FROM THE TORAH
Last week’s Sedra Korach ends with the demarcation of duties and perquisites of Priests and Levites. Fundamental to their sacred access is their status of ritual purity. Its rules are provided in the first of this week’s double Sedra Chukkat-Balak at the outset. Then follow succinct accounts of crucial events: the deaths of Miriam and Aaron, the fate of Moses, continued hardships, objections, and punishments. Israel is confronted with the unprovoked hostility of several nations in the vicinity of its destination. Whencesoever bellicosity breaks out—the king of Arad, Sichon king of the Amorites, Og king of Bashan—Israel prevails and the enemy is supplanted. Then Israel encamps in the plains of Moab. In the second of this week’s double Sedra Chukkat-Balak, the chain of events is continued with details of an occult albeit doomed stratagem by Balak king of Moab. Within the details lie three astute observations about God and Israel uttered through the medium of the hired Balaam, one through his means of transportation, and several regarding Moab and other nations. Finally, what the king of Moab could not achieve through Balaam, the Moabite women at least begin through debauchery. An alliance between Moab and Midian is suggested once at the beginning and once at the aforementioned denouement.
Contamination and Purification
PREPARATION OF THE ASHES OF PURIFICATION
The Eternal explains to Moses and Aaron: The following is a statute (Chukkat) of the Torah which the Eternal has commanded and which you should communicate to the Children of Israel. They must provide you with a completely red cow (parah adumah), which has no defect and has not borne a yoke. You must then give it to Elazar the Priest, who shall remove it from the camp and have it slaughtered before him. Elazar the Priest shall then sprinkle its blood with his finger toward the front of the Tent of Meeting seven times.
He shall then have the cow burned in his sight—its skin, its flesh, its blood, along with its dung—and throw into the fire cedar wood, hyssop and crimson material.
Let the Priest then wash his garments and bathe his body in water. He may then enter the camp, but he is impure until the evening. In addition, the one who burned it must wash his clothes and bathe his body in water, and he is impure until the evening.
A pure man shall gather up the ashes of the cow and put them in a clean place outside of the camp, where they shall be reserved for water of purification from sin. He also shall wash his clothes and be impure until the evening.
This shall serve the Children of Israel and the alien who sojourns in their midst as an everlasting statute.
HUMAN DEATH AS A SOURCE OF IMPURITY
One who has contact with a human corpse shall be impure for seven days.
These are the rules:
If a person dies in an enclosure such as a tent, whoever is in the tent and whoever enters the tent is impure for seven days, and any open vessel without a lid fastened upon it is impure.
Outside of an enclosure such as in a field, anyone who touches a corpse, whether the person died of natural causes or by violence, or a human bone, or a grave, is impure for seven days.
PURIFICATION BY THE ASHES
In order to become pure he must be purified by the ashes on the third day and on the seventh day. If not, he will defile the Tabernacle of the Eternal and be cut off from Israel.
In order to achieve purification, fresh water shall be combined with some of the ashes in a vessel. Then a pure man shall dip hyssop into the water and sprinkle it upon the tent and upon all of the vessels and the people who were in it, or upon the one who had contact with the person who died, whether violently or naturally, the bone, or the grave. The pure person shall sprinkle it upon the impure person on the third day and on the seventh day, purifying him on the seventh day, but he still must wash his clothes and bathe in water to be pure by the evening.
Unless the water of purification is thrown upon him, he remains impure indefinitely.
The one who sprinkled the water of purification must wash his clothes. Whoever touches the water of purification is impure until the evening, and whatever that impure person touches becomes impure. Whoever touches him shall be impure until the evening.
Crises from the Wilderness of Zin to the Plains of Moab
DEATH OF MIRIAM
All of the congregation of the Children of Israel arrive in the wilderness of Zin in the first month (cf. 33:36-38), staying at Kadesh. There Miriam dies and is buried.
THE WATERS OF MERIVAH
There was no water for the congregation, so they assemble against Moses and against Aaron (cf. Exodus 17:1-7). The people quarrels with Moses: Better that we had perished when our brethren perished before the Eternal! Why have you brought the Eternal’s congregation to this wilderness to die in it along with our beasts? Why have you removed us from Egypt to bring us to this horrible, infertile place, incapable of figs or vines or pomegranates, without water to drink?
Moses and Aaron seek refuge from the congregation at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, where they fall upon their faces and the dense presence of the Eternal appears to them. The Eternal tells Moses to take the staff and assemble the congregation: You and Aaron your brother, speak to the rock in their sight to give forth its water (cf. Exodus 17:6). Thus shall you bring forth for them water from the rock and give drink to the congregation and their beasts.
So Moses takes the staff from before the Eternal (cf. 17:25) as He commanded him. Moses and Aaron gather the community in front of the rock, “and he says to them: ‘Now listen, O rebels, shall we bring forth for you water from this rock?’” (20:10) Moses then lifts his hand and strikes the rock with his staff twice, and abundant water pours forth, which the congregation and their animals drink.
To Moses and to Aaron, the Eternal says the following: Because you did not in good faith sanctify Me in the sight of the Children of Israel, therefore you will not bring this congregation to the land which I am giving to them.
They are the waters of Merivah, which means “Quarrel,” in that the Children of Israel quarreled with the Eternal, who was sanctified through them (cf. Exodus 17:7).
ISRAEL REQUESTS PASSAGE THROUGH EDOM
Moses then sends messengers from Kadesh to the king of Edom. Thus declares your brother Israel (cf. Genesis 25:30; 36:1-8), they say: You know of the hardship that has befallen us, how our ancestors went down to Egypt, how the Egyptians dealt harshly with them and with us, how we cried out to the Eternal, who heard our voice and sent an angel to bring us out of Egypt; here we are now in Kadesh, on the border of your territory. Allow us safe transit through your land, we shall not stop in your fields or vineyards, we shall not drink water from your wells; we shall remain strictly on the king’s highway until we pass through your territory (cf. Deuteronomy 2:1-8)!
Edom rejects Israel’s petition and threatens military action if its rejection is not respected. The Children of Israel appeal and attempt to reassure Edom that they will take only the highway, that they will pay for any water that man or beast might drink on the way, and that their passage would be only on foot. Their appeal also is rejected, additionally with a demonstration of force by the appearance of people from Edom’s side heavily armed. Thus Edom refuses to allow Israel to pass through its territory, and Israel turns away from Edom.
DEATH OF AARON
The Children of Israel then journey from Kadesh, and all of the congregation arrive at Mount Hor. There, on the boundary of the land of Edom, the Eternal announces to Moses and to Aaron that Aaron will be gathered to his people, that he will not enter the land that the Eternal is giving to the Children of Israel “because you disobeyed My command for the waters of Merivah” (20:24). Moses is instructed to bring Aaron and his son Elazar up to Mount Hor. There he is to remove Aaron’s vestments and transfer them to Elazar his son. There Aaron is to be gathered to the dead.
Moses does as the Eternal commanded. They go up to Mount Hor in the sight of all the congregation. Moses transfers Aaron’s vestments to Elazar his son, and Aaron dies there at the top of the mountain. Moses and Elazar come down, and all the congregation sees that Aaron has passed away. All the House of Israel weeps for Aaron for thirty days.
ATTACK BY THE KING OF ARAD
The Canaanite king of Arad, dwelling in the Negev, learns that Israel is coming by way of the Atarim. He attacks them and takes captives from them. Israel makes a vow to the Eternal: If You deliver this people to me, then I shall proscribe their cities. The Eternal hears the voice of Israel and delivers the Canaanite to Israel. They and their cities are proscribed. The name of the place is Chormah, “proscription.”
ANGRY COMPLAINTS ENGENDER VENOMOUS SERPENTS
From Mount Hor they follow the Sea of Reeds to go around the land of Edom, but the people grow impatient on the way. They speak out against God and against Moses: Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no food and there is no water, and we cannot stand the accursed bread!
The Eternal sends venomous serpents against the people: they bite the people, and many of Israel die. The people appeal to Moses: We have sinned in speaking against the Eternal and against you; pray to the Eternal to remove the serpents from us! In respect of Moses’s prayer, the Eternal instructs him to make a fiery serpent and mount it upon a pole, so that whoever is bitten can see it and live. Moses thus makes a copper serpent and places it upon the pole. It serves the purpose that the Eternal intended.
JOURNEY TO WATER
The Children of Israel journey on, encamping along the way at Ovot, at Iyey Ha’avarim in the wilderness next to Moab on the east, at the Zered wadi, and in the wilderness between the Arnon border of Moab and the Amorite border. In The Book of the Wars of the Eternal is found the following: “…Wahev in Sufa and the Arnon wadis and the lower slope of the wadis which extend to the settlement of Ar alongside the border of Moab.” From there they continue to Be’er, which means “well” and is the place where the Eternal says to Moses, “Gather the people, and I shall give them water!”
Then Israel sings this song:
Rise up, O well, be regaled with these words:
O well dug out by rulers, by nobles of the people,
with their own scepter and staffs–
from wilderness a gift!
And from Mattanah, “a gift”: Nachaliel, “wadi of God”;
and from Nachaliel: Bamot, “heights”;
and from Bamot: the valley which is in the countryside of Moab,
the summit of Pisgah,
overlooking the wilderness waste.
WAR WITH SICHON AND THE AMORITES
Israel sends messengers to Sichon, king of the Amorites: Let me pass through your country. We will not turn off to field or vineyard or drink water from a well. We shall travel only the king’s highway until we have passed through your territory.
But Sichon denies Israel passage and instead goes out to the wilderness with all of his people to confront Israel and attack them at Yahatz. Israel strikes back with the sword and conquers their land and all of its cities from the Arnon to the Jabbok, as far as the Ammonites, whose border is strong. Israel settles in the land of the Amorites and in all of their cities, in Cheshbon and in all of its surrounding towns.
Cheshbon was the city of Sichon, king of the Amorites, as he conquered it from the former king of Moab as far as the Arnon. Therefore the poets would say:
Come to Cheshbon,
built and established,
the city of Sichon!
Fire went out from Cheshbon,
to consume Ar of Moab,
lords of the heights of Arnon.
Woe to you, O Moab!
Your god Chemosh
has allowed his children
to become fugitives and captives
of Sichon, the Amorite king!
But we shoot them down
from Cheshbon to Divon;
cause desolation as far as Nofach,
which is by Meydeveh!
Moses dispatches scouts to reconnoiter Jazer. Israel captures its towns and dispossesses the Amorites who are there.
DEFEAT OF OG, KING OF BASHAN
They turn and ascend the road to Bashan. Og, the king of Bashan, emerges with all of his people to engage them in battle at Edrei. The Eternal tells Moses not to fear him: I will give him and his people and his land into your hand. You will do to him as you did to Sichon, king of the Amorites, who lives in Cheshbon. Indeed they defeat him and his sons and his people thoroughly, leaving no survivor, and they possess his land.
ISRAEL ENCAMPS IN THE PLAINS OF MOAB
The Children of Israel set out again and then encamp in the plains of Moab, across the Jordan from Jericho.
Curses Ordered, Blessings Delivered
BALAK INVITES BALAAM TO CURSE ISRAEL
Balak (Balak) son of Tsippur is king of Moab. He sees what Israel has done to the Amorites (cf. 21:21ff.). Moab fears the multitude of the Children of Israel and communicates with the elders of Midian, expressing their fear that the people will “lick up everything around us as an ox licks up the grass of the field.” (22:4)
So Balak dispatches messengers to Balaam son of Be’or in Pethor on the River, in the land of his kin, saying: A people has emerged from Egypt, covering the entire country, settling before me. Come, now, and curse this people for me, for they are more numerous than I. Perhaps we can force it out of the land, for I know that what you bless is blessed and what you curse is cursed!
The elders of Moab and the elders of Midian, adept in sorcery, proceed to Balaam and relate to him the message of Balak. Balaam bids them: Lodge here tonight, and I shall respond to you as the Eternal advises me. So the officials of Moab stay with Balaam.
GOD REFUSES TO ALLOW BALAAM
God comes to Balaam and asks him, “Who are these men with you?” Balaam relates the mission from Balak, his petition that Balaam should curse the people that has come out of Egypt in order to drive it away. God responds: Do not go with the men, do not curse the people, because it is blessed. So, in the morning, Balaam relates that the Eternal has refused to allow him to go with them. He sends the messengers back to their land, and the messengers report to Balak that Balaam has refused to come with them.
BALAK INVITES BALAAM AGAIN
Balak then sends another delegation of dignitaries, larger and more distinguished than the first, to petition Balaam to curse the people. He promises to bestow great honor upon him and to provide him with whatever he requests. In response, Balaam tells Balak’s servants that no matter what Balak gives him, even all the silver and gold in his house, “I cannot transgress the word of the Eternal my God either a lot or a little!” But he has the men stay there for the night while he discovers what more the Eternal might have to say to him. God comes to Balaam that night and says to him: “If the men have come to invite you, go with them, but do only what I tell you to do!”
BALAAM IS PREVENTED BY THE ASS
In the morning Balaam saddles his female ass and goes with the officers of Moab, his two attendants alongside him. But God is angered at his going, and an angel of the Eternal stations itself in the road to block him. The ass perceives the angel standing in the road, its sword drawn in its hand. So the ass swerves from the road into the field, but Balaam beats the ass to return her to the road.
The angel then stands in a narrow passage between vineyards with their fences on either side. Seeing the angel again, the ass is forced against the wall, squeezing Balaam’s foot to the wall, as Balaam continues to beat her. Finally, the angel moves into a position so narrow that there is no room to move right or left. The ass sees the angel of the Eternal and lies down under Balaam. Balaam beats the ass angrily with his staff.
At this point the Eternal opens the mouth of the ass, and she says to Balaam, “What have I done to you that you should beat me these three times?” “You have abused me!” retorts Balaam, “If I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you!” The ass says to Balaam, “Have I not been your ass to ride upon all the time until now? Have I been in the habit of acting towards you in this way?” Balaam had to admit that she had not.
BALAAM’S EYES ARE OPENED
Then the Eternal opens Balaam’s eyes so that he also sees the angel of the Eternal standing in the road with its sword drawn in its hand, whereupon Balaam bows down and prostrates himself on the ground. The angel of the Eternal speaks to Balaam: Why have you struck your ass these three times? I have gotten in your way because the undertaking is offensive to me. The ass saw me and moved away from me these three times: otherwise I would have killed you and spared the life of the animal! Balaam confesses sinning out of ignorance: he did not know that the angel was present. He offers to turn back if that is what the angel wants. The angel of the Eternal says to Balaam: Go with the men, but you must say only that which I tell you. So Balaam continues on the way with the officers of Balak.
BALAK WELCOMES BALAAM
Anticipating Balaam’s arrival, Balak goes out to meet him at Ir of Moab on the very end of the Arnon border. Balak asks Balaam why he had been reluctant to accept his invitation: Do you really think I would have been unable to show you due honor? Balaam promptly informs Balak that he is able to speak only that word which God puts into his mouth.
Balaam accompanies Balak to the town of Chutzot, where Balak sacrifices from the herd and from the flock. He has portions served to Balaam and to the officers who are with him. Then, in the morning, Balak takes Balaam up to Baal Heights, from where he can see a part of the people. Balaam has Balak build seven altars for him and sacrifice on each altar a bull and a ram. He has Balak stand by his burnt offerings while Balaam goes off to receive an encounter with the Eternal. He promises to relate back to Balak whatever the Eternal might reveal to him.
BALAAM’S FIRST BLESSING
God does encounter with Balaam. Balaam tells Him of the seven altars that he has arranged and of the bull and ram that he has offered up on each of them. The Eternal bids him return to Balak with the Eternal’s word in his mouth. Thus, returning, Balaam stands by his burnt offerings, together with the officers of Moab, and he delivers his message:
From Aram has he brought me,
Balak king of Moab,
to curse Jacob,
to condemn Israel.
But what can I curse
that God has not condemned?
From the highest cliffs I see them:
a people that dwells apart,
a nation not reckoned among the nations.
Who can compass the dust of Israel?
May my death be the death of the upright,
may my end be like theirs!
Balak expresses his discomfiture to Balaam: I hired you to curse my enemies, and instead you have blessed them! Balaam repeats his mandate: Whatever the Eternal puts into my mouth, that I must speak!
BALAAM’S SECOND BLESSING
Balak determines to try again. He takes Balaam to another promontory, Lookout Point, at the summit of Pisgah, from which he can see a part of the people. He builds seven altars and offers up a bull and a ram as burnt offerings on each. Balaam tells Balak to stand by his offerings while Balaam goes off to seek an encounter.
The Eternal encounters with Balaam and puts His word in his mouth. He bids him return to Balak and deliver it. So, as he returns to him, Balak is standing by his burnt offerings, the officers of Moab with him, and he asks him, “What did the Eternal say?” Balaam thereupon delivers his message:
Be alert, O Balak!
Give ear, O son of Tsippur!
God is no man,
who will change his mind;
what He has promised,
He will fulfill.
I received His message to bless,
so bless I must without change!
He has seen no unrighteousness in Jacob,
no harm to befall Israel.
The Eternal his God is with him,
he enjoys the acclaim of his King!
God is bringing them out from Egypt,
displaying the horns of a ram;
no oracle is necessary for Jacob,
Israel knows directly what God has planned.
This is a people that arises like a lion;
it does not rest until it has consumed its prey.
Balak unloads his exasperation onto Balaam, “Okay, don’t curse it! But then, also, don’t bless it!” and Balaam responds, “Did I not tell you: whatever the Eternal says, that I must do!”
BALAAM’S THIRD BLESSING
Balak tries again: “Let me take you to another place; perhaps it will be acceptable to God to curse for me from there.” So Balak takes Balaam to the summit of Pe’or, overlooking the wasteland. Balaam says to Balak: Build for me seven altars here and prepare for me seven bulls and seven rams. Balak complies with Balaam’s request and offers up a bull and a ram on each altar.
Now Balaam realizes that it is good in the sight of the Eternal to bless Israel, so he does not go after magical signs as before; rather, he turns his face towards the wilderness. He looks up and sees Israel encamped by its tribes, and the spirit of God is upon him. He delivers his message:
Thus says Balaam son of Be’or,
the man whose eye is open,
who hears the words of God,
who sees the Almighty’s vision,
fallen yet observant:
How goodly are your tents, O Jacob,
your dwelling places, O Israel,
verdant as gardens planted by the river,
fragrant as aloes, imposing as cedars,
its branches dripping, its seed amply watered,
its king surpassing Agag,
its kingdom exalted.
God brings them out from Egypt
like a ram hoisting its horns;
it consumes its enemy nations,
grinds their bones, smashes their arrows!
Who dares arouse the crouching lion?
Those who bless you shall be blessed,
but cursed be those who curse you.
Now Balak is angry at Balaam. He angrily slaps his hands together: To curse my enemies I invited you, but instead you have blessed them these three times. Run back to your place! I said that I would honor you, but the Eternal has refused you honor. Balaam responds to Balak: Did I not even tell the messengers you sent to me that if Balak were to give me all the silver and gold in his house, I would not be able to transgress the word of the Eternal by my own volition for good or for bad. Only what the Eternal tells me, that shall I speak!
BALAAM’S FINAL MESSAGES
Now, as I return to my people, let me advise you as to what this people shall do to your people in the days to come, whereupon he delivers his message:
Thus says Balaam son of Be’or,
the man whose eye is open,
who hears the words of God,
securing knowledge of the Highest,
who sees the Almighty’s vision,
fallen yet observant:
I see what is in the future,
how a star will emerge from Jacob,
a ruler from Israel:
it will smash the brow of Moab
and the head of all the children of Seth;
Edom will be possessed,
and Israel will be victorious,
destroying the remnant of Ir.
Seeing Amalek, he delivers his message:
First of nations is Amalek,
but its future is to perish forever.
Seeing the Kenites, he delivers his message:
Your habitation seems secure,
your nest placed in the rock,
but Kain shall be consumed
when Asshur takes you captive.
He further delivers this message:
Only those will survive
whom God allows:
Even ships from the direction of Kittim,
though they oppress Asshur,
though they oppress Eber,
they too shall perish forever.
Then Balaam leaves and returns to his place, and Balak goes on his way.
Idolatry Avenged by Pinchas
DEBAUCHERY AND IDOLATRY AT SHITTIM
As Israel is dwelling at Shittim, the people begins to engage in debauchery with the daughters of Moab. At the invitation of those Moabite women, the people of Israel eat of their sacrifices and ultimately worship their gods. Thus Israel attaches itself to Baal Pe’or.
The Eternal is angered at Israel and tells Moses to have the chiefs of the people impaled publicly before the Eternal. Thereby would the Eternal’s wrath against Israel be abated. Moses commands each of the governors of Israel to kill the men under him who attached themselves to Baal Pe’or.
Just then an Israelite man brings a Midianite woman near to his fellows in the sight of Moses and in the sight of all the congregation of the Children of Israel as they are weeping at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. This is seen by Pinchas son of Elazar son of Aaron the Priest, who arises from the congregation and takes a spear in his hand. He follows the Israelite man into the chamber and stabs the Israelite man and the woman in her stomach. The plague against the Children of Israel is stopped. The number of dead from the plague is 24,000.
FROM THE PROPHETS
Haftarah for Shabbat Chukkat-Balak
The remnant of Jacob among the nations
shall be like dew from the Eternal,
which people could never have expected.
The remnant of Jacob among the nations
shall be like a lion among the beasts of the forest
and among the flocks of sheep,
capable of treading down
and tearing to pieces.
Let Your hand rise over your enemies;
let them be cut off!
It shall come to pass on that day,
declares the Eternal:
I will put an end to your horses and chariots,
I will cut off your cities and your fortresses,
I will eliminate your sorceries and your idols!
No more shall you worship the work of your hands,
and I shall work vengeance upon
the uncomprehending nations.
Now let the mountains be witness
to the controversy of the Eternal with His people:
O, My people, what have I done to you?
Have I asked too much of you?
I brought you up from the land of Egypt,
I redeemed you from the house of bondage,
I sent before you Moses, Aaron and Miriam.
Remember what Balak, king of Moab, devised,
and how Balaam son of Be’or answered him,
from Shittim to Gilgal,
in order to recognize the righteousness of the Eternal!
In what way, then, can I approach the Eternal,
bow down to God on high?
Shall I approach Him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Does the Eternal desire thousands of rams?
Ten-thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my first-born for my transgression?
The fruit of my womb for the sin of my soul?
No, it has been told you, O man, what is good,
what the Eternal is demanding of you:
Only to do justice,
and walk humbly with your God.
FROM TALMUD AND MIDRASH
Pesikta Rabbati 14:65a
Why the Parah Adumah?
A gentile once asked Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai: The things that you do with the parah adumah (see laws of the “red cow,” 19:1-22) seem like magic. You obtain a cow, burn it, crush it, and pour water over its ashes. If one of you is defiled by a human corpse, you sprinkle two or three drops and declare, “You are pure!”
Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai asked the gentile: Have you ever been invaded by a bad spirit? No, said the gentile. Well, then, asked the Rabbi, have you ever seen what they do to one who has been? The gentile answered: They turn roots into smoke under him, pour water upon him, and the bad spirit goes away. Said the Rabbi: Do your ears hear what your mouth is saying? The bad spirit is the spirit of impurity, as is written: “I shall also make the false prophets and the impure spirit pass away from the Land.” (Zechariah 13:2)
When the gentile left, his students said to him: Rabbi, you refuted him with a reed, but how would you answer us? The Rabbi said to them: A corpse does not defile, and water does not purify. Rather, it is simply a statute of God. The Holy One, blessed be He, said: I have made a statute, issued a decree, which you are not permitted to transgress—“This is a statute of the Torah which the Eternal has commanded…!” (19:2)
Another question about parah adumah: While all the other offerings are male, why is this one female? Said Rabbi Ayvu: It may be likened to a handmaiden’s child who soils the palace of the king. Says the king: Let the mother come and clean up her child’s mess. Thus said the Holy One, blessed be He: Let the cow come and atone for the incident of the calf (cf. Exodus 32)!
Numbers Rabbah 19:9-10
Moses Between Rocks and Hard Places
“Moses and Aaron gather the community
in front of the rock…”
As there would not be enough space
for more than 600,000 to stand before the rock,
this must mean that everyone saw himself standing over the rock
and that they saw all of the miracles that were of the rock.
They began to call for Moses to bring forth water from a particular rock that they saw. Remembering the miracle at Rephidim (Exodus 17:1-7), where Moses struck the rock and water came forth, they said: Moses knows how to bring forth water from a rock. If he wants to, he can bring forth water from this rock!
Now Moses faced a dilemma before God and a danger to himself: If I listen to them, I will violate the words of God, who intends for me to bring forth water from a different rock. On the other hand, God “captures the wise in their presumption” (Job 5:13): For these forty years since the incident of the scouts, Moses carefully avoided showing anger at his people because he feared that the Holy One, blessed be He, would include him in the promise He made at that time, “Not one of these men…will see the good land…!” (Deuteronomy 1:35)
“Here is a rock,” the people acclaimed, “Just as you chose to bring forth water from another rock, bring forth water from this rock!” Moses shouted at them: “Listen, O rebels, shall we bring forth for you water from this rock?” (20:10) This is meant to imply that Moses brought forth water not from the rock that the people had seen, but from the rock that the Holy One, blessed be He, commanded him. But in his anger, he struck the rock not once but twice.
“Because you did not act
faithfully to Me…
you will not bring this congregation
to the Land…”
But was any of this worse than what Moses had said before? When God promised to satisfy the people’s yearning for meat for many days, Moses reacted: “Are there enough flocks and herds to be slaughtered to feed them? Could all the fish in the sea be harvested to suffice them?” (Numbers 11:22) Why did God not pass an edict upon Moses at that time, when he angrily denied God’s power to satisfy the needs of His people? Those direct words were certainly more faithless than Moses’s frustration before the rock!
To what may this be compared? To a king whose confidante speaks harshly to him in private, and the king does not punish him. But another time, when the confidante speaks against the king in the presence of the king’s legions, the king sentences him to death.
Similarly, the Holy One, blessed be He, effectively says to Moses: The first time, when you spoke against My power to fulfill My promise to My people, harsh as those words were, they were just between you and Me. But before the rock, even though what you said and the fact that you hit the rock instead of speaking to it, as I had commanded you, were not very offensive, the fact that you committed these acts in the presence of the Children of Israel was a greater offense. Not so much the words but the situation was deserving of death in the wilderness, as was said: “Because you did not act faithfully to Me to sanctify Me in the sight of the Children of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this congregation to the Land that I am giving to them.” (20:12)
Numbers Rabbah 19:12
The Reputation of Moses
The Eternal tells Moses to take the staff: “…Speak to the rock…to give forth its water….” Moses says to the congregation in front of the rock: “Now listen, O rebels, shall we bring forth for you water from this rock?” Moses then lifts his hand and strikes the rock with his staff twice, and abundant water pours forth… Says the Eternal: “Because you did not have faith in Me to sanctify Me in the sight of the Children of Israel, therefore you will not bring this congregation to the land which I am giving to them.” (20:7-11)
This may be understood through the parable of two women who were punished by the court for two different offenses: one for sexual indiscretion and one for eating unripe figs during the sabbatical year. The woman punished for eating unripe figs during the sabbatical year asked the court to clarify her offense to the public so that she would not be considered as one who committed a sexual indiscretion. The court complied with her request.
Similarly, when Moses learned that he was sentenced to die in the wilderness with the generation who angered God, he feared that it would be said of him what was said of that generation: “How they rebelled against Him in the wilderness; how they saddened Him in the desert!” (Psalms 78:40) Therefore he asked that the offense for which he was being punished should be clarified, and it was: “Because you did not have faith in Me…!”
Numbers Rabbah 19:13
Moses, Cut your Losses
The Holy One, blessed be He, asked Moses: “Now, on what basis would you even want to enter the Land?” This question is understood by considering the parable of a shepherd who looked after the king’s flock, but under his care the king’s flock was captured and stolen. When the shepherd sought to return to the royal palace, the king warned him that if he were to enter the palace, in the presence of the court he would be seen as the shepherd who caused the loss of the king’s flock.
Similarly, the Holy One, blessed be He, reminded Moses: It will be your praiseworthy achievement that you brought out 600,000 and buried them in the wilderness. Now, if you should bring in the next generation, people would say that the generation of the wilderness had no portion in the world to come. Rather, remain at their side, stay with them, as you said in your prophecy of Gad: “He came with the first ones of the people; he executed the justice of the Eternal and His judgments with Israel.” (Deuteronomy 33:21) For that reason is it written, “You will not bring this congregation” (20:12), i.e. the next generation, but the one that came out with you!
Numbers Rabbah 19:27
Peace is Unique among the Commandments
“Israel sends messengers to Sichon, king of the Amorites: Let me pass through your country. We will not turn off to field or vineyard or drink water from a well. We shall travel only the king’s highway until we have passed through your territory.” (21:21-22)
This is what is meant by the verse:
“Trust in the Eternal,
and do good;
settle in the Land,
and be a faithful neighbor.”
and, in addition, by the verse:
“Depart from evil,
and do good;
and pursue it!”
The Torah does not generally require the pursuit of commandments. For example: “If you chance upon the nest of a bird…” (Deuteronomy 22:6); “If you encounter your enemy’s ox…” (Exodus 23:4); “If you see the ass of your enemy…” (Exodus 23:5); “When you beat down the fruit of your olive tree…” (Deuteronomy 24:20); “If you enter the vineyard of your neighbor…” (Deuteronomy 23:25)—if the occasions arise, you are commanded concerning them, but not to pursue them. However, with respect to peace, “Seek peace, and pursue it!”: “Seek” and “pursue?” Even in another place!
Even though the Holy One, blessed be He, said to them of Sichon, “Begin the occupation; engage him in battle!” (Deuteronomy 2:24) they sought peace: “Israel sends messengers (of peace) to Sichon…’Let me pass through…’” (Numbers 21:21-22)!
Talmud Berachot 7a
Balaam as Prosecutor
“God judges the righteous,
and God condemns within each day!”
“What can I curse…
that God has not condemned?”
It is taught in a baraitha: How long does He condemn each day? For only a moment. How long is the moment? 1/8,888 of an hour. No human creature has determined when this moment occurs except for Balaam the Wicked, of whom is written: “He knows the mind of the Most High!” (Numbers 24:16) Now, if Balaam did not even know the mind of his own animal (ibid. 22:21ff.), how could he then know the mind of the Most High? It must mean not that he actually knew the mind of the Most High literally, but that he knew how to determine the exact time of the day when the Holy One, blessed be He, is angry! This would have qualified Balaam in the view of Balak to know the moment when to curse Israel as a prosecutor before the Judge.
But, as Balaam did not succeed in his attempted prosecution, the prophet recalls: “O My people, remember indeed the plan devised by Balak king of Moab and how Balaam son of Be’or answered him…in order to point out the forbearance of the Eternal” (Micah 6:5)! Rabbi Elazar explained: The Holy One, blessed be He, was saying (through the prophet) to Israel that I forbore from being angry at you during the days of Balaam the Wicked, when otherwise I would have destroyed you entirely because of your sins! So when Balaam answered Balak, “What can I curse that God has not cursed, and what can I condemn that the Eternal has not condemned?” (Numbers 23:8), his words reflect the fact that during all of those days God had forborne from a moment of anger at Israel, thereby withholding from Balaam any prospect of a successful prosecution!
How do we know that God is angry for even a moment? “While His anger is for a moment, His favor is for a lifetime!” (Psalms 30:6a) and, “Hide for just a moment until His anger passes!” (Isaiah 26:20)
Numbers Rabbah 20:1
Prophets of Israel vs. Prophets of Idolatry
“The Rock: His work is perfect,
all of His ways are just…”
The Holy One, blessed be He, gave no opening to idolators in the future to complain: You denied us the same opportunities that You gave to Israel! For just as He established kings, men of wealth, and prophets for Israel, so He established them for idolators.
He made Solomon king over Israel and over all the earth, and He did the same for Nebuchadnezzar. Solomon built the Temple and composed various hymns and prayers, whereas Nebuchadnezzar destroyed it and blasphemed and reviled, as he said, “I shall ascend above the heights of the clouds, I shall be like the Highest!” (Isaiah 14:14)
He gave David great wealth: with it he acquired the site upon which the Temple was built. He gave Haman great wealth as well, which he used to acquire an entire people for slaughter.
He established Moses for Israel and Balaam for idolators. Consider the difference between the prophets of Israel and the prophets of idolators. The prophets of Israel warn Israel against transgressing, as was said, “You, son of man, I have set you as a watchman for the house of Israel: when you learn a word from My mouth, warn them from Me!” (Ezekiel 33:7) But a prophet who emerges from the other nations sows division, which will result in the obliteration of humanity.
In addition, all the prophets of Israel showed compassion not only upon Israel but also upon idolators. Thus, says Jeremiah: “Therefore my heart, like pipes, moans for Moab…” (Jeremiah 48:36), and Ezekiel: “And you, son of man, raise a lament for Tyre!” (Ezekiel 27:2) But this cruel one (Balaam) endeavored to uproot an entire nation for no good reason.
All of this is why the episode of Balaam was included in the Torah: to make known why the Holy One, blessed be He, withdrew the holy spirit from idolators. Balaam emerged from them, and see what he did (see also Numbers 31:16)!
Numbers Rabbah 20:18
Better is Love than Seven Altars
“Balaam says to Balak:
‘Build for me in this place seven altars,
and prepare for me here
seven bulls and seven rams.’”
Why seven altars? The number of altars corresponds to the altars duly built by seven righteous men: Adam, Abel, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses. But Balaam could not understand why God was content to accept such a limited measure of worship as the sum of only seven heroes of a single people. “Wouldn’t it be more fitting,” he challenged, “for You to be worshipped by seventy nations?!” Balaam was answered through the words of the Holy Spirit:
“Better is a dry piece of bread”—
like a meal offering mixed with oil though dry—
“served with quietness
than a house full of sacrifices
that are the product of contention.”
For you are trying to inject contention between Me and Israel!
“Balaam says to Balak:
‘Stand by your burnt offering, and I will go;
perhaps the Eternal will encounter with me,
and whatever He shows me, I will tell you.’
So he goes off to an outlook point.
“God encounters with Balaam,
who says to Him:
‘I have arranged the seven altars,
and I have placed upon each
a bull and a ram.’”
What did God say to Balaam? “O wicked one, what are you doing?” It was to those words of God that Balaam responded, “I have arranged the seven altars…”. This may be likened to a merchant who was caught using dishonest weights. The market manager accused him of the dishonest act, to which the merchant replied, “I have already sent a gift to your house!”
Similarly with Balaam: The Holy Spirit said to him, “O wicked one, what are you doing!” Balaam replied, “I have arranged the seven altars…!” Balaam was answered through the words of the Holy Spirit:
“Better is a dinner of herbs where love is”—
like the meal that Israel ate in Egypt
over unleavened bread and bitter herbs—
“than a fatted ox and hatred with it”—
than the bulls that you offer out of enmity!
Numbers Rabbah 20:20
Repentance vs. Magic
“There is no divination in Jacob,
no magic in Israel…”
You go around with divination and magic to determine the best place from which you can defeat Israel, but Israel has no need for these. When they are called upon to wage war with an adversary, the High Priest stands attired with Urim and Tummim and consults with God directly. They break through all of the nations’ enchantments by repenting of their sins (cf. Deuteronomy 20:8 and Rashi; Talmud Sotah 44a), as was said, “He frustrates the signs of false prophets and makes fools of diviners!” (Isaiah 44:25)
Talmud Sanhedrin 106a
Tanchuma Buber Balak 26-27
The Denouement of Balaam’s Agency
“Balaam said to Balak…
‘Now, as I return to my people,
let me advise you
as to what this people (Israel)
shall do to your people (Moab)…’”
But would it not have been
more in character
for wicked Balaam
to have said,
“’…what your people (Moab)
should do to this people (Israel)?’”
So Rabbi Abba bar Kahana
This is the case of
a man’s uttering a curse upon himself
but transferring it upon others:
That is, Balaam actually was advising Moab
how they could effectively
inflict a curse upon Israel,
but Scripture, not wanting to articulate
harm against Israel,
turned Balaam’s words around
to articulate harm against Moab!
Here is what Balaam actually said to Moab:
Their God despises debauchery, and they love linen garments. Here is what I advise you to do: Put up some tents, like a fair, and staff them with prostitutes, young ones inside the tents and older ones outside, who will sell the Israelites linen garments. So they did, and after dinner the Israelite men went about through the fair. The older prostitutes quoted the retail prices, but the younger prostitutes from inside the tents always offered them a discount. After this happened several times, whereby the Israelite men were becoming familiar with the deals inside the tents, the younger prostitutes would say, “Hey, you’re like a member of the family! Help yourself!”
Each young prostitute was seductively perfumed and bejeweled. She would say to her Israelite customer, “How is it that we love you while you hate us? Here, take this item for free; after all, we are all the children of one man, the children of Terach, father of Abraham!” Moreover, they would say, “We understand that you don’t want to eat from our meat and from our cooking, so here are calves and chickens which we have slaughtered in accordance with your laws, eat up!”
Near each young prostitute was a pitcher of Ammonite wine—the wine of idolators had not yet been forbidden by the Rabbis—which she offered to every Israelite man. Once he drank the wine, his libido was engaged and he said to her, “Surrender to me!” Whereupon she took out her idol and demanded that he worship it. He protested, “But I am a Jew!” “Don’t worry,” she said, “all that I am asking is that you get naked,” for which he was willing, not understanding that nakedness was their mode of worship!
Some say that Balaam explicitly instructed the Moabites not to ply them with wine, so that they would be judged to have sinned intentionally, in sobriety, rather than under the influence.
“They invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods; the people ate and they worshipped their gods; thus Israel attached itself to Baal Pe’or…” (25:2-3): When an Israelite man demanded that a Moabite woman surrender to him, she said, “But first you must sacrifice to Pe’or!” Seduced by her, he would slaughter a chicken to Pe’or and eat together with her. Thus they were joined one to the other.
Rabbi Levi taught: The sin of Baal Pe’or was more egregious than that of the Golden Calf. In the sin of the Golden Calf, “All the people separated themselves from their golden ear rings…” (Exodus 32:3), while in the sin of Baal Pe’or, “Israel attached itself to Baal Pe’or…” (25:3)! Also, in the sin of the Golden Calf, the toll of dead was 3,000 (cf. Exodus 32:28), while here the toll was 24,000 (cf. 25:9)!
Here is what we learn about Moab:
Throw a stick into the air,
and it will come down to its original place!
They who began in debauchery
have come back to it in the end!
Their mothers began in debauchery:
“The older one came in and lay with her father…” (Genesis 19:33),
“…and the older one said to the younger one…” (Genesis 19:34):
She taught her debauchery!
Their mothers began in debauchery,
and their daughters have come back to it in the end!
“The older one bore a son and called him Moab…
and the younger one also bore a son
and called him Ben-Ammi,
father of the Ammonites…” (Genesis 19:37-38).
The older prostitutes quoted the retail prices,
but the younger prostitutes from inside the tents
always offered them a discount.
Numbers Rabbah 20:24
The Indecision of Moses
“Just then an Israelite man brings a Midianite woman
near to his fellows in the sight of Moses
and in the sight of all the congregation of the Children of Israel…”
Why would he do this?
To show you that he assigns honor
neither to Heaven
nor to humanity.
About him was said:
a scorner is his name;
he is engaged
in the exorbitance of pride.”
The Midianite woman said to him: I would surrender only to Moses your Rabbi, as my father Balak instructed me, since I am a princess. The Israelite man said to her: I am no less great than he, thus shall I take you as they watch! He grabbed her by the front of her hair and brought her to Moses. “Son of Amram,” he sneered, “is she permitted or forbidden?” “She is forbidden to you,” Moses replied. He said to Moses, “And the one whom you took, she is also a Midianite!” Moses’s hands became weak, he forgot the law, and everyone burst into tears, as is written, “and they were weeping at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting!” (25:6b)
That their hands at that moment became weak can be compared to the case of a princess, beautifully adorned to enter the chuppah, to be carried in the wedding procession, and just then it is discovered that she has sinned with another man! We can easily imagine how the hands of her father and the hands of her relatives suddenly lost their strength. So it was for Israel at the end of forty years, encamped at the Jordan and prepared to cross over to the Land (cf. 33:49), and there they broke out into harlotry, and the hands of Moses lost their strength, as did the hands of the righteous with him.
But he who stood confronting 600,000, “and took the calf which they had made and burned it in fire and ground it into dust and strewed the dust upon the face of the waters and made the Children of Israel drink it!” (Exodus 32:20)—his hands became weak? It was for the sake of Pinchas so that Pinchas could come and claim what was due him (cf. 25:10ff.).
But what about Moses, who was not decisive at the moment of decision? “He buried him in the valley, in the land of Moab, opposite Beth Pe’or, and no man knows his burial place until this very day.” (Deuteronomy 34:6) To teach you that a man must be strong as a tiger, swift as an eagle, agile as a deer, and mighty as a lion, to do the will of his Master. From this you learn that He is exacting with the righteous unto the breadth of a hair.