o Violence and striking someone are unacceptable forms of behavior. Moshe was punished severely for hitting a rock; how much more so are we deserving of punishment for hitting a living being (person and animal)
o One needs to control one’s anger. “Who is the strong one? The one who resists his evil inclinations” (Ethics of the Fathers.) The best way of defeating anger is to pause, stop, reflect, refrain, count to ten, and breathe deeply. If necessary, leave the room, go for a walk, meditate, or vent your toxic feelings alone.
o There is a need to intercede when someone is about to make a mistake that will cause harm. Aharon the master peacemaker should have acted when he saw his brother Moshe becoming enraged. Instead, he remained silent (and perhaps for that reason was not allowed to enter the Land of Canaan). “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing.” (Edmund Burke)
o Proper care of animals is a major Torah theme. The water that flowed when Moshe hit the rock was meant to quench the thirst of both man and beast. “A righteous man regards the life of his beasts”.
o Judaism glorifies life, not the worship of death
Contains three positive Mitzvahs
A parsha about death, loss, bereavement, and mortality
A parsha of contrasts: tamei /tahor [ritually impure/ritually pure] …lofty cedar/lowly hyssop
o Rejection of the culture of death as an object of worship and appeasement
o Contact with a corpse is the main source of tumah
Ceremony of para adumah (red heifer) eliminates tumah (ritual impurity)
Miriam dies during the fortieth year of the Israelites’ wanderings. [Note: The Torah does not record events that occurred in the previous 38 years of the Israelites’ desert trek.]
Israelites complain about lack of water
Moshe is instructed by God to provide water by speaking to the rock, but instead he strikes it twice
God informs Moshe and Aharon that they will not lead the Israelites to the Promised Land because of their failure to sanctify Him in the presence of the nation
Edom refuses to allow the Israelites passage through its land, forcing the Israelites to take a more circuitous route to the land of Canaan. Instead of heading north they had to travel eastward along Edom’s southern border then north and eventually turning west to enter the land.
Aharon dies on Mt. Hor and is mourned for 30 days; he is replaced by his son Elazar, whom Moshe dresses in Aharon’s priestly vestments
Israelites defeat Canaanites (Amalek in disguise?)
Attack by fiery snakes-- whose bite or sting cause a burning sensation-- in response to Israelites’ complaints, causes deaths
Copper serpent on a pole
Song of the Well; Israelites transition from rag-tag wanderers to a unified nation on the verge of entering its own land
Vanquishing Sichon and the Amorites
People of Bashan are destroyed, and their lands seized
The Parsha Spans Nearly Forty Years
It first discusses the laws of the red heifer, which were given before the sin of the spies and before the Korach rebellion. It then skips to the deaths of both Aharon and Miriam and to the conquest of Sichon and Og—all of which took place some forty years after the generation of the Exodus had died out.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe looks to the parsha’s name for an explanation. “Chukas” is derived from a Hebrew root word that means “engraving”. Earlier, the spies had deviated from their mission in a negative way. But in this week’s parsha, when Moshe sends men to Yazer vicinity, they deviated in a positive way showing enthusiasm by capturing villages and by settling in the extended borders of the Land of Israel promised to Avraham. Their love for the land –and for their devoted leaders Aharon and Miriam— “totally permeated their hearts and minds like letters engraved in stone”.
What is a Chok?
The traditional definition of a chok is a Divine law that has no rational basis, sometimes not making sense (to us). Rabbi Menachem Leibtag thinks a chok is about constancy:
Divine decree of a fixed law or statute (e.g., Korban Pesach)
Something that does not change (laws of astronomy)
Something that occurs on a regular basis (Jewish Holidays)
Some Chukim are beyond our comprehension.
Understanding Tumah and Tahara
A state of tumah occurs when one encounters death—either a corpse or bodily emissions or diseases that remind us of our own mortality. A dead body is the manifestation of loss of life. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks quotes Yehudah Halevi (c.1075-1131), author of the Kuzari, who explains that the laws of tumah only apply to members of the nation of Israel because “Judaism is the supreme religion of life, and its adherents are therefore hyper-sensitive to even the subtlest distinctions between life and death.”
Tumah may be thought of as a state of cognitive loss; a radiating negative energy; a "death" or "dispirited" state during which one is so deeply depressed, apathetic, and/or guilt-ridden (on some level) that he/she no longer has the capacity to enter any relationship--not with God and not with other human beings.
There is no commandment to remain tahor. Issues relating to tumah are about the permissibility of entry into God’s “home”:
• God’s “home” is a place for each of us to have the opportunity to draw near to -- and build a relationship with-- God. [The root of the word korban, offering, is karov—to become close.] It is as if God is saying that if one is in a state of tumah and, therefore, unable to reach out to build a relationship with God, why bother coming to his “home”.
• A person who is tamei is prohibited from entering the Tabernacle or the Temple because thoughts about mortality have no place in the place that has been designated to experience consciousness of eternity and spirituality (Rabbi Sacks).
• Rabbi Yehuda Herzl Henkin thinks that the flux of human life, birth, and death together, is antithetical to God’s immutable and eternal nature. Tumah represents the waxing as well as the waning of life and has no place in the Sanctuary, the abode of the Eternal.
Contact with death precipitates a state of tumah. A corpse is considered the "ultimate father of all tumah” because contact with death triggers a primordial uneasiness, a fear (of one's own mortality?) and a negativism that can sap all emotional energy. (Even medical students report a sense of uneasiness after the first encounter with a cadaver.) Death of a family member can evoke negative emotions including sadness, resentment, anger, feelings of unfairness, and guilt. The person who encounters death usually is self-absorbed and depressed. These feelings interfere with one's ability to connect with others. The corpse is the primary source of tumah because it is in the process of decaying. A person who sees and/or touches the corpse usually suffers emotionally and endures a form of spiritual fragmentation, a counterpart of the corpse's physical falling away (Rav Aharon Soloveitchik).
The Torah's insight into the profound (oft-times unconscious) forces that dominate a human being's emotions and behavior is further evident in the reality that the negativity associated with death becomes diluted the further one is removed from the source. Thus, a person who touches a corpse (and becomes a "Rishon L'tumah") experiences the most intense emotional negativity (i.e., tumah). As that person comes into contact (e.g., shakes hands) with others, the emotion of the "death association" is a step removed and diluted. And so on down the line as each tameh person touches another person or object, the transmission (emotional response to the original source of tumah) weakens.
A woman who menstruates; a woman who has given birth; and people who experience abnormal sexual emissions (zav, zava) are deemed to be in a state of tumah because blood and fluids associated with the procreative process represent the death of a (potential) human life. In childbirth…
• There is also the detachment of the life of the infant from the life of the mother after birth.
• In ancient times childbirth could be dangerous for the women, thus creating an additional level of anxiety and/or turmoil (Kive Strickoff) for and about the new mother
• Bad and sad feelings result (e.g., postpartum depression) and fill the new mother with negativity...i.e., tumah
• A woman who gives birth is considered tamei because birth, like death, is a sign of mortality (Rabbi Sacks)
Primitive man feared that blood flow from any part of the human anatomy meant illness and/or death. Women especially were considered dangerous and impure, unable to participate in religious ritual. The blood flows of childbearing contained seed and demanded that the woman be separated. Giving birth to a female--who also would eventually experience the “impurity” from the feared blood flows--necessitated a separation period twice that required for a male.
Over the years, it has been noted (and, in our generation, said in the name of Rav J.B. Soloveitchik) that to understand the deeper meaning of a word, one need look where that word first appears in the Torah. The first time we encounter the root-word tumah is in Breishis 34:5 after Shechem's seduction and rape of Yaakov's daughter, Deena. Here the Torah focuses on Yaakov's reaction: “Yaakov learned that his daughter Deena had been teemay (defiled)” and “Yaakov remained silent until they (his sons) came home”. This teemay/tumah is the condition that is characterized by a seething rage, deep mental anguish, and speechlessness, all parts of a galaxy of negative emotions. Yaakov's internal turmoil presumably mirrored that of his daughter.
Rabbi Sacks reminds us that Judaism sanctifies the physical--be it in eating or drinking or engaging in sex or resting--as a way of experiencing the presence, the goodness and the holiness that is God. Our religion vehemently rejects the cults (both ancient and modern) that glorify death. Judaism is a living protest of the death-centered cultures like the ancient Egyptians who built great and grandiose pyramid tombs.
The body of a person who is afflicted with tzara’as is encompassed with skin lesions and is slowly disintegrating; those who associate with him decline emotionally as they observe the wasting away of another human being.
The Para Adumah (Red Heifer) Ceremony
In Sefer Vayikra, the word Torah usually means “procedures”. The opening verse of this week’s parsha, “zos chukkas hatorah”, is then translatable as “these are the immutable, unchangeable (chukas) procedures that need to be followed” in the parah adumah ritual:
• Slaughter of unblemished red heifer (that had never borne a yoke) by the priest, outside the camp
• Sprinkling the blood of this heifer seven times towards the Ohel Moed entrance
• Burning to ash the carcass together with…
o (Lowly) Hyssop
o Wood branches from the mighty and tall cedar
o A piece of scarlet wool
• Mixing ashes with fresh water then…
• Sprinkling the mixture on the person who encountered and touched a corpse on day 3 and day 7 of the purification process
• Collecting ashes and storing them outside the camp
After the ceremony, the person who was tameh (impure) becomes tahor (pure) but the priests who participated in the preparation of the ashes and water of purification and were tahor when they began the ceremony mysteriously become tameh when they finish!
Symbolism of Para Adumah
Some suggest that this ceremony makes the point that the priests, though considered elevated in their dedication to the Temple service, can become tameh like the rest of us when they encounter death.
Some speculate that the priests’ becoming tameh was a mechanism to protect them from feelings of grandiosity and superiority.
R. Joseph Bechor Shor (12th century; cited by Nechama Leibowitz) thinks the goal is avoidance of death worship by discouraging association and consulting with the dead. People needed to be discouraged from using human skin for coverings and human bones for articles.
Some focus on the combination of the majestic cedar wood with the lowly hyssop as representing opposite human personalities and how these extremities may be associated with death (of spirit)
Seforno thinks that witnessing the mixture of opposite extremes [lowly hyssop and tall, “arrogant” cedar] can help one regain the middle road. The root-word of aduma is blood. The red color represents either life or death or forgiveness.
Philo of Alexandria sees the mixture of water and ashes as a reminder to Man of the elements from which he is formed. Knowing oneself is the most profound form of purification.
The Parah Adumah had to be completely red, without blemish and without having borne a yoke.
Chasidic thinking sees in this a message that one who feels he is without blemish certainly has not accepted the yoke of heaven.
Some observers view the red heifer as a symbolic expiation for the sin of the Golden Calf.
Life = tahor and death = tameh. The Parah Adumah ceremony is about bringing to bear symbolic forces of life to negate the individual’s state of tumah, or death. Blood is the ultimate source of life and its color is manifest in the need for a red heifer and a piece of scarlet wool. Rav Yoel Bin Nun notes that the heifer must be perfect in its redness both inside (perfectly red blood) and outside (completely red). Those who have encountered death create a new “impurity”. The red heifer brings back complete wholeness by replacing this impurity with a symbol of perfection of the wholeness of life. Powerful survival life forces exist in the hyssop, which manages to survive and thrive in the rugged desert environment, and in the cedar, which is solid and tall. Sprinkling the mixture on the person who is tameh, symbolically transfers the positive forces of life to the individual filled with death.
We probably will never comprehend what it is in the ritual ceremony that reverses tumah. R. Yochanan ben Zakkai explained to a heathen seeking a rational explanation for the ceremony that the sprinkling the ashes should be thought of as exorcising a demon. But to his students he acknowledged that the ashes and the water have no intrinsic purification ability. It is a Divine commandment, one that even the wise King Solomon could not fathom.
The ashes of the red heifer were divided into three parts. One portion was left in the Temple for the priests who worked there. One part was left on the Mount of Olives (outside the city) for the purification of the priests who prepared the parah aduma. The third part was placed outside the walls of the Temple courtyard as a reminder for the Israelites. According to the Mishna, the ceremony of the parah adumah was performed once by Moshe, once by Ezra and only seven times after. With the destruction of the Holy Temple, the ritual disappeared. Rambam predicts that eventually the tenth ceremony will be done by “King Mashiach”.
A Thirsty Nation Demands Water
It is believed that during Miriam’s lifetime, the Israelites were accompanied by a well that provided critical water supply during the desert wanderings. Miriam dies. The water supply dries up. [Note: in Chassidic thought, water that facilitates the digestive system in carrying nutrients to all parts of the body represents Torah, which nourishes all segments of the Jewish nation. Her death brought with it some loss of national spirit.]
The people complain. Moshe and Aaron flee to the Ohel Moed and “fall on their faces” …
To appease the demonstrators?
In frustration and disgust?
To calm their minds; ignore the outside commotion; and turn inward to muster their inner strength and resilience?
God tells Moshe to “take THE rod (to assemble the nation?) … and speak to the rock before their eyes… and you shall bring out water from the rock”. Moshe takes THE rod (the same? another one?) and speaks harshly to the assembled nation: “listen here you rebels; shall we bring out water from the rock?” An enraged Moshe raises his hand (holding the rod), hits the rock twice and abundant waters come out to quench the thirst of the congregation and its cattle.
God’s response: “Because you did not believe in Me (alternate translation is “were not supportive enough of Me”) to sanctify Me in the eyes of the Children of Israel therefore you shall not bring this congregation into the land I have given them. These are the waters of Meriva…where He was sanctified in them.”
“Take THE Rod…”
…and not just any rod. Some think that the rod in question was the one left in the Ohel Moed that was to be taken out any time the nation complains or rebels. Viewing this rod would remind the nation of the punishment that awaits such behavior. And with this, according to Rabbi Leibtag, we understand why Moshe prefaced his comments to the nation with “Listen here you rebels”. Namely, you are acting in exactly the way this special rod was meant to remind you how not to behave (“to be a token against the rebellious children”) …lest there be grave consequences.
Clearly, Moshe Did Something Seriously Wrong…
…to deserve such a harsh punishment, but the Torah does not share with us what it was. Nechama Leibowitz surveys commentators’ views…
• Rashi, later followed by Shadal and others, says Moshe hit the rock instead of talking to it. Had he spoken to the rock as instructed, the people would have reasoned that if an inanimate rock performs the will of God, how much more so we humans are obligated to follow His commandments!
• Ramban focuses on the “shall we…?” in which Moshe seems to give part of the credit to himself and to Aharon instead of attributing the miracle to God alone.
• Ibn Ezra faults the two leaders for their un-dignified, un-statesman-like reaction to the nation’s demand for water (fleeing and falling on their faces)—and for the unnecessary hitting of the rock twice. As leaders, they needed to exhibit strength, not weakness. Instead they responded with fear and retreat. The leaders display a lack of respect for the people and their need for water.
• Saadia Gaon understands the phrase “talk to the rock” to mean “talk to them (the Jewish people) ...near the rock …” about God’s ability to miraculously extract water from a stone. Instead, Moshe berates them and strikes the rock twice.
• Haketav V’HaKaballah focuses on God’s command to speak to the rock L’EYNEHEM, “before their eyes”. Since sounds and speech are absorbed by ears, not eyes, it must mean that God was not referring to the physical eye but rather to the mind’s eye. Not physical sight but Insight. Moshe’s failure was in wasting the opportunity to help the nation “see” (understand) the enormous capability of God. “Ayna doma shmea l’reaa”; the visual can have a greater impact on a person than the aural.
• Rambam draws our attention to the tone of Moshe’s pejorative description of the people: “listen here YOU REBELS” (or “fools” or “teachers” who presume to teach leaders). The people looked up to their leader and emulated his behavior. But instead of being patient, Moshe became angry and exasperated. For a man in his position such public behavior amounted to a desecration of God’s name.
• Joseph Albo notes that God subjects Nature to the control of believers. In the Korach incident, Moshe took the initiative to announce that the “earth would open its mouth”—and God complied. In response to the demand for water, Moshe and Aharon should have taken the initiative to explain that a rock would split, and water would flow. They should have confronted and assured the people that God will provide. Leadership is not meant for weaklings. They failed in that they acted cowardly, became panic-stricken, fled from the people, and fell on their faces praying for God to provide a solution.
• Others, finding no serious wrongdoing in this incident, conclude that the punishment was for earlier sins, possibly of the Golden Calf (Aharon) and the Spies (Moshe) which the Torah chose to keep hidden (perhaps to avoid publicly embarrassing them).
• Daas Mikrah maintains that the main takeaway from this incident is that even the giant figures of any generation who sin are punished accordingly. The details are secondary.
Rabbi Leibtag, noting that the stated punishment is “… you shall NOT LEAD this nation into the land…” concludes that they were punished for their failure as leaders (not as individuals)—and, therefore, could not LEAD the people there. “Lo he-eman-ted be” can mean “you did not believe in me” but here is to be understood as meaning that they failed to support God (i.e., failed to defend God and to assure and encourage the nation). As a leader, Moshe should have been empathic to their needs, and not get angry at them. This breakdown in leadership had started some time earlier. They failed to sanctify God’s name many times during the forty-year desert trek, but this was the last straw.
Rabbi Marc Angel focuses on the immediately preceding verses “…and Miriam died there and was buried there. And there was no water for the congregation, and they assembled themselves together against Moshe and against Miriam”. Surprisingly, despite her being a prophetess and a key leader, when she died there is no mention of the Israelites mourning her death! The text merely states that “Miriam died there [in the city of Kadaish] and was buried there.” [This is in sharp contrast to the thirty-day mourning periods that were to be observed upon the deaths of both Moshe and Aharon.]
The people apparently were so concerned with their own needs that they did not seem to care much about Miriam’s death and her brothers’ mourning. When the Israelites complained, Moshe and Aharon were disappointed, bitter, and angry at both the people’s lack of faith in God as well as their lack of appreciation for their sister and all she had done for them [i.e., in her merit there was the source of water during the forty-year desert trek.]
When God instructed Moshe to speak to the rock, he acknowledged Moshe’s rage but encouraged him to not let his own personal feelings interfere with his leadership responsibilities. He urged Moshe to speak to the people; to explain his disappointment; and to teach them to respect Miriam’s memory. But Moshe let his anger get the better of him and in a rage struck the rock twice. The “sin”, concludes Rabbi Angel, was “in letting their personal grief and frustration overtake their reason and sense of responsibility to the people”. Anger prevailed, and they missed the opportunity to teach and demonstrate to the Israelites the power of God.
Similarly, Rabbi Sacks connects the death of Miriam not so much with the lack of water but with Moshe’s loss of emotional equilibrium. After all, Miriam was Moshe’s “big sister” who watched over him as a babe when he was placed in a basket in the Nile River. He owed his existence to her. Without her he lost “the human foundation of his life.” Moshe, the greatest of the prophets was also human and when he lost his sister, he was inconsolable. He lost his emotional control and reacted with rage instead of with caring. The beginning of the parsha focuses on the defiling nature of death and the need for the ceremony of the red heifer to physically cleanse the individual who encountered it. Now Miriam’s death defiled Moshe psychologically, causing him to act badly.
God never promised Moshe and Aharon that they would be the ones to lead the nation to the Land of Canaan. Quite the contrary, in Perkei Avos it states that Moshe’s burial site [which was in the desert and not in the Land of Israel] was one of the ten things God created on the eve of the first Sabbath.
After their behavior at the rock when they allowed their personal feelings to take control, it was clear that they could no longer be effective teachers and leaders. They apparently realized the wisdom of-- and need for-- a new generation of leaders. When informed by God that they would not lead the nation to the Promised Land they neither protested nor apologized. Rabbi Angel concludes that “They fully understood that [this was not a punishment but that] their terms of office were drawing to a close and they were ready to pass on the mantle of leadership to others.”
Rabbi Sacks thinks that the key lesson in this incident is for one to be alert to the danger of anger.
[Note: the word “danger”, which contains the word “anger”, is derived from Anglo-French words meaning power; power to harm; authority; and control. These two words of emotion are intertwined. Anger can result from danger but can also lead to a dangerous situation.]
Rambam explains that healthy emotions are essential for a good and happy life. Even though we have no choice in our emotional makeup, we do have the ability to overcome destructive feelings. One should strive for a middle of the road approach in life and not go to extremes. That is, except for pride and anger when even a little is too much.
Moshe’s anger at a legitimately thirsty nation was inappropriate for a leader. By losing his temper, explains Rambam, Moshe may have led the people to think that they had sinned, and that God was angry with them.
The Rabbis of the Talmud went to great lengths to show the harmful effects of anger:
o “There are three people the Holy One loves: one who does not get angry…”
o “The life of those who cannot control their anger is not a life”
o “When a person becomes angry, if he is a sage his wisdom departs from him; if he is a prophet his prophecy departs from him”
o “Anyone who becomes angry is like one who practices idolatry”
o “Be slow to anger and easy to pacify."
Rabbi Sacks explains that the danger of being angry is that it causes us to lose control and causes us “to bypass the neural circuitry we use when we reflect and choose on rational grounds…to lose the ability to step back and judge the possible consequences of our actions.” We sometimes say or do things we regret. “The best way of defeating anger is to pause, stop, reflect, refrain, count to ten, and breathe deeply. If necessary, leave the room, go for a walk, meditate, or vent your toxic feelings alone”.
It is said about one of the Rebbe of Lubavitch that whenever he felt angry, he would take down the Shulchan Arukh to see whether anger was permitted under the circumstances. By the time he had finished studying, his anger had dissipated.
The verdict of Judaism is simple: Either we defeat anger or anger will defeat us.”
Miriam and Water
Miriam’s name contains the Hebrew letters that form the word mayim, water.
Rabbi David Fohrman notes that the desert travels of the Israelites included three water crises:
At Mara, three days after the Exodus, when Moshe threw a piece of wood into a bitter oasis that made the water drinkable.
Some three days later when the water supplies ran out, the people complained to Moshe who in turn protested to God that they are so angry that they may stone him. God instructed Moshe to hit a rock with his staff and water will flow out of it.
The incident in this week’s parsha, some forty years later, when that same rock that had travelled with the Israelites ceased to give water once Miriam died. God tells Moshe to speak to the rock. Instead he hit it twice.
Miriam’s connection to water began many years earlier when she stood by the Nile watching over her baby brother Moshe who was hidden in a small ark placed in the reeds near the shore. She saves him by intervening with Pharaoh’s daughter. This was the Nile river, with its relatively few reeds and one Egyptian (Pharaoh) threatening the Israelites.
Later, at the splitting of the Sea of Reeds which involved many Egyptians threating the entire Israelite nation in a sea filled with many, many reeds she again stands by her brother. At the Nile, she stood and watched (tisyatzev) without knowing what would happen but having complete faith that there would be a positive outcome. At the Sea of Reeds, the nation stood watch (hisyatzvu) again without knowing what would happen but having complete faith in God. After the sea splitting, she leads the women in music, dancing, and praise of God for saving His nation.
Miriam’s death precipitated a water crisis. When Moshe says “shimu na hamorim” it is as if he is talking to his sister, asking for her help [since the word morim has the same letters as her name and sounds like Miriam]. Even though God instructed him to talk to the rock, Moshe reasons that, just as forty years earlier when Miriam was with him, it was the hitting of the rock that brought forth the water. Moshe tried to artificially re-live that situation (acting as if Miriam were alive) instead of learning the lesson of Miriam that one needs to keep the faith in God even in situations that appear to have no realistic options available. God told Moshe to talk to the rock even if it makes no sense to him. Have faith. Just speak to the rock. But Moshe did not.
Mourning the loss of a loved one brings with it denial and anger. We sometimes try to recreate the time when the loved one was alive. But we cannot. What we can do and should do, concludes Rabbi Fohrman, is to remember and to learn from the deceased’s behavior and beliefs. Moshe should have felt the faith Miriam had in God. He did not. The result was tragic for him.
His had a secondary role. He did not disobey God. He did not strike the rock. He did not angrily call the people rebels. Perhaps the reason for his being punished was his failure to intercede when it became clear that Moshe was having difficulty in dealing with the people. Aharon was a kind of social worker/psychologist, Ohev Shalom V'rodayf Shalom, always attempting to get quarreling parties to resolve their differences and become friends again.
God instructed Moshe to assemble the Jewish people with his brother Aharon. This seemingly superfluous identification of Aharon as Moshe’s brother may suggest that it was precisely because they were brothers that God wanted Aharon along as advisor and confidant. Aharon appears to have failed in this task. Often a competent professional can deal objectively with conflicts and problems of clients/patients but is paralyzed and ineffective when family matters are involved.
“And when the congregation saw that Aharon was dead, they wept for Aharon for thirty days, all the house of Israel.” Aharon was a unique individual, points out Rabbi Angel, who could maintain the dignity of the office of the High Priest with all its ceremonial responsibilities yet remain connected to the people, sensitive to their needs, “loving peace and pursuing peace, he loved people and brought them closer to Torah”.
Aharon believed that Judaism consisted of love, compassion and inclusiveness—and not the negative portrayal by the Hebrew poet Chaim Nachman Bialik who, as he looked around at the deterioration in religious life in his day in Eastern Europe, observed that “Halakha has an angry face…strict, severe, hard as steel—strict justice… [it] sets forth its ruling and leaves no room for differentiation. Its yes is Yes; its no is No…fossilized piety obligation, enslavement”. Aharon’s goals were to make sure that the religion did not have an angry face; that the Torah would liberate us, not enslave us; and to demonstrate, by his behavior, that the goal of the Torah was to bring out the best in us.
The nation felt his caring and mourned his death. Rabbi Angel concludes that we each can follow the religious model of Aharon of loving and pursuing peace. By not hating and not conflicting with our fellow human beings during our daily life, we can bring the world closer to realizing the ideals of the Torah.
• Richard Snitkoff notes that the Hebrew for “… to the rock”, El haselah, can also be pronounced Ayl haselah and would then mean “God of the rock” or “God is the rock”. God was instructing Moshe to teach the people that He was in the rock/He is the rock—God’s power permeates all of Nature.
• Marty Langert wonders if part of Moshe’s failure was in not training the people how to pray and how to interact directly with God.
• Jack Sherman sees the irony in Moshe taking Aharon’s rod that was meant to be a symbol of peace and calm and instead uses it to violently hit the rock.
• Perhaps it was Aharon, not Moshe, who said “listen here you rebels”.
• Aharon is not mentioned during the encounter with the Israelites possibly because he did not want to embarrass his brother Moshe, or because he was unable to stop him
• Rabbi S.R. Hirsch notes that the greater the person, the stricter the standard used in judging him
• According to a Midrash, blood flowed out of the rock when Moshe struck it. In response to the rock’s complaint to Him, God reminded Moshe that even a rock needs to be treated justly
Moshe is referred to and remembered as Rabbanu, our teacher. Perhaps one who “has his head in the clouds” i.e., is in a constant state of involvement with God, is not qualified to lead since he is unable to relate to the mundane day-to-day caring for a nation. By the end of the year the “old guard” (Miriam, Aharon and Moshe) will have passed on, paving the way for a new, younger leadership.
The Copper Serpent
The Israelites once again resume their complaints …
• Why they had to be redeemed from Egypt
• The absence of food and water
• Their loathing of what they considered the miserable Manna
God responds by removing the constraints of the fiery serpents. The result of the snakes’ poisonous biting is that many people die. The Israelites, recognizing that they have sinned, approach Moshe to pray to God to remove the serpents.
Bible scholar Dr. Richard Lederman thinks that the saraphim fiery serpents in the text are identifiable as the dreaded “burning”, darting, venomous cobras that were found in the desert regions of Egypt, Sinai, and Arabia.
(Despite his anger at them) Moshe agrees and is instructed by God to heal the people in what can only be described as bizarre, which also appears to be a violation of the Second Commandment forbidding the making of images! Moshe is commanded to fashion “nechash nechoshes”, a copper image of a fiery serpent and to place it on a pole so that every person who is bitten can look up at it and live. [The root “nechash” has multiple meanings: to whisper; copper; superstition; serpent; poisonous fluid; evil omen; and to augur. As a noun, the word augur refers to a drilling tool or a plumber’s snake.]
How are we to understand this “therapeutic” approach?
The Mishnah concludes that it is not the copper image that cures but it is when the Israelites look upward and subject themselves to God that they can be healed. Should they refuse, they will be destroyed.
Jack Sherman sees the contrast between the snake, signifying illness and death, and the heavens above and beyond it, signifying God’s ability, and willingness to heal.
The Zohar reasons that by viewing the likeness of a serpent, the viewer would be reminded that his was a well-deserved punishment. This fills him with fear and awe, prompting him to pray to God. It is this prayer that is the healing agent.
Rav Hirsch thinks that the imagery was designed to help the people realize that their relatively smooth travels (e.g., not being bitten by these dangerous serpents along the way) occurred only because of Divine intervention and that He would protect them from the dangers that lay ahead. It was this realization that was the healing power.
Rabbi Plaut notes the healing influence of serpents found in ancient civilization. In Egypt, the cobra was chosen to be the patron of the Pharaoh, communicating that he was under the protection of the cobra goddess, Wadjet (Dr. Lederman). Even today, the caduceus with its two serpents is an important medical symbol. The serpents aroused such anxieties and fear that Moshe felt compelled to provide some device or object to the still-superstitious nation that was believed to counter the evil.
Paradoxically, then, the snake is both a symbol of healing and a symbol of the evil, aggressive desires in all of us (Yaytzer Harah). The people were “bitten” by their own inner drives to unjustly complain, a behavior that “killed” their good character. Perhaps what the Torah is saying is that should one be bitten (bidden) by his Yaytzer Harah to sin, he needs merely look up to and reflect on the nation’s past sinning (embodied in the copper serpent), and the “death” it will bring him.
Perhaps we are being taught that to deal with one’s aggressive inner drives one needs to RAISE the issues; acknowledge their existence; and examine them closely to see them for what they are and the damage they can cause. Only then can one confront and deal with them. Only then can the integrity of one’s persona be re-established, and only then can one live without internal conflict.
The copper serpent was idolized for many years until it was destroyed finally by King Hezekiah in the eighth century B.C.E.
Israelites behave immorally with the Moavite women who seduce them to worship pagan Baal-Peor (major Canaanite deity of thunder and fertility)
God becomes enraged and brings on a plague that eventually kills twenty-four thousand people
Pinchas, grandson of Aharon, seeing Zimri of the tribe of Shimon together with a Midianite woman (Cozbi) in flagrante delicto, in a public act of brazen defiance, pierces a spear through both
Why is the Parsha Named After an anti-Semite…
…whose goal was to destroy the nation of Israel.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe answers that even the lowest elements need to be included in the Torah because ultimately these evil forces will be transformed into a force for good. Furthermore, notes the Rebbe, the parshios of Chukas and Balak are usually read together on the same Shabbos, making the point that both the righteous (Chukas) and the ba’al teshuva (Balak) are possible paths for embracing God.
Bilaam’s Departure Triggers Divine Wrath
King Balak sends messengers to Bilaam to invite him to curse the Israelites. Bilaam asks these emissaries to wait overnight. In a dream, God tells him unequivocally not to go because the Jews are blessed. Balak, reasoning that Bilaam is holding out for a larger fee, sends more prominent nobles offering more money. Bilaam has a second dream in which God tells him “Since it is to call you that the men have come, go with them”.
The exalted prophet, without waiting for his servants, rushes the next morning at daybreak to saddle his own donkey himself— “hasin’a mekalkeles es hashura” [“hatred distorts one’s dignified behavior”]. God becomes angry when he sees Bilaam leaving with Balak’s emissaries. The question is why, since He told Bilaam it was okay to go!
o Some commentaries reason that since God knows what is in the deepest recesses of one’s mind and heart, He knew that Bilaam’s plan was to not follow His demand to not curse the Israelites.
o Others think that the cause of God’s anger can be found in the words “Ki holech who” (because Balaam is going). The use of the present form (holech) hints at Balaam’s (on)going, constant single-minded desire to curse Israel.
o Still others believe that Bilaam erred in his failure to immediately act on God’s permission to go (“kum laych etam”). Instead, he waited until the next morning.
Rabbi B.S. Jacobson cites other explanations:
Rabbi Isaac Erama (1420-1494) notes that Bilaam should have categorically refused Balak’s invitation the first time knowing full well that the request was totally unacceptable to God. When he pestered God a second time, God became angry but allowed him to follow his malicious urge[thinking that Bilaam would not] and allowed him to make a fool of himself in the eyes of those he sought so desperately to impress.
Ramban (1194-1270) and Seforno (1475-1550) interpret “Em likro lecha…” to mean “if the intent was to be only a consultant or advisor, then go with them”. Bilaam should have told them of his limited role and capabilities. Instead he chose to participate with Balak in cursing the Israelites.
Rav Jacob Tzvi Mecklenburg (1785-1865) thinks that when God tells Bilaam he can go, the Torah uses the phrase “lech eetam” meaning to just walk along, separate from them—a formal accompaniment out of respect. Similarly, the Vilna Gaon (1720-1797) explains that the phrase “lech eetam” means to go but not to do precisely what they want. Instead, Bilaam gets up early, “Vayelech eem…” (“…and he went with”). The Hebrew word eem (instead of eetam) communicates that when Bilaam went he was of one mind with them to curse the Israelite nation.
A Talking Donkey
Bilaam saddles his donkey for the trip to King Balak. Invisible to him but apparently visible to the donkey he is riding on is a messenger/Angel of God standing on the road with an unsheathed sword in his hand, blocking passage. [Note: animals have the unique ability to sense danger that is not apparent to humans. Perhaps this is what is meant by the words, “the donkey saw”.] When the donkey swerves from the road and goes into the adjacent field Bilaam strikes the animal to get it back on the road. Bilaam finds himself on an increasingly narrow path surrounded on both sides by what is described in the text as a “fence” on either side but was likely a low stone wall. When the donkey presses against the wall in the narrowing road, Bilaam strikes it a second time.
When the donkey, unable to move forward because of the blocked road, lies down, Bilaam’s wrath flares and he hits the donkey again, this time with a stick. God “opens the donkey’s mouth” and it says, “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?” Apparently untroubled by the sight and sound of a talking donkey, Bilaam answers “Because you have toyed with me. Had I a sword in my hand, by now I would have killed you! The donkey responds: “Am I not your donkey upon whom you have ridden your whole life till this day? Have I ever been wont to do thus to you?” Bilaam responds “No”. God “opens” Bilaam’s eyes and he is then able to see the messenger/angel in the road.
Flavius Josephus, the first century Romano-Jewish historian, cited by Rabbi Hertz, notes that “…in regard to its narrative, readers are free to think what they please” …
• Nothing is impossible for God.
• Perkei Avos teaches us that this talking donkey was created on day six of Creation, just before sunset, as God’s creative activity ended. This is one of the “miracles” that were incorporated into the Divine cosmic plan to be brought forth at the appropriate time. The idea is that one may discover the reign of universal law through the exceptions. “Miracles are a part of the order of the world, bound to appear in due time much as apparently erratic comets come.” (Israel Zangwill)
• Rambam (1135-1204) and Saddya Gaon (882-942), noting Bilaam’s seeming lack of surprise at a talking animal, think that the incident was a prophetic dream or a night vision.
• Shadal (1800-1865) points out that the text does not say the donkey spoke only that God opened the mouth of the donkey. This braying donkey and an at-first-invisible Angel may be a projective identification on Bilaam’s part, employing words and dialogue that reflect his anger and internal struggle over whether to go and curse the Israelites.
• The imagery of a narrowing path may mean, psychologically, that as he travelled along, Bilaam began to narrow his options, becoming increasingly aware that he really wanted to curse the Israelites, despite God’s command not to. This resentment and rage at God’s instructions, may have manifest itself in the beating of the closest thing at hand, his donkey.
• Torah’s mockery of human gullibility, of those believing in magic. The mighty prophet Bilaam with his sorcerer’s power is reduced to arguing with a talking donkey without expressing any surprise at this phenomenon and unable to see what the donkey perceived. Picture the man and his animal arguing and the animal prevailing in his reasoning! The Torah wishes to discredit superstition and belief in magic. The lesson to be learned is that only God has the power.
• The Torah tells of only two talking beasts. The talking donkey addresses its master to save him, in contrast to the talking snake in the Garden of Eden that sought to persuade Eve to sin.
• Bilaam was given free choice. The Midrash notes that “whatever direction Man chooses to go; he is helped along” by God.
• This is a Parsha of “Reversals”, according to Professor Everett Foxx, in that…
A donkey becomes a kind of prophet
A prophet turns into a fool
Curses turn into blessings
• Linkage of Israel’s blessings with military successes (in last week’s Parsha) …Israel’s behavior at Baal-Peor is linked to Bilaam’s insidious advice.
• Recurring phrases and words:
1. Bilaam “I can only do whatever God says”
2. The Hebrew root word YSF, to resume/start anew. Franz Rosenzweig notes how the Torah uses the “device of recurring cues” to highlight for us the duplicity/arrogance of Bilaam in thinking that by waiting and by asking again he can sway God to modify or reverse His unequivocal opposition to Balak’s proposal:
• Balak resumes sending more honorable messengers after Bilaam rebuffs the first delegation.
• Bilaam tells the second, more impressive delegation to bide their time until God resumes the dialogue.
• Later in the incident of the talking donkey Bilaam resumes striking the donkey (without giving a thought to the bizarreness of arguing with a talking animal) and…
• The unseen Angel of God resumes passing, standing in a narrow place, trying once again to save Bilaam from himself.
3. The phrase malach Hashem (Angel of God) appears ten times during Bilaam’s encounter with the talking donkey. The word malach means messenger. Perhaps the malach Hashem can be understood as the universal positive force within each of us emanating from God. Perhaps the repetition of the phrase is meant to enlighten us about God’s ongoing actions to get us back on track, should we wander off. Even though Bilaam chose the evil alternative (to curse the Jewish nation), divinely inspired forces are still at work to give him one last chance to change his mind.
Was Bilaam a Prophet or a Magician?
He appears to be a learned, well-known non-Jewish follower and legitimate prophet of God, and a person admired by some Jewish commentaries.
A Midrash notes that God gave prophecy to men like Bilaam and Job so that the other nations could not complain that God was only accessible to Israel.
Others see him as wicked, with his haughtiness, his greed, his being responsible for Israel’s “whoring” at Baal-Peor, and his attempt to “wait God out” to grant him permission to curse Israel. Nechama Leibowitz describes him as hankering after prophecy, striving through magical means to force it down from Heaven. He stands in contrast to the prophets of Israel who did not run after prophecy and often resisted its being granted to them.
Abravanel (1437-1508) thinks Bilaam evolved from a heathen seer to a true prophet. He initially pursues divination to bring God around to do his bidding, but ultimately is forced to bless the Israelites despite himself. In his first attempt, he introduces both theme and mission. He seems in awe of the historic continuity of the Israelites. On the second try he responds to his employer Balak’s complaints. He again attributes his prophetic abilities to himself, refusing to acknowledge that it is God Who puts words of blessing and not curses into his mouth. On the third try he saw (i.e., realized and understood) that God cannot be influenced by sorcery and that it was His desire that Israel not be cursed. Bilaam’s attitude changes and without any preliminary invocation he spontaneously prophesizes blessings.
Rabbi Leibtag argues that initially Bilaam appears to be a God-fearing individual who twice informs Balak’s emissaries that he will not veer from God’s command not to curse the Israelites. But his true character becomes evident only after he leaves Balak to return to Mesopotamia. It appears that after returning home he then makes the long journey back to Moav where he advises Balak to send the local women to seduce the Israelite men to pagan worship. Although he was unable to curse the Israelites, he shrewdly reasoned that by causing the Israelites to sin he could trigger God’s wrath to punish/curse them. He mobilized his God-given capabilities for evil—in stark contrast to Avraham Avinu who used his resources for good. Furthermore, reasons Rabbi Leibtag, Israel’s existence and mandate to bring God and His ethics to the world represented a threat to Bilaam’s livelihood--his professional monopoly on communicating God’s message to the nations of world.
Rabbi Sacks cites Midrashim that praise Bilaam’s prophetic skills as being comparable to (or even greater than) Moshe’s. But Bilaam’s character flaw is in being a man without loyalties and without a people (Bilaam = “b’lo am” = “without a nation”). Because he had no commitments, he was merely a “hired hand” whose services could be bought to be used without concern for justice or for the lives of those he affected. Rabbi Sacks concludes that Bilaam is the classic example of individuals who are endowed with extraordinary intellectual and spiritual gifts but whose pride and arrogance lead them to believe that they can get away with great crimes. Bilaam’ s plan “… to entice the Israelites into sin even after he knew that God was on their side is a measure of how the greatest can sometimes fall to become the lowest of the low”.
Rabbi Plaut cites the interpretation of W.F. Albright [American archaeologist, biblical scholar and philologist] who concludes that “Bilaam was really a Northern-Syrian diviner from the Euphrates valley, that he became a convert to Israel’s faith and later abandoned Israel and joined the Midianites in fighting against Israel.” Rabbi Plaut’s view is that the text is “less the tale of a pagan, be he prophet or sorcerer, than a paean of God and His affection for the children of Israel.”
When the two finally meet, Balak brings Bilaam to Bamos-ba’al, a place named for the pagan god of fertility and material plentitude.
Balak hoped to provoke Bilaam to attack the Israelites economically [Rav Hirsch]. At Bilaam’s instruction, seven altars are built, upon which are offered seven bullocks and seven rams. God communicates with Bilaam and instructs him what to say; He “puts a word in Bilaam’s mouth”. Upon returning to meet Balak, Bilaam sees the camp of Israel and, impressed with the numbers, the power and the unity of the nation, launches into a beautiful poetic description of the historic continuity and uniqueness of the people of Israel including “Hain ahm l’vadad yishkon u’vagoyim lo yis’chashav” [“This is a people that shall dwell alone and shall not be reckoned among the nations”].
Unhappy with these words of blessing instead of the curses he expected, Balak brings Bilaam to the field of Zophim, where only a part of the nation will be visible [Zophim means watch or overlook]. Balak hopes that Bilaam will attack the Israelites’ spiritual power and foresight. Again, seven altars are constructed, and offerings brought and again God contacts Bilaam and “put a word in his mouth”. Bilaam refers to Israel’s recent history and proclaims God’s strength vis a vis Balak who is merely a man. God remains resolute in his roles of Defender of and Dispenser-of-Blessings to His people. No magic can prevail against Israel: “Ki lo nachash b’Yaakov v’lo kesem b’Yisrael” [“No black magic can be effective against Jacob and no occult powers against Israel” or, alternatively, “there is no divination in Jacob and no sorcery in Israel”.] Furthermore, He causes to be announced what He plans to do: “Now it is said of Jacob and of Israel ‘what hath God wrought’.” [Note: the phrase in bold was the first telegraph message sent by inventor Samuel F.B. Morse on May 24,1844 over an experimental line from Washington, D.C. to Baltimore, Md. It was witnessed by members of Congress.]
An enraged Balak agrees to allow Bilaam one more chance and moves to the top of Peor, named after the pagan god of sexual license. It was Balak’s hope that somehow Bilaam would undermine the chastity and purity of the nation. Again, seven altars are built, and offerings brought. But this time Bilaam--inspired by Ruach Ha’kodesh-- spontaneously prophesizes that no harm would befall the Israelites because of the purity of their family life: “Ma tovu ohalecha Yaakov, mishkenosecha Yisrael” [“Your tents are so good O Yaakov, your dwellings O Israel”]. An even more enraged Balak sends Bilaam packing. But before he leaves, Bilaam offers a vision of Israel’s future including “Darach kochav meYaakov, v’kam shevet meYisrael” (“A star shall shoot forth from Yaakov [King David? Messiah? metaphor for ordinary Jew? Bar Kochva?]; and a staff will arise from Israel”).
Both Balak and Bilaam then return to their respective homes.
Do Curses Work?
The ancients believed in the power of curses to arouse against a person those forces which were normally beyond human control. They were prayers to the deity asking for fulfillment of the petitioner’s wish.
Rabbi Hertz notes that the Babylonian/Mesopotamia religion was filled with demonology. Certain individuals had the power to change the will of the deities and to secure prosperity or bring on calamity via their spells and incantations. A magician/sorcerer/wizard could predict the future, discover secrets and either bless or bring ruin.
But the Torah discredits superstition and belief in magic. So why did God try to stop Bilaam or even care about his curses?
In answer of this question, Nechama Leibowitz cites…
• Many commentaries who think that stopping Bilaam’s evil plan was meant to teach him a lesson.
• Joseph Ibn Kaspi who notes the psychological (rather than actual) damage to the object of a curse.
• Abravanel who reasons that cursing the Israelites would have catalyzed the surrounding nations to do battle with Israel on the strength of these curses.
• Shadal’s view that Bilaam’s curses would have prompted Moav and its King Balak to boast of their success in warding off the Israelites.
• Anselm Astruc (author of Medreshei Torah commentary, who was murdered in an attack on the Jewish community of Barcelona in 1391) thinks that the inhabitants of the land (and even the Jews themselves) would always (incorrectly) attribute any of the Israel’s miseries to Bilaam’s curse.
A Timeless Message
The name Balak is related to another Hebrew word that means “anyone”. The name Bilaam can also mean “a man without faith” [blee emunah]. The story of these two men is the story of Anyman, anytime. It is the story of one who, perhaps lacking faith, seeks to harm others, to do evil, and to be excessively greedy and cruel. The optimistic message is that God in His mysterious and caring ways often seeks to block one’s self-destructive behavior [i.e., Bilaam’s dream communication from God]. And even if one continues down this evil narrow path, God still offers another chance [i.e., Angel, a positive Divine force, blocking the narrow path Bilaam took].
When Bilaam finally prepares to curse the Israelites, God “puts a word in in Bilaam’s mouth”. Scholars debate the meaning of this expression:
• Some think that it means that he was guided from above not to curse the Israelites.
• Others maintain that it was like a hook put in the mouth of a fish. Bilaam struggled like a fish on a hook; he struggled to curse but was forced to say blessings despite himself.
During the first two parables, it is God that tells Bilaam what to say. But the third time, it is Bilaam who speaks spontaneously and positively about the nation of Israel and its future.
Bilaam resisted Good, but it was divinely thrust upon him. By acting, behaving, and speaking positively his character began to change to a point where he spoke positively of his own accord. Perhaps this is a living example of “Metoch shelo lishma, ba lishma” (“for out of not for its own sake comes for its own sake”)—a lesson for us all.
“Hayn Aam L’vadad Yishkon Uvagoyem Lo Yischashav” (“This is a People That Shall Dwell Alone and Shall Not be Reckoned Among the Nations.”)
This vision of Bilaam proved to be borne out by the history of Israel. Some believe that this very apartness was a necessary means for the nation’s self-realization.
In his book The Prime Ministers, Yehudah Avner describes Prime Minister Begin’s Saturday night Bible study group and its discussion of the meaning of this verse:
• Golda Meir sees in this a prediction of Israel’s loneliness and absence of family at the United Nations
• Prof. Ephraim Auerbach interprets this as Israel’s voluntarily setting itself apart
• Nechama Leibowitz notes the grammar (reflexive form) makes the meaning does not reckon itself among the nations
• Prof. Yaakov Katz, citing Marcus Jastrow, interprets this to mean does not conspire against other nations
• Prof. Harel Fisch focuses on the uniqueness of Jewish people in blending Peoplehood (Exodus from Egypt) and religion (Mt Sinai experience). This uniqueness distinguishes Jewish people from other nations and, therefore, we will always dwell alone.
• Srulik opines that Bilaam’s prophecy, no matter how understood, stamps the Jewish nation as eternally abnormal among nations—undermining the Zionist dream of our being “normal” like all other nations.
• Dr. Chaim Gevaryahu wonders why Zionist founders thought Jewish self-determination would end anti-Semitism. Bilaam the anti-Semite underscored our fundamental uniqueness that, unfortunately, feeds anti-Semitism.
• Menachem Begin sees the refusal to assimilate starting with Avraham Avinu who maintained his distinctiveness. The fulfillment of religious national destiny means there can be no separation between religion and State in Israel. “Cease dwelling alone and we cease to exist.”
Rabbi Sacks defines the phrase to mean that we are a people “…prepared to stand alone if need be, living by its own moral code, having the courage to be different and to take the road less travelled”. We are a distinctive people defined by our shared memories and collective responsibilities having survived and capable of again surviving even in exile and dispersion because our society is built on justice and human dignity. “Israel uniquely became a society before it was a state. It had laws before it had a land. It was a people before it was a nation, that is, a political entity… Israel’s strength lies not in nationalism but in building a society based on justice and human dignity”.