Musings of an Orthodox Jew

Thoughts on Torah and the Jewish world today.

Parshas Hashavuah: Balak 5770

In his first set of prophecies, Bilaam makes a prediction that shows the status of Jews and Israel in the world today. What is this prophecy?

This weeks Parshah Balak Bamidbar (Numbers) 22:2-25:9


The first prophecy that Balak makes is:

Bamidbar (Numbers) Chapter 22
7. He took up his parable and said, “Balak the king of Moab has brought me from Aram, from the mountains of the east [saying], ‘Come, curse Jacob for me and come invoke wrath against Israel.’ ז. וַיִּשָּׂא מְשָׁלוֹ וַיֹּאמַר מִן אֲרָם יַנְחֵנִי בָלָק מֶלֶךְ מוֹאָב מֵהַרְרֵי קֶדֶם לְכָה אָרָה לִּי יַעֲקֹב וּלְכָה זֹעֲמָה יִשְׂרָאֵל:
8. How can I curse whom God has not cursed, and how can I invoke wrath if the Lord has not been angered? ח. מָה אֶקֹּב לֹא קַבֹּה אֵל וּמָה אֶזְעֹם לֹא זָעַם יְ־הֹוָ־ה:
9. For from their beginning, I see them as mountain peaks, and I behold them as hills; it is a nation that will dwell alone, and will not be reckoned among the nations. ט. כִּי מֵרֹאשׁ צֻרִים אֶרְאֶנּוּ וּמִגְּבָעוֹת אֲשׁוּרֶנּוּ הֶן עָם לְבָדָד יִשְׁכֹּן וּבַגּוֹיִם לֹא יִתְחַשָּׁב:
10. Who counted the dust of Jacob or the number of a fourth of [or, of the seed of] Israel? May my soul die the death of the upright and let my end be like his.” י. מִי מָנָה עֲפַר יַעֲקֹב וּמִסְפָּר אֶת רֹבַע יִשְׂרָאֵל תָּמֹת נַפְשִׁי מוֹת יְשָׁרִים וּתְהִי אַחֲרִיתִי כָּמֹהוּ:
11. Balak said to Balaam, “What have you done to me? I took you to curse my enemies, but you have blessed them!” יא. וַיֹּאמֶר בָּלָק אֶל בִּלְעָם מֶה עָשִׂיתָ לִי לָקֹב אֹיְבַי לְקַחְתִּיךָ וְהִנֵּה בֵּרַכְתָּ בָרֵךְ:
12. He answered, saying, “What the Lord puts into my mouth that I must take care to say.” יב. וַיַּעַן וַיֹּאמַר הֲלֹא אֵת אֲשֶׁר יָשִׂים יְ־הֹוָ־ה בְּפִי אֹתוֹ אֶשְׁמֹר לְדַבֵּר:

What in this is the answer to how he prophesies about the status of Jews and their nation throughout time?

9. For from their beginning, I see them as mountain peaks, and I behold them as hills; it is a nation that will dwell alone, and will not be reckoned among the nations. ט. כִּי מֵרֹאשׁ צֻרִים אֶרְאֶנּוּ וּמִגְּבָעוֹת אֲשׁוּרֶנּוּ הֶן עָם לְבָדָד יִשְׁכֹּן וּבַגּוֹיִם לֹא יִתְחַשָּׁב:

The meforshim teach that Bilaam wanted to curse Bnei Yisrael- and each time he tried, his intended curse was turned into a blessing. Thus we see with this prophecy:
it is a nation that will dwell alone, and will not be reckoned among the nations. הֶן עָם לְבָדָד יִשְׁכֹּן וּבַגּוֹיִם לֹא יִתְחַשָּׁב:

His intention was to curse the Jews that they would be a lone without any allies and thus easy to defeat. We were to bereft of any friends and allies, no earthly powers would help us, and, similarly, no divine or supernatural powers would assist us. Instead, his blessing cemented the fact that while Bnei Yisrael would not have mundane allies and would always be treated as an outsider by the nations, they would be under the protection of G-d for all time would need no one else. Bnei Yisrael would never be ordinary, they would always be seen by everyone else as being apart, special. Nobody would treat us as they do other nations and peoples, but they would hold us to different standards, place us apart just a smountains and hills rise up from the surrounding area.

This has always been true and is just as true today- Israel and Jews are held to standards that are not applied to others, and any support they receive is based on how it benefits the person not because of their being any true rapport between their allies and themselves. we just need to read a newspaper or watch the news to understand the different standards Israel and Jews are held to compared to others.

there is another aspect to this- just as we would be apart from tohers, we would never assimilate or disspear becoming just another nation amongst many. We would always exist, always be apart, always keeping to the Torah- that which differentiates us form all other nations and endears us to G-d.

June 23, 2010 Posted by | Current affairs, Parshah, Torah | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Parshas Chukas Balak 5769- The decree of the Torah

Parshas Chukas starts off with the statement “This is the decree of the Torah”.  It then goes on to the sacrifice of the red heffer and how it is used to purify people from tumat HaMeit- impurity contracted from a corpse, the only form of impurity which makes someone touching the impure item able to convey to the next person the highest level of impurity (av hatumah).  The procedure can be summarised as follows:

A red heffer was to be sacrificed by Eleazar, the deputy high priest.  Ramban discusses in depth whether this was a specific commandment for all time that the Kohen Gadol should not offer this sacrifice, whether it was only this once that the Kohen Gadol could not offer the sacrifice .  The conclusion (as I understand it) is that the Kohen gadol can, if he wishes, offer the sacrifce but is not compelled to.

So, the red heffer is sacrificed and then burnt completely on a large stack of wood and other items.  The ashes are collected.  When a person becomes impure from tumat hameit, they go to the kohen on the third and seventh dat of the purification period.  The ashes from the parah adumah are mixed with water, and sprinkled onto the person.At the end of the process, the impure person is pure, and the pure person is impure.  Where the great mystery lies in this sacrifice, is- how does a substance that provide purification, cause impur” decree so as to deter those who would mock the Torah and thus claim it is nonsensical?

Rashi remarks on this verse that the Torah explicitly uses the word “chok” (decree) is used whenever a law seems to be nonsensical and has no rational explanation.  Thus, he says, the word is used here in order to deter those who would attack the Torah, claiming this sacrifice is nonsensical.  yes, rashi says, we are aware, that of all the mitzvot in the Torah, the parah adomah is the one that we cannot understand- and the Torah tells us this fact!

HaRav Moshe Feinstein zst”l offers a very interesting insight into the use of the word “chok” here. He points out that the word chok is also used when it comes to how we purify utensils to make them kosher when they have been used for non-Kosher purposes by non-Jews.  In that case, he points out, the law is rational, sensible, seemingly obvious, so why is the word “chok” used?  The purpose, says Rav Moshe, is to make us sensitive to the fact that no matter how well we think we know a mitzvha, even if their appears to be an explanation from the Torah or Gemorrah or the Geonim- we should never presume to change the details of how to perform a mitzvah, even though we think we have a complete understanding of it, we cannot change what the Torah has written.  the use of the word “chok” when it comes to a seemingly obvious mitzvah, which a clearly visible explanation and understanding, is to sensitise us to the fact that, even there, we have to understand that there is an element to every mitzvah that comes from Hashem, and as such, an element that we cannot clearly understand.

July 6, 2009 Posted by | Parshah, Torah | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Parshat Balak 5768

Before destruction comes pride, and before stumbling [comes] a haughty spirit.” Mishlei 16:18. (If that isn’t familiar- the more familiar paraphrasing of “Pride cometh before a fall” undoubtedly is.)

So why start discussing this week’s parsha with a quote from Mishlei? Lets look at the main subject of the parsha- the request from Balak, king of Moab to Bilaam to curse the Jews. We see Bilaam turn Balak down, Balak then send extra messengers of higher status followed by the incident with the talking donkey. Of course, Hashem does not allow Bilaam to curse Israel, but he instead ends up blessing them. We then finish off with the infamous incident at Baal Peor where the Israelites sinned with the daughters of Moab and Pinchas stags a prince of Shimon and the woman he is having relations with, and proceeds to walk through the camp with them impaled on his spear.

So- where does a quote about pride and a fall come in? For the answer- let us look at Bilaam, the prophet to whom Balak turns to curse the Jews stating “Whom you bless is blessed and whom you cures is cursed.” The midrash states that Bilaam was the equivalent of Moshe in prophecy and if he had not erred (more on this later) he would have been rewarded as such in the World to Come.

In the story with Bilaam, we see how pride twists somebody. Bilaam was so concerned with surface appearances and pride, that he did whatever he had to in order to preserve his dignity and his status. Surely a prophet of his stature would know that Hashem would not allow him to curse the Jews? In the Talmud, masechta Sotah, the story is told of when Pharoah wanted to weaken the Jews he turned to his advisors- Yitro, Bilaam and Job. Yitro fled, knowing that if he told Pharoah that the Jews were blessed and to attack them would be suicidal. Job remained silent (and this is why he was later punished- his silence was partly to blame for the suffering caused to the Jews by Pharoah and , thus, he suffered) and Bilaam gave the advice to kill the Jewish baby boys as they were born. From that we see that he had already tried once to attack the Jews (through Pharoah) and had failed. How could he think he would be any more successful?

When Blak’s messenger’s arrive, he states that he would consult with hashem and give them an answer in the morning. (This shows that while his prophecy may have been the same as Moshe’s, his relationship with Hashem was less- Moshe could speak to God at any time, Bilaam only in his dreams.) Hashem forbids Bilaam to curse the Jews and to go with the messengers. How does Bilaam convey this to messengers? He states “I cannot go with YOU.” In other words, he implies that the reason he is not allowed to go because their statue is too lowly and he cannot travel with them.

Not wanting to give up, Balak sends other messengers, higher ranking ones, to try and entice Bilaam. After all, Bilaam has implied the reason for his refusal is that he wasn’t paid the honour due to him! Once again Bilaam consults with Hashem and is told that he could go with the men and do ONLY as they asked and speak exactly as Hashem dictated. Why this specific statement? This was to cut out the possibility that Bilaam would make a generic curse against other nations, and then include Israel, thereby circumventing the prohibition against cursing the Jews (commentary of Baal Haturim). Of curse Bilaam goes- and Hashem is angry, seeing that Bilaam still seeks a way to circumvent his explicit instruction to curse the Jews and he thus sends an angel to waylay him.

It is in this incident with the angel that we truly see the pride of Bilaam. Three times his donkey seeks to save him, and he threatens to ill the donkey, until the angel reveals itself. But here lies an issue- surely a person at the level of Bilaam should have sensed the presence of the angel for himself- yet he is so concentrating on his mission, trying to find a way to curse the Jews- he is oblivious to its presence. On top of that, his donkey talks to him- yet he ignores this miracles, threatening to kill it! Not just that, in front of the High ranking Moabites, not wanting to offend his dignity, he tries to pretend he does not normally ride the donkey- yet the donkey replies that he is Bilaam’s daily transport, and has been for life.

Why this behaviour of Bilaam? Well, in it we see the pride of Bilaam- he wants to kill the donkey because it offends his pride. He does not want his pride and dignity hurt, so he goes with the Moabites even though he knows it is against God’s wishes. He seeks to bring down Israel, thing the nation (and though I have not seen any commentaries on this matter- maybe even jealous of Moshe’s closer relationship with God. In his pride, he is almost killed.

The correlation to the verse in Mishlei goes even further. After he is unable to curse the Jews; the Jews fall into idolatry and promiscuity at Baal Peor. The question is- why does the Torah have the one incident straight after the other. The reason for this is given in a Midrash. Failing to curse the Jews, Bilaam tells Balak how he can get the Jews to destroy themselves and to bring them down. The whole incident at Baal Peor is as a result of Bilaam’s pride- he does not want to seem weak and powerless to effect the Jews- so he tells their enemy how to attack them. Once again, surely a man of the stature of Bilaam should have known of the consequences to his soul for such an action (and this is discussed in the Talmud when Onkelos, then still a pagan sorcerer summoned the soul of Bilaam to ask its fate in the World to Come). Yet pride drives him- leading to his fall, letting him give advice that leads to the degradation of some Jews, a war between Bnei Yisrael and Midian and the damage to his own soul.

The lesson, of course is clear. Pride is a negative personality trait, one that we have to minimise. As with all things- it is not completely wrong. We should have some pride- and a Torah scholar in particular is told that there are certain things they should expect out of honour of the Torah they have learnt. Yet, at the same time we all have to be very careful that we do not contain too much pride- humility is far more apt in most situations and we should be more worried about the feelings of our fellow man than of anything we feel is our due!

Please feel free to comment on any aspect of this.  Agree, or disagree wiht my pointof view- or to point out any errors (or anything you particularly liked.)

July 10, 2008 Posted by | Parshah, Torah | , , , , | Leave a comment