Saturday, July 08, 2006

DVAR TORAH: Chukat-Balak

We finally catch up to Israel this week after a month of being a parasha behind. The catch is that we have a double portion this week, Chukat-Balak, whereas Israel only has the latter, having had the former the previous week.
Holy Cow! (not to be confused with the Golden Calf which was NOT holy) If it's three years old and still unblemished it could be the first step to Rebuilding the Temple

I don’t currently have the parasha, nor my Dvar Torah of Shabbat Parah in front of me, but this week we begin with the account of the Red Heifer which we also read as a special maftir following Purim and before Passover. Speaking of death, in this first parasha the Author kills off two of the main characters. Miriam dies in Chapter 20, as does Aaron. As for Moses, his fate is also sealed in this chapter during the account at the waters of Meribah (striking the rock) This also contains the elusive “Song of Israel” (I think I know why it isn't so popularly known; it's very difficult, tongue-twisting Hebrew) and a mention of the non-extant “Book of the Wars of the Lord”. Good trivia for you to know as well is that Aaron has the only recorded Yahrzeit in the Torah, which will be mentioned at a later parasha as the first day of the fifth month, Rosh Chodesh Av.

The second Torah portion contains the bizarre account of a wizard (for lack of a better term) named Balaam (I can never spell that name properly in English). Like the Jewish prophets he can communicate with God. He, like the magicians of Egypt, uses dark magic. However Balaam has the authority to use such magic from On High. According to midrash, which I will make you look up on your own for the actual story, he is one of three advisors of Pharaoh, the other two being Yitro and Job. Of the three, Balaam is the evil one. All three of these people have a special relationship with God, but again Balaam, though he is the only evil one, has the greatest coverage of God. God uses him as a puppet however, and plays him as the puppeteer plays the marionette. I have mentioned many times before the quote from Pirkei Avot that “All is foretold but freewill is given”. This does not apply to Balaam, as it did not apply to Pharaoh (we are going up the ladder here). God softens and hardens their hearts at His whim. Don’t think that Balaam should be on the same level as the true Jewish prophets. God goes out of His way to show that Balaam is an ass, or literally less than one. One of the strangest occurrences in the Bible is of Balaam’s talking ass. His donkey sees what Balaam cannot see, and throws off Balaam whenever she (it’s a she-ass) encounters the Angel of the Lord. Only after thrice being thrown off the donkey (which is rewarded with smacking) does the donkey talk back to him and said that God was there, thus Balaams eyes are opened to the presence of the Lord. As Jacob said following his Dream of the Ladder “the Lord was at this place, and I didn’t know”. Balaam sent to curse the people Israel by Balak the evil king of Moab is forced by God to bless them instead with some of the most famous words in the bible: ."מה־טבו אהליך יעקב משכנתיך ישראל", “how goodly are your tents o Jacob, your Tabernacles, Israel.” This is the first thing we say when we enter the synagogue in the morning. He also says something which features prominently in the Malchuyot/Kingship Section of Rosh Hashannah Musaf. And don’t think Balaam gets off clean after this. He’ll be dead in a Parashah or Two. On that note, Shabbat Shalom.

Another talking ass. "Can I ass you a few questions?" -Ace Ventura: Pet Detective

PS: There was an interesting discussion at shul today about why Moses was told at this point that he would not be able to enter the land of Israel. Why would an event such as striking a rock be the straw that breaks the camel's back? I said that in the case of Pavlov's Dog, the dog would salivate whenever he heard a bell ring because he thought he was getting food. Moses is told to take his rod and speak to a rock. In the past, whenever God told moses to take his staff it was always to hit something or hold it against something and God worked His miracles through the staff. Moses may have been the greatest human who has ever lived, but he is still human. Moses lost a game of "Simon Says" with his staff and God is aware of his human limitations. Rather, I think Moses' downfall is saying "Listen, you rebels!". I remember reading these exact words in a midrash about the murder of Hur. Hur, who along with Aaron held up Moses' hands when they fought the Amalekites for the first time, gets killed by a lynch-mob (okay, they stone him to death, but is there such thing as a stone-mob?) after he calls the people rebels when they think Moses is dead after ascending Mount Sinai. Though he was acting on behalf of Moses and God, the tone he took was condemning of the people. Moses too lost this protection. He had been the person who did everything in and beyond his power to save the people from the constant wrath of God suddenly condemns them, calling them "hamorim", a very derogatory term meaning "rebels". Moses had accepted responsibility for their actions in defending them, and now he himself is accountable. Moses was the defender of Israel, but now he has become the accuser. The hebrew word for accuser is Satan. In Judaism this is the main role of Satan, Prosecutor. Literally Devil's Advocate (not posessive, but rather a contraction of Devil is Advocate").

This parasha also contains the account of the Copper Snake. The people complain about the food situation, God sends fiery serpents to bite, poison and kill the people, they beg Moses for help, Moses pleads with God (sound familiar?), and God tells them to build a copper snake and put it on a pole. Anyone who looks at it will be healed. This sounds similar to a story I just mentioned, another example of something high up that when people look up at it, they will be victorious. This is the account of the first war with Amalek. When moses hands are raised high on the mountain, the people overcome Amalek. I believe that the magic is not in the hands or the copper snake, but in the direction they are looking: Skyward. The psalmist writes "I lift my eyes toward the mountains, from whence (I love saying that) will my help come, my help is from God, Creator of heaven and earth." They look toward the heavens and realize that God is there to help them. God forbid that they think it is from the snake or from the hands of Moses. Indeed, during the time of Josiah, I believe, the people find the copper snake and start worshiping it, and Josiah grounds it up rather than letting this important relic remain in the hands of idolatrous Jews. What if Moses' grave were found at that time or even today. There is this reason too why Moses could not enter the Promised Land as well as why his grave is unknown.

There were some interesting things I noticed after reading the parshiot. Balaam, it seems, has more than just a special relationship to God. He says, "I cannot transgress the word of the Lord my God" (Numbers 22:18). Is Balaam a Noahide observer? He just called the Lord, God of Israel, as his own God! in 24:14 he advises Balak on what will happen in the End of Days. Whoa! He even mentions Israel king's victory over Agag and the separation of the Kenite, something which does not happen for hundreds of years when Saul defeats Amalek and Samuel cuts down their king, Agag, but not before warning the Kenites to get out of the way(I Samuel 15, I believe).

And for those interested in further (wikipedia) reading, here are links in English and Hebrew.

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