mapped out the Torah (chapter 35) returns to Ever HaYarden, to the Areki Miklat. The end of the sefer serves as an appropriate segue way to Devarim.

The Bnot Tzlofchad issue is a piece of the theme of transition. The daughters of Tzlofchad come forward to point out that before Moshe passes all responsibility of Kivush HaAretz to the next generation he has one final unresolved act of leadership to perform. This is why in their wording they stress that Moshe was commanded to deal with this issue. They were stressing the need for him to deal with his command so that Jewish History can be taken to the next level.

May we be inspired by the ideas of holiness and transition that are featured prominently in this parsha.

Thursday, July 17, 2008


This is an adaptation of the ideas of Rabbi Yitzchak Twersky with some of my own ideas added. I am grateful to my anonymous chavruta and student who assited with this piece.

Why in the middle of the parsha, in the middle of the counting of the nation, is there a throwback list of past people who were punished with death. That question along with the connection between various themes that don’t seem to fit together in this parshah will be answered with the following approach:

There are four topics in Parshat Pinchas:

1) Postscript to the Pinchas’ actions

2) Genealogy of Jewish People, the resolution of Bnot Tzlophchad issue – both of which are Part of the division of e Israel according to inheritance

3) The appointment of Yehoshua

4) the regular Temidim and additional Mussaf Korbanot.

The connective theme is the concept of korban (which is normally translated as sacrifice, but really means an act that increases closeness to G-d). These topics are each based on the korban model.

1. In Bamidbar 25:6 the passuk goes out of it’s way to use the terminology of kaarbanot, saying that a man brought (vayikriv) a midianite women to the tent door (it could have said he took, invited, or she came). In 25:12 Pinchas’s action is described as having avenged for his God and bringing atonement (vayichaper) for Bne Yisrael, another term associated with karbanot (and his reward is to become a kohein, one who offers karbanot). Medrish Tanchuma at the opening of the parsha asks on the passuk "vechi korban hikriv shnamar bo kaparah!?" - “Did he offer a korban; is that why this word is used?” The Medrash's answer, that his killing a wicked man was considered like offering a sacrifice, along with the question itself, is clearly connoting the korban theme.

2. These same phrases are repeated in the story of Bnot Tzlofchod (27:1, 5).Their approach of Moshe is preceded by the word vatikravna. It also states that they stood, vatoamodnah, before Moshe. This allusion to amidah connotes tefillah, which is avoda, like korbanot. The setting korban themed - "towards the opening of the Ohel Moed." Additionally, it doesn't merely say Moshe brought the Judicial question before God, but it says vayikrav moshe et divreihen lifnei Hashem, sounding very much like a kohein offering a korban on their behalf.

3. When leadership is transferred from Moshe to Yehoshua the symbolic vehicle utilized is smicha, the resting of hands, an action most commonly associated with the avodah of korbanot.

4. The last part of the Parsha is actually about korbanot.

The deep theme that runs throughthis parsha is that of replacement, the foundation of the concept of korbanot:

1. By attacking Zimri and Kazbi, Pinchas replaced G-d’s kin’ah - jealousy with his own (25:11). Hashem was intent upon destroying Am Yisrael, He did not destroy them because the killing of Zimri and Kazbi replaced the killing of Bnei Yisrael (velo kiniti et Bnei Yisrael). These replacements are the undercurrent of the korban that the Medrash says that Zimri and Kazbi became.

2a. The section about the allotment of the land of Israel deals with the generation that replaced the one which left Mitzrayim. As described in Shemot 3:8, the Yotz’ai Mitzrayim were originally meant to inherit the land but the next generation inherited in their stead.

2b. Bnot Tzlofchod replaced the men (father, brothers) that were not there to inherit the land.

3. Yehoshua replaced Moshe.

4. Karbanot are based on the principal of the animal replacing us.

There are several seemingly out of place references in this parsha to people who were punished by G-d with death. These can be explained in light of the approach we’ve developed.

26:9-11 speaks of Korach and co. Their desire was to replace Moshe and Aharon. Their names are actually evoked by the daughters of Tzlofchod in contrast to their father (who they wish to rightfully fill in for). Korach had an insincere personal agenda motivating his demand for replacement.

26:19 refers to Eir and Onan. At the center of that story is Onan’s refusal to replace the lineage of his deceased brother. There is also reference to the death of Aharon’s sons. They brought an innappropriate korban that did not serve to replace them, thus their lives were taken. Aharon and others, on the other hand, who brought korbanot correctly were replaced by their korban.

The fact that this portion focuses on replacement is not surprising taken in light of the episode which precedes it. The previous portion focuses on abuses of the concept of korban. Bilam continuously uses korbanot towards accomplishing his evil designs. He tries to bribe G-d with korbanot (much as Balak tries to bribe Bilam with korbanot). Also, at the end of the parsha Bnei Yisrael are involved with activities that are refered to as zivchei meitim - dead, ineffective korbanot.

There is a striking similarity between Bilam’s story and the story of the Akeida. Chazal note the description of Bilam rising early and preparing his donkey for his journey, and imagine G-d telling him, “Wicked one, Avraham already preceded you in rising early.” These two personalities personify a contreast between self-centeredness on the one hand, and self-sacrifice on the other.

It is not arbitrarily that the Mishna in Avot chose to contrast the students of Avraham and the followers of Bilam. (Some commentaries explain that Chazal contrast the students, because sometimes the differences can be hard to detect in the masters). there are many contrasts between these two people. The Akeidah, is also very connected to the Bilam story, as well as to the continuation story of Pinchas.

Pinchas put himself in danger. Like Yitzchak in the akeidah story - the penultimate example of the concept of korban, he was willing to sacrifice his own life and was then replaced and saved. (Normally, one can not become a Kohein. Even as a gift from G-d we don’t see another example of this once it was set who the Kohanim were. Rav Nachman Kahane suggests that Pinchas actually became a new person, and the person he became was a Kohein. Within the terminology we’ve been using, you could say that the old Pinchas was replaced by a new one!)

The Jewish people at this time were involved in Giui Arayot and Ovadah Zarah. It makes sense that ovodah needs to be strengthened at this point (see a similar situation, Achrei Mot/Kedoshim where after the avodah of korbanot is corrupted it is reestablished).

The pattern of korbanot is that there are always 7 kvasim and one ayil and on Sukkot its doubled (the number of parim varies, but the 7 kvasyim and 1 ayil is constant). 7+1=8. 8 represents brit. The akiedah is the epitome of a brit. The akiedah is here and alluded to as the paradigm of true avodah. It is quite worthy of note that the 8th animal in each set is an ayil, as an olah, as was ultimately offered in the Akieda.

In conclusion, this parsha presents a restatement of the fundamental concept of replacement as it relates to true service of G-d.

Pinchas Postscript

The story of Pinchas takes place in Parshat Balak. Only the postscript of Pinchas' reward appears in the section that bears his name. Rabbi Moshe of Coucy explains that a thin line separates impulsive intolerance from righteous zeal. Time clarifies motivation. The pause between Pinchas' action and his repayment represent a period of observation. After evaluation proved Pinchas was mature and sincere, his behavior was rewarded.
Adolescence is a time of self discovery and a time of rebellion. Not always do convictions of youth last. Rabbi Abraham Twerski applies this to some anti-establishment rebels of the 1960s. He writes: "Twenty years later finds some of the most vehement protestors wearing business suits and conservative shoes, their hair neatly styled, and carrying briefcases as they emerge from their suburban homes, very much a part of the "establishment" which they had so violently condemned in their youth." He suggests that their actions were clearly informed by impetuousness endemic to their age.
Closer to home, there are many people who leave religion or "find" their Jewish religion in their late teens and early twenties. Who they really want to be becomes clear only in time as their behavior at 18 or 21 becomes a footnote to their lives.
May we be blessed to be the best of our youth for the rest of our lives.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Balak II

This is an adaptation of some of Rabbi Yitzchak Twersky's ideas in his Amitah Shel Torah.

While it says in Devarim 34:10 that Israel never had a prophet like Moshe, the medrash infers from the wording, there was such a prophet for the nations of the world, ie: Bilam. The question of the talking donkey can not be ignored. One can suggest that the donkey was mirroring Bilam back to himself. Clearly, the aton/donkey only spoke because God made it speak. Through this Bilam was taught (although he didn't eally learn the lesson) that the same control of G-d applied to him as to the donkey (as opposed to his previous contention that he had the power to curse and bless).

Chukat and Balak have parallel themes and this is the deeper meaning of that statement of Chazal. In each parsha the Jews and then the nations, respectively, are taught the lesson that God and not man controls everything .


Medrash Tanchuma on Vayeitzei 1:3 says that Bilaam and Lavan are "the same person." Bilaam was from Aram (see Rashi, Bamidbar 22:5, where it says Balak sent word to Petora which Onkulus translates as Petor-Aram). Lavan is referred to as an Arami because h tried to destroy Israel, as Lavan had also attempted. Another personality parallel is that of Balak and Paroh. In Bamidbar 22:3 Balak's fear of the Jewish People's growth is expressed with the words "Vaykatz Moav mipeni Bnei Yisrael." In Shemot 1:12 it says about Mitzraiyim, "Vayakutzu mpeni Bne Yisrael."

Paroh and Lavan have different means but same ends in mind. Lavan attempted to uproot Judaism by pulling Yaakov’s family into the realm of Avodah Zarah. Paroh planned to simply destroy the Jewish people through warfare (see Ramban end of Shemot).

Based on Bamidbar 22:2 (with Rashi ) its clear that Balak’s call to Bilaam was predicated upon what Bnei Yisrael had done to the Emori. In Chukat the Jews are blocked from going the route they planned to go. In Shemot 15:15 it states that the chieftians of Edom were/would be confounded, that trembling did/would grip the powers of Moav, and that the Jews would pass through their lands (ad yavor). Edom undid what these words in Az Yashir predicted (Shmot 15:16 ad yavor amcha Hashem) by stating Lo Taavor Bi (Bamidbar 20:18). The shirah at the end of Chukat serves as a second Az Yashir and reinstated the fear of Bne Yisrael in the world. Moav is described in Az Yashir as being afraid and when the time comes, this prediction plays out.

In Yehoshua 2:9 the nations of the world are described as trembling (namogu kol yoshvei haaretz tachteihem). The passuk cited above (Shemot 16:16) concludes with the words "Namogu kol yoshvei Cananaan." The words in Yehohua clearly echo the words of Az Yashir. Rachav explains that the fear of Bne Yisrael is based on what God did at Yam Suf and what He did to Sichon and Og. We can explain that in giving these two examples Rachav is saying that the later events reinstated the power of the original message. Now that the Jews are back on track an attempt to undo the process of redemption is immediately put into play. Just like Lavan and then Pharoah sensed the impending ascent of the Jewish people, now Balak and Bilaam take their turn.

It is important to notice the difference between the two dialogues that Bilaam has with Balak’s messengers. In the first the word used to mean to curse is Arah, (22:6). the second time the word used to mean curse is Kavah (22:11). Arah means to really change the situation. Kavah means to curse in the more colloquial sense, to vent anger or frustration. The second difference flows from the first: The first statement was more confident. When Bilaam tells God about the first meeting he leaves out the fact that Balak said "I know that who you bless will blessed those who you curse will be cursed." Bilaam was trying to trick God.

It's worth noting that Bilaam said "if you give me your house full of silver and gold I can't go against God’s word." (22:18) Based on 31:16 it seems (although Ramban disagrees) that Bilam was the mastermind of the Baal Peor incident. In 25:8 the crisis is ended when Pinchas stabs the major offender. The pasuk specifically says that Pinchas came into the tent, the Kubah, and stabbed the woman in her stomach, kabatah. It seems like the passuk is going out of its way to use and reuse a form of the same word. This indicates a connection to Bilam’s curse which in the end is described with the word Kabah. Bilaam finally gets at Bnei Yisrael through the advice he gives about Baal Peor. He attempts to fulfill his mandate of "Lech kavah li" through events that reach their peak inside a "kubah" and in the end Pinchas undoes the damage by piercing through "kabatah.

Bilaam’s test was to accept that whatever God says goes. As much as God made His will clear Bilaam obscured it in his mind he ran from what he knew was the clear truth. Pinchas does the opposite. He was in a situation in which the truth was clouded, God’s will was not being done, no one (including Moshe, see Rashi on that passuk 25:6 who says that someone taunted Moshesaying " if you say a Midianite women is forbidden, who allowed you, you married a Bat Yitro!?" (Tzipprah, a Midianite). Pinchas recalls the “halacha” and steps forward and pierces through to the truth.

The similarity in words reflects a poetic justice. The words reflect that the truth that Bilaam tries to run from by cursing, kavah, that was turned inside out and exposed and revealed when Pinchas entered the tent, kubah and stabbed the idolatress temptress in her stomach, kaba.

May we be blessed to be protected from destruction, to be internally strong, and to forever grow through the wellsprings of our Torah.



The following piece is to a large extent adapted from a piece by Nechama Leibowitz in Studies In Bamidbar, and on an article by Alexander Klein. I am also indebted to a dear student who assisted me greatly in learning and writing up these ideas.

G-d can provide protection any physical threat, of course with G-d on your side one need not fear superstitious chants. Bilam himself conveys the idea that Chazal express as Ein Mazal LeYisrael / אין מזל לישראל- there is no power of constellation over Israel (Shabbat 156a) (this is the generally accepted ruling, but there is a minority opinion and the many sources that seem to take mazal seriously are discussed in this Hebrew article), Ki Lo Nachash BeYaakov VeLo Kesem BeYisrael – there is no divination in Jacob and no sorcery in Israel (Bamidbar 23:23). The pervasive question regarding this parsha is; why does God cancel Bilam’s curse and turn it into a blessing?

Some say G-d's interference was to teach Bilaam a lesson and to set an example for the world. An alternate approach is that psychologically this curse would have affected the Jews, thus God protected them from the psychological damage (this, like other answers, assumes that the Jews knew of the curse, despite the fact that this is never stated as the story is told).

Rav Yosef Ibn Caspi in his Tirat Kesef says “ a true friend will save his colleague any pain even if he knows no danger will issue. Similarly the Almighty out of the abundance of his love for Israel prevented Bilam from cursing them though he was aware that his curses were impotent. But the Almighty did not rest content with this. He went so far as to make Bilam bless the people to give them pleasure."

Abarbanel, from a slightly different angle, suggests that if Bilam cursed the Jews other nations would have become more courageous and attacked as well. The fact that the curse was turned to blessing prevented other nations from attacking. We see in Joshua 2:9 that Rachav says the people feared Am Yisrael and it makes sense that this was true in light of Bilam’s blessing and might not have been true had he publicly recited his curses.

Another possibility is offered by Shadal - Rav Shmuel Dovid Luzzatto: The Jews were forbidden to fight with Moav (Devarim 2:9). If Bilam had uttered his curse Moav would have felt it was the curse that caused the Jews to refrain from attacking them. God’s act of turning the curse to a blessing created a Kiddush Hashem instead of a Chilul Hashem.

Rav Meir Simcha off Dvinsk, in his Meshech Chochmah, writes that the blocking of curse and subsequent blessing served to both boost the confidence of The Jews and to weaken the resolve of their opponents. He adds that the fact that the donkey spoke in front of the elders of Midian made it clear that Bilam's blessing was not due to a Jewish payoff, nor was it a fluke in any way. just as G-d made the donkey speak, He caused this blessing to emanate from Bilam.

(The Rambam - Moreh Nevuchim 2:6 - is of the opinion that the donkey did not actually speak. He consistently marshals this view, saying that the people of Sedom were not blinded by seeing angels, Yaakov did not wrestle with an angel, etc. he Abarbanel is also of this opinion and answers questions that arise in particular cases. He explains, for example, that Yaakov came out limping even though his fight was a dream due to the psychosomatic effect. The Abarbanel also is of the opinion that the first speaking animal, the snake, did not speak. In each of these cases a person saw or heard the gestures of an animal and this sparked the viewer to experience an internal dialogue. Chava imagined the nachash saying that "If I can touch the tree, you can too." Bilam got the message from the donkey's braying that, "You are acting imnnapropriately.")

Anselm Astruc suggests God canceled this curse so that when the Jews sinned no one would say that their suffering was because of the curse. God wanted to make it clear that the Jewish People's suffering is the result of the act of their Father in heaven chastising them for their disobedience. Astruc sees God’s action as having a long term effect, not being merely a statement for that moment in time. In his opinion, the point was to make clear for future generations that suffering comes as Divine punishment because failure to understand this would be a Chilul Hashem.

I recently saw a video of an impressive "mind reader." In an interview, he explained what he does is not magic, but a skill. There is brilliance in what he does. he watches for signs and takes clues and then decides if people are lying or what choices they've made in their minds. I know some people who have this knack, this man though is outstanding. And when you seem him do it, it seems supernatural. he himself, will tell you that it's not. I thought of this performer when I read Yehezkel Kaufman's take on Bilam (from The Religion of Israel, Chicago 1960, pp. 78-79; 84-8, cited by Alexander Klein in his 2003 article). He points out that from the text it definitely seems that Bilam's powers were real and therefore taken seriously. He explains that Bilam had a rare wisdom that he applied in a natural way and used for negative purposes. Had he wished to, he could have used his talents for good. (Similarly, as a dear friend pointed out to me, this performer might have become a great Talmudic sage or spiritual advisor had he chosen to channel his talent in that direction.)

It is possible, as Kaufman suggests, that G-d blocked Bilam's curse because he - somehow - had an ability to curse others (maybe to psych them out, to create a bad vibe), therefore G-d stopped him from cursing the Jewish People. The lesson then is that no-one, no matter how clever, can outsmart G-d or fight the will of G-d. Today we have increased and seemingly miraculous technology and wisdom, yet we must remember that our advances are nothing compared to the power of G-d. As Dovid HaMelech summed it up, "רבות מחשבות בלב איש ועצת ה' היא תקום" - "many are the thoughts in the heart of man but the will of G-d prevails."

May we be blessed through our studying Parshat Balak to incorporate into our daily lives an added awareness of G-d's love and of His power.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Neil Fleischmann

Thursday, July 3, 2008


A friend of mine, in his yeshiva days, would look at youthful pictures of old stars, and called it Mussar. Yes. Death, like a heartbeat crouches between our thoughts, in our lives, as we hope daily for life.

The paradox of the Parah Adumah – Red Heifer, which defiles the pure and purifies the defiled, represents death, mysterious death. The teaming, contradictory combination of life death are the enigma that even King Solomon was unable to comprehend.

Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik notes the long gap in narrative between the incident of the spies and the death of Miriam. (The story of Korach and the tale of the wood gatherer are written in between, but when these actually occurred is quite questionable.) Shortly after the exodus the spies returned from their mission with a negative report. Thirty nine years later Miriam died. We are told nothing about what happened in this time.

Why are not told about the day to day happenings of these 39 years? Because nothing happened. At least, one could understand people of that time feeling it that way. After the spies' report was in, the community was told they’d travel forty years, then die. Jewish national life would begin after this population wandered aimlessly, then disappeared. Death was the only destination they had in their lives.

The Midrash presents this image: Annually, on the night of the ninth of Av, everyone between ages twenty and forty would lie down in an open grave. In the morning, only some would get up and walk away. So they progressed toward the end of an era, a time marked incrementally by the death of a generation. This had to have been a particularly sad time to live.

Rav Soloveitchik says the Parah Adumah served as a symbol for dealing with death. Had the Parah Aduma puzzle been about impurity alone it would have been put in Vayikra with the rest of tum'ah and taharah. This teaching was placed in Bamidbar, in the heart of an intense confrontation with mortality.

One of the metaphors of this rite is that someone other than the person being treated for impurity sprinkles the heifer's ashes. Generally, impure people immerse themselves in a mikvah, bringing some sense of control. Here, the treatment comes from outside oneself, from out of one's own control. The impurity of death mirrors death. We can't cope with death on our own. G-d assists us in dealing with the our lethal life. G-d assures us that the soul will survive the demise of its physical form. We will live to see death of death.

The Torah is a guidebook for life. The start of this parshah states that "this is the Chok of the Torah." Death is part of life. That’s a chok, an ungraspable reality. Even Solomon was a man and couldn't completely understand life and death. It's a G-d thing.

The Rambam serves for many as the paradigm of the rationalist. He wrote that when he saw the handwriting of his deceased brother he felt unbearable emotional pain. Rabbi Soloveitchik, today the mentor of many religious intellectuals, wrote that when struggling with his wife's fatal illness, as he walked the hospital's whitewashed walls he couldn't find G-d.

Death is a difficult reality for us all. This portion, with the Parah Adumah serves as a symbol reminds us how death hovered in the desert for 39 years. Parshat Chukat is a reminder of death, and how G-d is with us in life, even as it is the valley of the shadow of death.