40. BALAK 5782


Numbers 22:2-25:9

At the end of last week’s Sedra Chukkat, Israel has overcome the hostility of nations that stand in its path to the Land of Israel.  This week’s Sedra Balak continues in that vein with a variant: an occult albeit doomed stratagem by Balak king of Moab, through the medium of the hired seer Balaam.  Within the details lie several astute observations about God’s relationship with His creations, both humans and beasts, His chosen people, as well as 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.

Curses Ordered, Blessings Delivered


Balak (Balak) son of Tsippur is king of Moab.  He sees what Israel has done to the Amorites (cf. Numbers 21:21ff.).  Moab fears the “multitude” (Numbers 22:6) of the Children of Israel and communicates with the elders of Midian, expressing apprehension that Israel will “lick up everything around us as an ox licks up the grass of the field” (Numbers 22:4).

So Balak dispatches messengers to Balaam son of Be’or in Pethor on the River, in the land of his kin, to say:  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 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 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!”


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.


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 admits to 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 ahead with the men, but you must say only that which I tell you.  So Balaam continues on the way with the officers of Balak.


Anticipating Balaam’s arrival, Balak goes out to meet him at a city 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.


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 Balaam returns to Balak, who is standing 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!


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 upon 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!”


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 deeply displeased with 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!


Now, as I return to my people, go and 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 every city without remnant.

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 also goes his own way.

Idolatry Avenged by Pinchas


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 ringleaders 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 Kohen, 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.


Haftarah for Shabbat Balak
Micah 5:6-6:8

Prophetic Recompense

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 (cf. Numbers 24:9),
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, O My people,
what Balak, king of Moab, devised,
and how Balaam son of Be’or
answered him (cf. Numbers 22:5-24:25)—
Remember the crossing
from Shittim (cf. Numbers 25:1-9; Joshua 3:1)
to Gilgal (cf. Joshua 3-4; I Samuel 10:8; 11:14-15)—
in order to grasp the righteousness [tzidkot] of the Eternal!

But then how shall I approach the Eternal,
how shall I bow down to God on High?
Shall I approach Him
with burnt offerings (cf. I Samuel 10:8; 11:14-15),
with calves a year old?
Does the Eternal desire thousands of rams?
Ten-thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression?
The fruit of my womb for the sin of my soul?

It has been told you, O man, what is good,
and what the Eternal requires of you:
But to do justice,
to favor kindness,
while walking humbly with your God.


Talmud Berachot 7a
Balaam as Prosecutor

“God judges the righteous,
and God condemns within each day!
(Psalms 7:12)

“Remember, O My people,
what Balak, king of Moab, devised,
and how Balaam son of Be’or answered him,
from Shittim to Gilgal,
recall the righteous acts [tzidkot] of the Eternal!”
(Micah 6:5)

“What can I curse…
that God has not condemned?”
(Numbers 23:8)

It is taught in a baraitha:  For how long on each day does God condemn?  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)!

But, if Balaam did not even know the mind of his own animal (Numbers 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.

Yet, 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, from the debauchery of Shittim (cf. Numbers 25:1-9) until the reward of Gilgal (cf. Joshua 3-4), recall the forbearing acts [tzidkot] 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 and Shittim, 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…”
(Deuteronomy 32:4)

The Holy One, blessed be He, gave no opening to idolators in the future to complain: You unjustly denied us the 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 (cf. Numbers 25:1-9; 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.’”
(Numbers 23:1)

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.”
(Proverbs 17:1)

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.’”
(Numbers 23:3-4)

How did God encounter with Balaam?  He said, “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 then 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!
(Proverbs 15:17)

Numbers Rabbah 20:20
Repentance vs. Magic

“There is no divination in Jacob,
no magic in Israel…”
(Numbers 23:23)

No oracle is necessary for Jacob,
Israel knows directly what God has planned.

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 Kohen Gadol 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 Bava Bathra 60a
Balaam teaches modesty

“Balaam looks up and sees Israel encamped by its tribes,
and the spirit of God is upon him.
He delivers his message…:
How goodly are your tents, O Jacob,
your dwelling places, O Israel…”
(Numbers 24:2-3,5)

MISHNAH:  One may not position an entrance or a window which faces into a common courtyard to be directly opposite the entrance or window of another unit.  Tifereth Yisrael: To maintain modesty; rather, arrange them not to be directly opposite in order to eliminate the possibility of seeing into the neighbor’s window.

GEMARA:  Whence is this law derived?  Rabbi Yochanan taught that it is based upon the verse, “Balaam looks up and sees Israel encamped by its tribes….”  What did he see?  He saw that the entrances of their tents were not facing each other, and he said: These people are worthy for the Divine Presence to dwell upon them!  Rashi: He saw Israel encamped “by its tribes,” that is, in accordance with the law that every tribal camp was considered a common courtyard except the tribal camp of Levi (cf. Talmud Shabbat 96b).  This is what he meant when he continued, “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob!”  Tosafot: We infer what he said about the Divine Presence by interpreting the verse as his words, “And the spirit of God is upon it, that is, upon Israel!”

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)…’”
(Numbers 24:12,14)

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
explains it:
This is a case of
uttering a curse upon one’s enemy
only to have it transferred to 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” (cf. Genesis 11:26-32; 20:30-38)!  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…” (Numbers 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…” (Numbers 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. Numbers 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…”
(Numbers 25:6a)

Why would he do this?

To show you that he assigns honor
neither to Heaven
nor to humanity.
About him was said:
“Proud, haughty—
a scorner is his name;
he is engaged
in the exorbitance of pride.”
(Proverbs 21:24)

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” (cf. Exodus 2:16-21)!  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” (Numbers 25:6b)!

That Moses’s hands at that moment became weak can be compared to the case of another 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 would lose 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. Numbers 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. Numbers 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!

Targum Yonatan Micah 6:4
Miriam the Prophetess

“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.”
(Micah 6:4)

I sent before you three Prophets:
Moses, to teach the legal foundations;
Aaron, to provide atonement for the people;
and Miriam, to teach the women.

How can Miriam be compared as a Prophetess alongside her brothers?

Talmud Ta’anit 9a   Rabbi Yosi son of Rabbi Judah teaches that Israel in the Wilderness benefited from the support of three outstanding leaders—Moses, Aaron and Miriam—and that three gifts were granted by them: The Well owing to the merit of Miriam, The Pillar of Cloud owing to the merit of Aaron, and Manna owing to the merit of Moses.  Rashi: The Well of Miriam was a rock from which water flowed and which followed Israel (through the Wilderness).  When Miriam died, the Well ceased to produce water, as was said, “Miriam dies and is buried at Kadesh” (Numbers 20:1), followed immediately by, “And there was no water for the congregation” (ibid. 2).  But then it returned, owing to the combined merit of Moses and Aaron.  Rashi: For it is written, “And you (plural: the two of you, Moses and Aaron) speak to the rock so that it brings forth its water” (ibid. 8)!  Moses ends up striking the rock instead (ibid. 11) because at first it did not want to yield its water to him because of Miriam’s death!

Talmud Sotah 12b-13a — “Then Miriam the Prophetess, sister of Aaron, takes the timbrel, and all of the women go out after her dancing with timbrels” (Exodus 15:20)—“sister of Aaron,” but not sister of Moses?  Rav Amram said that Rav said—or Rav Nachman said that Rav said: It means that Miriam was already a Prophetess when she was only the sister of Aaron, that is, before the birth of her brother Moses, about whom she prophesied, “My mother will give birth to a son who will save Israel!”  Indeed when Moses was born, all of their house was filled with light, whereupon her father kissed her on the head and said to her, “My daughter, your prophecy has been fulfilled!”  But when Moses was thrown into the Nile (cf. Exodus 2:3), her father tapped her on the head and said, “My daughter, where is your prophecy now?” whereupon “his sister stations herself at a distance to know what will be done to him” (Exodus 2:4), that is, to learn what will be the outcome of her prophecy!

Exodus Rabbah 1:19 — “A man goes from the House of Levi…” (Exodus 2:1a)—Where does “the man go?” “Go” in Scripture is frequently associated with advice, such as when Balaam says to Balak, “Go, let me advise you…” (Numbers 24:14).  Thus, said Rabbi Judah son of Rabbi Zevida: He, Amram, went in accordance with the advice of his daughter Miriam.

Talmud Sotah 12a — This is the teaching:  Amram was the leader of his generation.  When Pharaoh decreed, “Every boy that is born, throw him into the Nile…” (Exodus 1:22), Amram was disheartened at the prospect of losing any future sons, so he divorced his wife.  All of the other men followed their leader’s example and divorced their wives as well.  But Miriam stood up to him: “Your decree is actually worse than Pharaoh’s.  Pharaoh only decreed against the survival of our males, but you decreed against both males and females.  Pharaoh’s decree applies only to this world, but your decree would apply to both this world and the world to come.  Pharaoh, being wicked—who knows whether or not his decree will stand ultimately?  But you, being righteous—your decree will certainly stand, as Eliphaz said to Job, ‘When you make a decree, it will stand with you’” (Job 24:28)!  Thereupon Amram took back his wife, and the other husbands followed suit.

“…and he marries a daughter of Levi.”
(Exodus 2:1b)

But those words imply a first marriage whereas Amram was taking Yocheved back after divorcing her!  Rabbi Judah bar Zavina explained that he took her back with all of the ceremony and joy of a first marriage: He carried her in a palanquin while Aaron and Miriam danced before her and the ministering angels sang, “Happy mother of children” (Psalms 113:9)!

“He establishes [mosheevee] the childless mistress [akeret] of the house
as a happy [semeycha] mother of children. Halleluyah!”
(End of Psalm 113)
“In the Exodus of Israel from Egypt…”
(Beginning of Psalm 114)

Maharsha (Rabbi Samuel Edels, 16th-17th cent.): Even though they knew that Yocheved was already pregnant with a son, they rejoiced that their savior would not have to be born to a divorced woman.  So when the angels sang, “Happy mother of children” (Psalms 113:9), they were continuing their interpretation of the verses: “Amram brings back [mosheevee] the wife who was removed [akeret] from his house, and then she, Yocheved the mother, and her children, Aaron and Miriam, will rejoice [semeycha] in the birth of the one who leads the Exodus from Egypt!”

Pesikta Rabbati 43 — Miriam was six years old when she advised her father.  Hearing her words, he brought her with him to the Sanhedrin, before whom she repeated what she had argued before her father.  They said to him:  Amram, you prohibited, now you must permit.  Thinking that they were speaking only of him and his wife, he asked: Can I take her back quietly, without publicity?  They replied: Then who will announce the return of wives to all of Israel?  Rabbi Judah bar Zavida said that Amram then seated his wife in a palanquin while Aaron and Miriam proceeded before her playing castinets and the Holy Spirit sang out, “He seats [mosheevee] the one who was removed [akeret] from the house as a happy mother of children…” (Psalms 113:9a)!  Why did Amram do so?  So that Israel would know and take back their wives.  In so hearing this, Israel celebrated the birth of Moses the redeemer: “…Halleluyah in the birth of the one who leads the Exodus from Egypt” (Psalms 113:9c-114:1a)!

Exodus Rabbah 1 — Rabbi Samuel bar Nachman taught that Miriam was one of the “Hebrew midwives” (Exodus 1:15a), along with her mother Yocheved, who save the Hebrew baby boys from Pharaoh’s murderous decree (cf. Exodus 1:15-16), because “the midwives fear God” (ibid. 17).   At that time Miriam could not have been more than five years old, so our Rabbis surmised that she went with Yocheved as her devoted assistant, as Solomon reflected, “Even a child is known by its deeds, whether its work is pure, whether it is honest” (Proverbs 20:11).  “The title (literally ‘name’) of the second [sheyneet] midwife,” that is “the assistant [sheyneet],” was “Puah” (ibid. 15b), which means “squirt,” because Miriam squirted wine into the mouth of the newborn after her mother cleaned it.  “Puah” can also mean “cry,” another reason why Miriam was called Puah, for if the baby appeared to be stillborn, she would take it and attend to it until it started to breathe and cry!  “Puah” could mean “uplift”—for Miriam lifted Israel up to God; she also lifted her face before Pharaoh, sticking out her nose and saying to him, “Woe to that man when God comes to punish him!”  She so angered Pharaoh that he was prepared to kill her, but her mother interceded for her on account of her presumed naivete!  Rabbi Chanina son of Rav Yitzchak taught that her mother, who was called “Shifrah” (ibid.), herself lifted Israel up to God to defeat Pharaoh (on behalf of Miriam) for the sake of Israel (whom Miriam saved), for which Rabbi Chanina interpreted Job’s words, “By His power He stirs up the sea, and by His understanding (intending thereby) to strike the monster Rahav (another name for Egypt, cf. Isaiah 3:7; Psalms 87:4); by His wind He prepares [shifrah] the heavens, so that His hand may slay the fleeing serpent (presumably Pharaoh)” (Job 26:12-13)—“Shifrah the heavens?” Shifrah indicates the heavens to God: She reminds God that the heavens were created for the sake of Israel!  Finally, Miriam was called Puah because she would lift her face to her own father to advise him to take back her mother, to assure the future of Israel and its redemption from Egyptian bondage!

Yalkut Shimoni Micah 555
What does the Eternal require?

“Does the Eternal desire thousands of rams?
Ten-thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression?
The fruit of my womb for the sin of my soul?
(Micah 6:7)

Rabbi Joshua of Sichnin in the name of Rabbi Levi: As the Prophet’s words are directed against Mesha king of Moab, who sacrificed his firstborn son when he was losing the battle with Israel and Edom (cf. II Kings 3:4,26-27a), he is still basing them upon Abraham’s binding Isaac upon the altar (cf. Genesis 22:1-19).  For Balaam the Wicked was the defender of idolatry, which the Prophet was criticizing, “Does the Eternal desire thousands of rams…” (Micah 6:7a)?  Does He really want all that you are offering Him?  The largest amount of oil that we offer Him is a log (cf. Leviticus 14:10 et seq.), but “…Ten-thousands of rivers of oil” (Micah 6:7a)?

What did Abraham take from before him to offer in place of his son?  A single ram (cf. Genesis 22:13).  If He wanted, we would have offered Him “thousands of rams” (Micah 6:7a)!  Abraham offered Him his son (cf. Genesis 22:10), but if He even wanted, I would offer him both my son and my daughter, as he says, “Shall I give my firstborn…”—my firstborn son—“…the fruit of my womb…”—my daughter (Micah 6:7b)?

See what Balaam the Wicked says to God, “I have set up the seven altars, and I have offered up a bull and a ram on each altar” (Numbers 23:4): Not “seven altars” but “the seven altars,” referring to the seven altars that were built by seven righteous men from the time of Creation until now— Adam, Abel, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses (cf. Numbers Rabbah 20:18 above)—to all of which his seven altars were meant to correspond, as seven altars of the righteous!

But to what may we compare this wicked?  To a butcher who saw that the inspector was about to visit his shop.  To him the butcher said: My lord, I have just delivered some juicy quail to your house!  So, the Holy One, blessed be He, asked Balaam the Wicked: What are you doing?  Said Balaam: “I have set up the seven altars, and I have offered up a bull and a ram on each of them” (Numbers 23:4)!  He said to Balaam, “Does the Eternal desire multitudes of rams” (Micah 6:7a)?  Balaam then responded to Him, “Well then, shall I give my firstborn for my transgression” (Micah 6:7b)?  His answer: O wicked one, if I wanted a sacrifice, I could have asked it of the angels Michael and Gabriel (cf. Numbers Rabbah 2:10), and they would have offered it to Me.  Then He recited to him, “Who even in the clouds can be equal [ya’aroch] to the Eternal, can compare [yidmeh] to the Eternal among divine beings [b’ney eylim]” (Psalms 89:7)? but this is how He meant it: Who even in the heavens can set up [ya’aroch] altars to the Eternal, can offer blood [yidmeh] to the Eternal—as among the children of rams [b’ney eylim], that is to say, as among the children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the patriarchs who were the rams (the strong ones) of the world, and so I accept offerings only from their children, Israel!

The Prophet answers his own question:

“No, it has been told you, O man, what is good,
what the Eternal is demanding of you:
Only to do justice,
to favor kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God.”
(Micah 6:8)

Rabbi Elazar taught:

“To do justice” refers to the law,
“to favor kindness” refers to doing deeds of lovingkindness, and
“to walk humbly” refers to burying the dead and to wedding bride and groom.

Then, if the Prophet’s words, “to walk humbly,” refer to burying the dead and  wedding bride and groom, which are humble acts performed openly, how much the moreso must they refer to humble acts which are performed privately!

Our Rabbis taught:

Doing deeds of lovingkindness is more than tzedakah in three ways:

Tzedakah involves the giving of money,
while deeds of lovingkindness involve both money and personal acts.

Tzedakah is done for the poor,
while deeds of lovingkindness may be done
both for the poor and for the wealthy.

Tzedakah is provided for the living,
while deeds of lovingkindness may be performed
both for the living and for the dead.


Copyright © 2022 Eric H. Hoffman

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