Parashat Balak / פרשת בלק

Diaspora & Israel Torah Readings Shabbat July 23

AZAMRA Parshah

On Shabbat July 23 Diaspora communities will read the Torah portion of BALAK while Israel communities will read the portion of PINCHAS. Subscribers in Israel will need to scroll down the email past the commentary on the Diaspora reading to find the commentary on the Israel reading for this Shabbat.

Parshas BALAK: Numbers 22:2-25:9.
Haftara: Micah 5:6-6:8.

By Rabbi Avraham Greenbaum

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The story of Bilaam and his talking donkey is one of the most strangely picturesque sections of the whole Torah. It is said that one Shabbos, while the holy Rabbi Yitzhak Luria, the ARI, was taking a short nap, his attendant noticed the master’s lips moving in his sleep. When he awoke, the attendant asked him: “Master, what were you studying?” “It was a lesson about Bilaam’s donkey,” replied the ARI. “But if I were to try to explain to you what I learned in those few minutes, the introductions alone would take hundreds of years.”

Since the Torah states that “there did not arise another prophet in Israel like Moses” (Deut. 34:10), the rabbis inferred that while there never arose another prophet in Israel of the stature of Moses, there did arise a prophet of comparable stature among the other nations. This was Bilaam, who was sent to the nations so that they could not argue that if they had had a prophet like Moses, they would not have rebelled against the Torah. The Torah describes Bilaam as “knowing the knowledge of the Supreme” (Numbers 24:16). Yet instead of reproving the nations and bringing them to the service of G-d, Bilaam’s advice to them was to untie the reins of chastity that had hitherto bound the Children of Noah and to let wild immorality loose on the world.

According to the ARI, Bilaam is one of three who had the same soul: Laban, the antagonist of Jacob; Bilaam, the antagonist of Moses, and Naval the antagonist of King David (Samuel I, Chapter 25). The initial letters of the three make up the name of NaVaL, who cast his evil eye on G-d’s annointed, David Melech HaMashiach, just as Laban cast his evil eye on Jacob and his children and Bilaam cast his evil eye on Moses and the Children of Israel. [The three are fallen parts of the soul of Abel, whereas Moses embodies the rectified Abel.]

As the adversary of Moses, who brought the Torah to Israel, Bilaam is the chief adversary of Israel. To look at him from the outside, one might easily have been deceived, for this arch prophet of the Seventy Nations may well have appeared on the surface as a supremely pious and spiritual individual. The Torah itself testifies that he received prophecy from HaShem. Presumably Bilaam was constantly engaged in meditations and rituals, and surrounded by priests, monks and other acolytes. A turn of expression in Ethics of the Fathers explains how we find out who is the true Bilaam: not from his external piety and spirituality, but by observing the actual traits of those who are his students and followers. “Whoever has these three traits is of the students of the wicked Bilaam: an evil eye, a haughty spirit and an expansive appetite” (Avot 5:19). Rashi, in his commentary on our parshah, shows where in the narrative Bilaam exhibits these traits (Numbers ch. 22 v. 13 & 18; ch. 24 v.2).

Bilaam is the very epitome of those who choose This World, the world of extraneous splendor, glory, wealth and appetite, over the World chosen by Abraham, Jacob, Moses and the Children of Israel: the World of Truth. Having chosen This World, Bilaam cannot but look askance at the Children of Israel, whose eccentric religion appears to make no sense in terms of the visible logic of the material world. Israel’s existence is such an affront to the world chosen by Bilaam that he feels compelled to “cast the evil eye on them” — to demonize and curse them. His haughty spirit is offended that this nation of escaped slaves seeks to rein in man’s material appetites and desires and elevate them in the service of G-d.

While Moses brought the knowledge of G-d to the world — the Tree of Life — what Bilaam embraced was the other side of knowledge: the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Bilaam demanded the right to know and experience every side of the world to the full, without boundaries or limitations. “Knowing the knowledge of the Supreme”. This desire to know everything, including the innermost face and slimy underside of the material world, is expressed in the rabbinic statement that Bilaam had intercourse with his donkey (Sanhedrin 105b). The donkey is symbolic of materialism in general (HOMRIUS), as indicated by the generic Hebrew term for donkey, HAMOR. Wanting to “have it all”, Bilaam was diametrically opposed to the Israelite path of self-restraint and discipline.

It is part of G-d’s deep plan for man in this world that there should exist a world-view and mindset that is diametrically opposed to that of the Torah in order for man to be subjected to the test of free will. We are indeed constantly confronted with and challenged by this mindset in the predominant materialist culture that surrounds us on every side in the contemporary world. It is the mindset that tells us that we are in this world to enjoy everything it has to offer according to the way we feel, without having to be bound by the dictates of a restrictive religious code of conduct that constantly seems to be telling us what we must do next and what we must not do.

The deepest mystery of creation is that G-d gave man free will to do as he chooses, yet G-d directs man in such a way that in the end, he has no option but to acknowledge that G-d is right. This mystery is contained in the story of Bilaam, who was determined to curse Israel and tried every way possible to get G-d to agree, but in the end was forced to bless Israel, even against his will.

Bilaam wanted to be completely free: to be in the driver’s seat, “riding the donkey” — going where he chose in the material world. The irony is that the donkey itself rebelled, and refused to go where Bilaam wanted. Bilaam wanted to know and enjoy the side of the world where there is no G-d, no restraint, no pangs of conscience. only the donkey, the animal. But the donkey itself opened its mouth! The term for the donkey in our parshah is AThON — alluding to the 22 letters of the Aleph Beith, from Aleph to Thav, and to the Fifty Gates of Understanding (the final letter of AThON, Nun, has the numerical value of 50). Bilaam was forced to see that the material world itself is made up of “letters of the alphabet” — spiritual significance and purpose. Bilaam could not escape from G-d’s truth.

G-d “bridled Bilaam with a halter and put a hook in his mouth, the way a man bridles an animal to take it where he wants” (Rashi on Num. 23:16). Bilaam was forced against his will to bless the Children of Israel. The bridling of Bilaam comes to teach us the profound lesson that although it may appear on the surface that the forces of evil are riding high without control in the world, in fact G-d has evil on a leash like a dog. G-d allows evil only just as much rein as suits His deep plan for the world.

The Talmud states that “from the blessings of that wicked man you learn what was in his heart. He wanted to say that they should not have synagogues and study halls — “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob.”. The Indwelling Presence should not rest upon them — “.and your sanctuaries, O Israel”. Their kingdom should not continue — “.like streams they extend.”. They should not have olive trees and vineyards — “like gardens by the side of a river”. Their odor should not waft forth — “Like aloe trees planted by G-d”. They should not have kings of stature — “like cedars by the side of waters”. They should not have a king who is the son of a king — “water will flow forth from his source”. Their kingdom should not hold sway over the nations — “and his seed over the many waters”. His kingdom should not be daring — “his king will be high above Agag”. His kingdom should not be fearsome — “and his kingdom will be exalted” (Sanhedrin 105a).

From this Talmudic passage we learn what gives Israel its strength: its synagoand study halls, and its kings — the true kings who follow in the path of King David, the archetype of the true Tzaddik.

“How goodly are your tents of Jacob.” Everything is founded on the sanctity and purity of Israel’s “tents and habitations” — the Torah home, where man and wife unite in holy love to bring new souls into the world and nurture them in the ways of G-d. It was precisely this sanctity that Bilaam sought to attack in advising Balak that the best way to get the better of Israel would be by promoting immorality. Thus Bilaam’s advice was to ensnare the Israelite men with the Midianite girls, who would quickly persuade them to go after the god of immorality. This was diametrically opposed to the way of Moses, causing a plague that threatened the entire nation. They were saved only through the heroism of Pinchas, who zealously stood up for HaShem when everyone else was confused.

Shabbat Shalom!!!

Avraham Yehoshua Greenbaum

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Parshas PINCHAS: Numbers Numbers 25:10-30:1.

By Rabbi Avraham Greenbaum


“Pinchas son of Elazar son of Aaron the Priest turned away My wrath from upon the Children of Israel in his zealousness. Therefore say: I hereby give him My Covenant of Peace” (Numbers 25:11-12).

The opening verses of our parshah of PINCHAS follow immediately after the account of Pinchas’ heroic act given at the end of last week’s parshah, BALAK. The Prince of the tribe of Shimon was publicly flouting Moses’ authority by taking a Midianite princess for himself in front of his brothers, in front of Moses and in front of the whole Assembly of Israel. His claim was that if Moses could marry the daughter of the Priest of Midian, why should he not also be allowed to take a Midianite woman?

The humble Moses was speechless. The meaning of his marriage with Tzipporah was to exalted to be explained in a public forum. Nobody could remember the halachah. In the consternation over this public scandal, the law was concealed from everyone’s eyes. Everyone was weeping. The Prince of the tribe of Shimon was publicly flouting the prohibition against intermarriage by taking a Midianite princess into his tent, and political rectitude was saying “Let them”. The aim was to open the floodgates to casual relations with people of all nations without discrimination, leading to intermarriage, assimilation and the erasing of all boundaries between holy and profane.

There is profound irony in this challenge to the authority of Moses, the Levite. It was Jacob’s second-born, Shimon, who had joined his next younger brother, Levy, in the act of zealousness that earned them the anger of their father (Genesis Chapter 34, see UNIVERSAL TORAH #8 VAYISHLACH). This was the vengeance on the inhabitants of Shechem for the kidnapping of their sister Dinah. The inhabitants of Shechem had agreed to become circumcised, but for the wrong reason: it was not the Covenant of Abraham that they wanted, but the Israelite girls.

The present challenge to the Covenant of Abraham came from the wicked Bilaam, who advised Balak, king of the Moabites, that the way to undermine the holiness of Israel was by enticing the Israeli boys with their girls, who would then pull out their idols and make the Israelites worship them. Ironically, in this test, the Prince of the tribe of Shimon uses his characteristic trait of GEVURAH in zealous championship of complete personal freedom, challenging Moses’ Levitical zeal for the Covenant — which imposes restraints on the satisfaction of our physical appetites — and Moses was speechless.

Only Pinchas remembered — young Pinchas, the son of Elazar, who was now High Priest after his father, Aaron. Fear was keeping everyone else’s mouths gagged as the true Israelite code of morality was publicly mocked. Pinchas himself was in a minority of one. He was in mortal danger of being publicly lynched for daring to challenge contemporary political rectitude. Even so, he courageously took up his spear, went straight into the tent after them and pierced the two of them in the act through their private parts, bringing them out thereafter on the spear to show everyone.

The law that Pinchas championed is stated clearly by RAMBAM (Maimonides) in his Code. “An Israelite who has marital relations with an idol-worshipper from one of the other peoples or an Israelite woman who has marital relations with an idol-worshipper are liable to 40 lashes by Torah law. The Torah forbids only marriage, but one who has casual relations with a non-Israelite is liable to the penalty of lashes by rabbinical decree because it leads to marriage. Anyone who has relations with an idol-worshipper, whether in the context of marriage or casually, if he performed the act publicly, i.e. in front of ten or more Israelites, IF THE ZEALOUS ATTACK AND KILL HIM, THEY ARE PRAISEWORTHY AND VALIANT and this is a Law given to Moses on Sinai, and the proof is what Pinchas did to Zimri.”

This particular law about zeal is hedged with numerous qualifications: the zealot may only strike them at the moment of the act. If the zealot came to the Rabbinic Court and asked permission to kill, they do not give such a ruling. (Mishneh Torah, Issurey Biyah, Forbidden Relationships ch. 12, 1-8).

It is forbidden to take the law into one’s own hands. Only a person of the supreme purity and saintliness of Pinchas could do what he did. The point is not to legitimize killing, which has already gotten completely out of hand in the sad, bullet-torn, explosion-shattered world in which we live today. Far more important is to understand the actual severity of the crime for which the Torah allows a saint like Pinchas to single-handedly kill the perpetrators when this is absolutely necessary at that moment for the honor of G-d and the sanctity of the People of Israel. In the words of RAMBAM: “This practice (of casual relations and intermarriage) causes one to become attached to the idolaters, from whom the Holy One blessed be He has separated us, and to turn away from HaShem and betray Him” (ibid.)

Pinchas’ valor lay in standing up for what is right and true even though it flew in the face of the prevailing orthodoxy, and he was in mortal danger of getting lynched. Pinchas did not flinch from stating the Torah law, even when it was unpopular, and for this he was given G-d’s Covenant of Peace.

Our age is obsessed with the search for peace. How ironic that the more everyone runs after peace, the more it eludes us. Every plan that is supposed to bring peace seems to lead only to further strife and violence. Could it be that those who are so zealous for peace would be more effective if they were to apply their zeal to the search for G-d and His Torah? The authentic Israelite pathway to peace is recited daily at the end of the morning prayers: “Rabbi Elazar said in the name of Rabbi Chanina: The students of the wise increase peace in the world, as it says: ‘And all of your children are students of G-d, and great is the peace of your children’. Read the Hebrew word for children in that verse not as BANECHA, ‘your children’, but as ‘BONECHA’, your BUILDERS!’ ” The way to build true peace is through studying and keeping the Torah.

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Approaching the end of the forty-years in the Wilderness, the new generation of the Children of Israel stood assembled in the plains of Moab near the Jordan River, facing Jericho, poised to enter the Promised Land. The land was to be divided among those counted in the census that G-d now commanded Moses to take. As we approach the conclusion of the Book of Numbers and come towards the Book of Deuteronomy, the theme of the Land of Israel and how we are to live in it becomes increasingly prominent. One of the first lessons we learn is from the fact that the land is to be divided fairly among all the people. The vision is one of a nation of equal, independent homestead owners possessing family pride as opposed to one in which a minority of wealthy property-owners exploit and manipulate a migrant population lacking strong family roots, alienated and cut off from the land.

In Torah law, land is considered the best and surest property — movables (let alone paper wealth) cannot compare. While sale and purchase of land takes up a sizeable part of Torah law, the sages counseled not to part with land whenever possible, and certainly not ancestral land. Land should be held and transferred from generation to generation. Our parshah introduces the Torah law of inheritance (see also Deuteronomy 21:16ff). The law was given by G-d to Moses in response to a question raised before him concerning inheritance by daughters. The question was raised by the daughters of Tzelaphchad, who had died of his own sin in the wilderness leaving no sons. They asked for their father’s share of the land to be given to them so that his family name should not be diminished among his brothers.

The daughters of Tzelaphchad longed and yearned for the Land of Isr. They could not bear the thought that their family would not have a part and a share in the land.

In the words of the Midrash: “When the daughters of Tzelaphchad heard that the Land was to be divided among the males but not the females, they all gathered together to take counsel. They said, ‘Not like the love of flesh and blood is the love of G-d. A person of flesh and blood has more love for the males than the females, but He who spoke and the world came into being is not that way. Males. females. His love is for all! As it is written: ‘His love is over ALL His works’ (Psalm 146)

The Midrash continues: ” . “Rabbi Nathan said: The power of women is more beautiful than the power of men. The men said, ‘Let us appoint a head and return to Egypt’ (Numbers 14), but the women said, ‘Give us a share of the land’ (Numbers 27:4).”

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Land may pass from father to son (or daughter) but leadership must pass not by inheritance (unless it is genuinely deserved) but from a true leader only to a true student. As we start to approach the end of the Torah, issues relating to the end of life (such as inheritance) are more to the fore. This is the case in our parshah, where Moses is instructed to ascend the mountain to see the Land for which he so yearned, after which he was to die.

Characteristically, Moses’ first thought at that moment was not for himself but for those he would be leaving behind. “And Moses said to HaShem: Let HaShem, the G-d of the spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the Assembly, who will go out before them and come in before them and who will bring them out and bring them in, and the Assembly of HaShem will not be like a flock that has no shepherd” (Numbers 27:15-17).

The appointment of Joshua as Moses’ successor to lead the Children of Israel into the Land of Israel involves the mystery of SEMICHAH, the “laying on of hands” whereby the Master gives Torah authority to the Student. Joshua deserved this because of his assiduous devotion to Moses and his constant study of the Torah: “He had been Moses attendant from his youth” (Numbers 11:28) “and his attendant Joshua the son of Nun was a lad who would not move outside the tent”.

[Rabbi Nachman of Breslov explains the mystery of SEMICHAH and how the “hand” signifies the transfer of wisdom in Likutey Moharan Part I, Discourse 61 #2.]

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Directly after the account of the appointment of Joshua to lead the Children of Israel into the Land, the Torah enters into a lengthy section detailing the sacrifices in the Temple every day, on Shabbat, on the New Moon and on each of the festivals throughout the year. The juxtaposition of the two sections is explained in the commentary of RAMBAN, (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, Nachmanides). “Having said, ‘Among these you shall divide up land’, G-d completed the exposition of the law of the sacrifices that they should perform in the land.”

There is an integral connection between the inheritance of the Land and bringing sacrifices to the Temple every day, every week, every month and on every festival. The Temple is at the very center of the land in all three dimensions of existence: time, space and soul. The souls of the people who inhabit the land must to be focussed on the Temple both in terms of time and space. In terms of time, they must be focussed on the Temple through the services that must be performed at specific junctures in time: in the morning and afternoon (times of the daily sacrifices), on the Sabbath, on the New Moon, and particularly on the three pilgrim festivals, when the whole nation must come up to Jerusalem.

Space is intimately bound up with these very services in the Temple at these various junctures in time. This is because the Temple services are centered on the produce of the Land. Our parshah details the various sacrifices of lambs, oxen, wheat, oil and wine on the Temple Altar daily, on Shabbat, the New Moon and all the Festivals. The regular offering of these token gifts culled from the produce of the Land elevates and brings blessing to all of the fruits of the Land.

Unique among the offerings on the Altar are those on the festival of Succoth (“Tabernacles”). On the first day, the offerings included thirteen oxen, on the second day twelve, and so on. The total number of oxen offered on the seven days of the festival was seventy, corresponding to the seventy nations of the world, for whose blessing and welfare Israel is also charged with responsibility. It is our prayer that both Israel and the nations will quickly realize that peace and blessing will come only from the Temple services and not from empty peace plans.

On Succoth even the humblest of all has its place on the Altar: water. The Midrash tells us that at the time of creation, the waters cried out to G-d that everyone has a place on the Altar — oxen, sheep, wheat, barley, oil, wine. All except for water. The waters threatened to engulf the world until G-d promised them that on the festival of Succoth, Israel would offer a libation of humble water on the Altar, accompanied by SIMCHAS BEIS HASHO-EVA, “the Joy of the Water Drawing”, which was so great that it brought people to prophecy.

The water libation on Succoth is not written explicitly in the Torah but only allusively. Three seemingly minute anomalies in the Hebrew phrasing of the laws of the offerings of the second, sixth and seventh days of the festival of Succoth, enable us to trace the letters of the word Hebrew word MAYIM — WATER — running through the Hebrew text (see Rashi on Numbers 29:18).

May we constantly drink the waters of the Torah, “and this book of the Torah will not move from your mouth, and you shall meditate in it day and night in order to guard and perform all that is written in it, for then you will have success in your paths and then you will be wise” (Joshua 1:8).

Shabbat Shalom!!!

Avraham Yehoshua Greenbaum

PO Box 50037 Jerusalem 91500 Israel