In the Torah portion that we read this week along with Chukat, we see the strange and almost comical interaction between Balak and Balaam. These names can be a little confusing, so just to clarify: BALAK gives our parsha its name. He is the evil son of ZIPPOR, the king of the Moabites, and he is—like Pharaoh before him and so many others after him—terrified of the growing power of the Israelites. And Balaam is a famous prophet, one who some say was second only to Moshe in the power of prophecy. Interestingly, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes that there is some historical evidence found in early fragments that Balaam really did exist, and that he was just as famous as this parsha leads us to believe.
There’s a little passage that lets us know how respected and powerful Balaam is. We read that, as Balaam is heading toward Ir-Moab, on the northern border of Moab, BALAK HIMSELF goes to meet him. Royalty typically would wait for those they summon, but Balak’s behavior shows great respect for the prophet. It also shows that Balak is aware of how much he NEEDS Balaam. (I don’t know if this reminds anyone of another passage in the Torah, but here I think of when Yitro approaches the camp of Moshe. Moshe himself goes to meet his father-in-law, a great sign of respect. And this is what happens here between Balak and Balaam.)
So, I hope that that sets the stage for what happens next.
Balak wants to hire Balaam to curse the Jews. He hopes to wage war against them, and he believes that a curse from the powerful Balaam might tip the scales in his favor. He frequently mentions how large the Jews are becoming. At one point, he notes that they are so numerous that they “hide the earth from view.” He’s worried.
Balaam doesn’t really want to curse the Jews. He knows that they are favored by God. God even TELLS Balaam not to curse the Jews, that these people are favored by God Himself. But I suppose it’s not easy to say NO to a prince, so Balaam does his best to create some delaying tactics.
Balak and Balaam try at least three times to curse the Jews. But, first, Balaam insists that they have to build an altar and make a sacrifice. Actually, he makes Balak build SEVEN altars and there they sacrifice seven bulls and seven rams. Imagine the power of this prophet—he is able to make a powerful prince and his minions build what must have been a pretty impressive set of structures to find a way to God’s voice. Does Balaam really believe that this will enable him to curse the Jews, or does he use this strategy—maybe a little like Aaron and the golden calf--to delay? Regardless of his reasons, the creation of these offerings—three times, remember—certainly increases the drama of the narrative. And each time Balaam is unable to curse the Jews.
The reader is not surprised because we have already witnessed conversations between God and Balaam where God instructs Balaam that, when the time comes, He will give him the words that he needs.
As you’ll hear, rather than curse, Balaam becomes a poet. And his poems praise the Jews. “How can I damn who God has not damned?” he asks, and Balak couldn’t be more frustrated. Another leader might have just had Balaam killed on the spot—after all, this is a kind of insubordination—but Balak seems to feel strongly that he needs the prophet. So, they repeat these attempts, and the praise only becomes more effusive and more frightening to the enemies of Israel. As Balaam says, “No harm is in sight for Jacob. . . . The Lord their God is with them.” He even obliquely disparages his OWN prophetic skills as he proclaims, “There is no augury in Jacob, no divining in Israel.” In other words, God speaks DIRECTLY to the Jews, whereas so-called prophets like Balaam need some kind of intermediate sign to be able to read the future. It’s ironic that he does this, because we have just witnessed that God DOES speak directly to Balaam. But, as you’ll hear, this section of the parsha is full of these kinds of misdirections.
Is this meant as humor? As a moral lesson? As encouragement to future generations of Jews? Take a look at this narrative and see what you think.
Parshat Korach tells the well-known story of the rebel Korach and his followers. They question and resist Moses’s authority, and the punishment for their rebellion is swift. The earth swallows them all up and all 250 of them die.
But is resistance always wrong? We know that it cannot be, and we have many examples in the Torah that teach us precisely that.
Think about Abraham’s resistance to God’s initial desire to destroy Sodom. Abraham challenges God, but God does not punish him. On the contrary, God allows Abraham to engage in a dialogue whose conclusion God must already know. Abraham is not punished, even though he ultimately loses in his attempt to save the city.
We can see another parallel in this week’s Parsha, where God is ready to strike all the Israelites dead. Again, we see a leader resisting—in this case Moshe. But, unlike Abraham, Moshe actually convinces God not to kill everyone. As he pleads, “Oh, God, Source of the breath of all flesh! When one man sins, will You be wrathful with the whole community?” This question seems to calm God, and, though a plague follows, most of the Israelites are spared.
We see, then, that Moshe is an exemplar of someone standing up to God, of someone engaging in a controversy rather than passively standing by. Disagreeing or even rebelling is not always wrong; in some cases, issues are complicated and there may not be one definitive answer. In fact, different answers may help to shed even more light on a complex subject. Hillel and Shamai—whenever they argued Talmudically—each had such a strong and persuasive conviction that even today there are Jews who subscribe to each opinion. In fact, they are the paragons of a “controversy for the sake of heaven,” where each side offers something of enduring value.
We can also play this out on a secular level. During a trip to London, Diane and I saw a reenactment of the Battle of Waterloo—over 200 years ago—where one side was defending monarchy and the other side supported self-proclaimed emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. Another, maybe closer to home example is no-fault divorce, which has become a very common practice across the United States. No fault divorce is the state’s way of saying “each of you probably has a legitimate argument in this controversy. We don’t need a resolution in order to fix the problem.” In fact, to try to determine who is right and who is wrong may only make matters worse.
So this gives us the beginning of an understanding of justified resistance. When an argument is for the sake of heaven, that argument—that resistance—has merit. Korach’s challenge to Moshe was NOT for the sake of heaven and was therefore without merit. Obviously, making this distinction is part of the challenge of being human.
One of the greatest deficiencies of Korach and his infamous followers was their failure to recognize miracles. No matter what marvelous gifts God gave the Israelites—the manna, the water from Miriam’s well, the pillar and the fire to guide them, the giving of the Torah at Sinai, and—of course—the parting of the sea, Korach refused to see them as miracles and was blind to God’s will. All he could see was his own ego, his own jealousy of Moses and his leadership. As a result, another miracle appears—the earth swallows them all up.
This week’s Torah Reading tells of Moshe’s sending twelve spies into the Holy Land to reconnoiter. Moshe chose qualified leaders to be the spies, telling them what to do. Unfortunately, Bnei Yisrael and the spies themselves questioned Hashem’s word. Rashi in Devarim states that had they not questioned God’s statement about the Promised Land, the people could have possibly entered Eretz Yisrael without fighting. Lives of many people, including many tens of thousands of Canaanites, as well as the entire generation that left Egypt, would have been spared. One sin leads to another. When the sin involved is a lack of faith, that sin weakens the very foundation of the structure of the religion and the relationship between Bnei Yisrael and Hashem.
The text tells us that the spies ascended into the Negev desert area and then he came to Chevron. The obvious question is why the verb changed from plural to singular in the text. All the spies came to the Promised Land but only one of them went to Chevron, and that one, according to the Gemara (Sotah 34b) was Calev. In that Talmudic reference Rava teaches us that Calev departed from the body of spies and went to pray at the patriarchal graves so that he would be saved from the evil counsel of the spies. The essential teaching of Rava’s statement is that it is possible for one individual to stand up and be against the current when the majority of people are going in the wrong direction. To swim against the current is a very difficult thing to do. There is no question that Calev was seeking divine inspiration and strength from his ancestry in order to fight the majority. The usage of the ancestors here is quite appropriate. Not just because we have a concept of the merits of the ancestors, but also because each of our patriarchs swam against the current. Nobody else had an idea of monotheism at that time. They went against the grain of society. That is why they were called Ivrim. They came from the other side of the river. They truly stood out and chartered their own course in life. The statement here that the rabbis are teaching us is not only to compliment Calev but also teach us a lesson that it is necessary for the Jewish people to stand up frequently and chart a course of life contrary to the mainstream.
The sin of the spies was one of speaking ill of the land, of Lashon HaRa. It is prohibited to speak Lashon HaRa, evil speech, against anybody. It is also prohibited to speak Lashon HaRa about yourself; and in the context of our parsha, to speak Lashon HaRa about Eretz Yisrael.
This week’s parsha, Beha’alotcha begins with the sentence, “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to Aaron and say to him, when you mount the lamps, let the seven lamps give light at the front of the lampstand.’”
We know how important the menorah is to Judaism, perhaps the best-known symbol of Judaism. And here God is commanding the construction of the menorah, apparently so complicated that God has to SHOW Moshe what it will eventually look like.
The beginning of this Torah portion is read twice a year, for this week, and on the last day of Hanukkah. The haftarah is also done twice a year, this week and on the Shabbat of Hanukkah. Both speak of the lighting of a seven branched lampstand or menorah. (This is different from the lampstand we use on Hanukkah, which has nine branches.) It was the responsibility of the priests to keep the lamps lit at all times.
Light is a powerful metaphor used not only in Judaism but in many other spiritual traditions. And even in the secular world, we can think of words like enLIGHTENment or the phrase “I see the light.” Think about that visual metaphor we see so often in cartoons where the main character is shown with a light bulb going off over his head. We all know that that person just got an idea.
In the world of religion, Light can be a metaphor for God, spirit, the soul, the mind, or even human consciousness. The book of Proverbs teaches that “the soul of man is the light of God.” We recall God’s creation of the world, where in the third verse of Breishit, God says “let there be light,” and He separates the light from the darkness--- because the light, as God pronounces, is good. We separate Shabbat from the rest of the week through the lighting of candles. And the Torah is seen as its own kind of light. Our sages tell us that every word in the Torah shines like a light.
What an act of love it must have been for God to give Aaron this awesome responsibility.
I wanted to present some discussion of the Ten Commandments on Shavuot Eve, but the time got away from us. This was mostly due to the excellent presentations given by the assembled. It was really gratifying to be there and hear, listen and learn! So, here is a bit of learning related to the Decalogue. See below for slightly different language between the first and the second presentations of these Mitzvot:
Remember the Sabbath day . . . you shall perform no labor, neither you, your son, your daughter, your manservant, your maidservant, your beast, nor your stranger who is in your cities. For [in] six days the Lord made the heaven and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day. Therefore, the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and sanctified it.
Keep the Sabbath day . . . you shall perform no labor, neither you, your son, your daughter, your manservant, your maidservant, your ox, your donkey, any of your livestock, nor the stranger who is within your cities, in order that your manservant and your maidservant may rest like you. And you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and that the Lord your G‑d took you out from there with a strong hand and with an outstretched arm; therefore, the Lord, your G‑d, commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.
Honor your father and your mother, in order that your days be lengthened on the land that the Lord, your G‑d, is giving you.
Honor your father and your mother as the Lord your G‑d commanded you, in order that your days be lengthened, and that it may go well with you on the land that the Lord, your G‑d, is giving you.
You shall not covet your neighbor's house. You shall not covet your neighbor's wife, his manservant, his maidservant, his ox, his donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.
And you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, nor shall you desire your neighbor's house, his field, his manservant, his maidservant, his ox, his donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.
In addition to the differences, note the inclusion of the reward for the fourth commandment. There is only one other Mitzvah that carries with it the reward for keeping it. Perhaps you know of it offhand, but if you want to know what it is, please let me know.