Parsha

For the week ending 12 July 2003 / 12 Tammuz 5763

Parshat Chukat - Balak

by Rabbi Mendel Weinbach zt'l
The Color of HeavenArtscroll

Overviews

Chukat

The laws of the para aduma the red heifer are detailed. These laws are for the ritual purification of one who comes into contact with death. After nearly 40 years in the desert, Miriam dies and is buried at Kadesh. The people complain about the loss of their water supply that until now has been provided miraculously in the merit of Miriam's righteousness. Aharon and Moshe pray for the people's welfare. G-d commands them to gather the nation at Merivah and speak to a designated rock so that water will flow forth. Distressed by the people's lack of faith, Moshe hits the rock instead of speaking to it. He thus fails to produce the intended public demonstration of G-d's mastery over the world, which would have resulted had the rock produced water merely at Moshe's word. Therefore, G-d tells Moshe and Aharon that they will not bring the people into the Land. Bnei Yisrael resume their travels, but because the King of Edom, a descendant of Esav, denies them passage through his country, they do not travel the most direct route to Eretz Yisrael. When they reach Mount Hor, Aharon dies and his son Elazar is invested with his priestly garments and responsibilities. Aharon was beloved by all, and the entire nation mourns him 30 days. Sichon the Amorite attacks Bnei Yisrael when they ask to pass through his land. As a result, Bnei Yisrael conquer the lands that Sichon had previously seized from the Amonites on the east bank of the Jordan River.

Balak

Balak, king of Moav, is in morbid fear of Bnei Yisrael. He summons a renowned sorcerer named Bilaam to curse them. First, G-d speaks to Bilaam and forbids him to go. But, because Bilaam is so insistent, G-d appears to him a second time and permits him to go. While en route, a malach (emissary from G-d) blocks Bilaam's donkey's path. Unable to contain his frustration, Bilaam strikes the donkey each time it stops or tries to detour. Miraculously, the donkey speaks, asking Bilaam why he is hitting her. The malach instructs Bilaam regarding what he is permitted to say and what he is forbidden to say regarding the Jewish People. When Bilaam arrives, King Balak makes elaborate preparations, hoping that Bilaam will succeed in the curse. Three times Bilaam attempts to curse and three times blessings issue instead. Balak, seeing that Bilaam has failed, sends him home in disgrace.

Bnei Yisrael begin sinning with the Moabite women and worshipping the Moabite idols, and they are punished with a plague. One of the Jewish leaders brazenly brings a Midianite princess into his tent, in full view of Moshe and the people. Pinchas, a grandson of Aharon, grabs a spear and kills both evildoers. This halts the plague, but not before 24,000 have died.

Insights

Chukat

Like Talking To A Rock

"Because you did not believe in Me to sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel" (20:12)

What does it mean to be Jewish?

If you look in the siddur, the book of Jewish prayer, you will find that it defines the Jewish People as: "Yisrael, the sanctifiers of Your Name." (Shabbat morning Shmone Esrei prayer)

How do you sanctify G-ds name?

Sanctifying G-ds name can mean being willing to give up your life for no other reason than you are Jewish whether in an oven in Auschwitz or in a number 14 bus in Jerusalem.

It can mean refusing to cheat in business even when that particular form of cheating is considered so normal that anyone who doesnt cheat is a mug.

It can mean the Tel Aviv taxi driver returning the wallet that you dropped unknowingly in his cab and finding that not only is the entire $1000 dollars still there, but he refuses to charge you for the extra journey he had to make.

We are Yisrael, the sanctifiers of G-ds name. Thats our job Kiddush Hashem. That is who we are.

In this weeks Parsha, Moshe is punished for failing to sanctify G-ds name. According to Nachmanides, when G-d told Moshe to draw water from the rock, instead of speaking to it, he hit it. This was his failure.

Let me ask you a question. Isnt someone making water come out of a rock a pretty big Kiddush Hashem? Whats so shabby about that? Doesnt such a miracle sanctify G-ds name in front of the masses?

As much as hitting the rock was a Kiddush HaShem, talking to the rock would have been far greater.

Kiddush Hashem is the essence of the Jewish People, thus its not measured by what we do; its measured by what we could do.

Sources:

  • Based on Rabbi Chenoch Lebowitz as heard from Rabbi C. Z. Senter as heard from Rabbi Dovid Orlofsky

Balak

Can You Hold?

"How goodly are your tents, Yaakov!" (24:5)

A few weeks ago, I was deep in conversation with a friend. Suddenly, the phone rang and he did something very strange.

He answered the phone.

Someone was calling from America. My friend whispered a hasty "Excuse me!" and proceeded to spend about five minutes on the phone while I sat there.

Can anyone tell me what makes the telephone more important than me?

What gives an electronic voice priority over one of flesh and blood? I realize that the person on the phone was more important, infinitely wittier, and better-looking than me but lacking prophecy, clairvoyance or caller ID, my friend had no way of knowing that before he picked up the handset. And yet, the phone still came first.

Why are we prepared to interrupt flesh and blood intimacy for a disembodied contact over the airwaves? What makes the telephone more important than a real person?

And it seems that my friend is far from being alone in this. With the proliferation (spawning would be a better word) of the mobile phone, at all times and in all places, I see the same oft-repeated scenario. "Oh excuse me! Ive got a phone call!"

I think that the mindset behind all this is that we are afraid of missing out on something. Im already here, but whos on the end of the phone? We dont want to miss something.

Of course, its impossible to miss something. If you missed it it wasnt for you. G-d makes sure that everything that happens to us and doesnt happen for us is precisely and exactly what we need. No less and no more.

This, in essence, was Bilaams praise of the Jewish People when he said "How goodly are your tents, Yaakov!" The "goodness of the tents of Yaakov" consisted of the fact their entrances did not face one another. If youre happy with what youve got you dont need to look elsewhere.

Youre not worried that, maybe, youre missing out.

Okay, Im sorry, youll have to excuse me, I have to go. My phone is ringing

Sources:

  • Rashi, as explained by Rabbi Matisyahu Solomon as heard from Rabbi C. Z. Senter

The Hearth Of Holiness

"How goodly are your tents, Yaakov!" (24:5)

A family I know has a housemaid who is a religious Christian. She had been working there a number of months, taking a close and respectful interest in the life-cycle of an Orthodox Jewish household. One day with concern she asked my friends wife:

"Madam, I am worried about you. How will you ever go to Heaven? You never go to the synagogue!"

In this weeks Parsha, Bilaam tried unsuccessfully to curse the Jewish People. After his last attempt, he suggested to Balak that Balak dispatch the Moabite women to seduce the Jewish men, because the G-d of Israel is angered by immorality. The only time that the Torah speaks of G-ds af "anger" is in connection with sexual immorality.

The Moabites were so intent on the downfall of the Jewish People that they even sent the daughters of the highest aristocracy to carry out their plan.

Why did Bilaam recommend this specific course of action? There are many other evils that G-d despises, such as idol worship.

A Jews holy sanctuary is his home. To be sure, the synagogue is an important place, a holy place. But it cannot compete with the centrality in Jewish life of the home. The home contains the holiest elements of Jewish life: The Shabbat table, the sacred closeness of husband and wife, the passing over of timeless values from parent to child, the Seder, the Succa

Bilaam realized that the only way to destroy the Jewish People was to attack their very heart. Anything else would cause merely superficial damage.

And that heart is the hearth of holiness.

Sources:

  • Talmud Bavli; Moreh Hanevuchim 1:36; Rabbi Dovid Orlofsky

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