For the week ending 8 July 2006 / 12 Tammuz 5766

Parshat Chukat - Balak

by Rabbi Yaakov Asher Sinclair -
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The laws of the para aduma the red heifer are detailed. These laws are for the ritual purification of one who comes into contact with death. After nearly 40 years in the desert, Miriam dies and is buried at Kadesh. The people complain about the loss of their water supply that until now has been provided miraculously in the merit of Miriam's righteousness. Aharon and Moshe pray for the people's welfare. G-d commands them to gather the nation at Merivah and speak to a designated rock so that water will flow forth. Distressed by the people's lack of faith, Moshe hits the rock instead of speaking to it. He thus fails to produce the intended public demonstration of G-d's mastery over the world, which would have resulted had the rock produced water merely at Moshe's word. Therefore, G-d tells Moshe and Aharon that they will not bring the people into the Land. Bnei Yisrael resume their travels, but because the King of Edom, a descendant of Esav, denies them passage through his country, they do not travel the most direct route to Eretz Yisrael. When they reach Mount Hor, Aharon dies and his son Elazar is invested with his priestly garments and responsibilities. Aharon was beloved by all, and the entire nation mourns him 30 days. Sichon the Amorite attacks Bnei Yisrael when they ask to pass through his land. As a result, Bnei Yisrael conquer the lands that Sichon had previously seized from the Amonites on the east bank of the Jordan River.


Balak, king of Moav, is in morbid fear of Bnei Yisrael. He summons a renowned sorcerer named Bilaam to curse them. First, G-d speaks to Bilaam and forbids him to go. But, because Bilaam is so insistent, G-d appears to him a second time and permits him to go. While en route, a malach (emissary from G-d) blocks Bilaam's donkey's path. Unable to contain his frustration, Bilaam strikes the donkey each time it stops or tries to detour. Miraculously, the donkey speaks, asking Bilaam why he is hitting her. The malach instructs Bilaam regarding what he is permitted to say and what he is forbidden to say regarding the Jewish People. When Bilaam arrives, King Balak makes elaborate preparations, hoping that Bilaam will succeed in the curse. Three times Bilaam attempts to curse and three times blessings issue instead. Balak, seeing that Bilaam has failed, sends him home in disgrace.

Bnei Yisrael begin sinning with the Moabite women and worshipping the Moabite idols, and they are punished with a plague. One of the Jewish leaders brazenly brings a Midianite princess into his tent, in full view of Moshe and the people. Pinchas, a grandson of Aharon, grabs a spear and kills both evildoers. This halts the plague, but not before 24,000 have died.



A Worldly Man

“And they shall take for the one who is impure from the ashes of the burned Korban Chatat, and place upon it living waters.”

A person is an entire world.

In our frail frames, there breathes a spirit that comes from above and yearns to return there. Our bodies, on the other hand, seek to maximize the pleasures of this world; our physicality draws us downward to the earth.

The soul and the body fight a perpetual war while we walk on this planet.

The dichotomy of being a human being is expressed exactly by the Hebrew word for “man” — Adam.

Adam is connected to adama, which means “earth”.

From the dust of the earth we were created, and to there our body returns. On the other hand, that same word adama can be read adameh, meaning, “I will compare.” Our job in this world is to aspire, to compare constantly where we are with where we’re supposed to be.

Our lowly origins oblige us to be as humble as the dust from where we come. On the other hand, we have a soul that is a part of G-d.

This paradox is expressed in this week’s Parsha. In the times of the Beit Hamikdash (Holy Temple), in order to purify oneself from tuma (spiritual negativity) a kohen took some of the ashes of the special red heifer sacrifice (para aduma) and poured 'living water' over the ashes.

What was the significance of this?

The Torah is reminding us that though we are encased in a physical frame, we are not necessarily trapped by it. For even though our bodies may be no more than dust and ashes, inside us is an eternal living soul that can ascend to the stars.

  • Source: Rabbi Avraham Mordechai M’Gur in Mayana Shel Torah


Revenge of the Daughters of Moav.

“How goodly are your tents, O Yaakov...”

I just got back from spending a couple of days in England. I hadn’t been there in a couple of years and I was interested to see how things had changed.

What struck me most was that it was almost impossible to go out into the street without having to avert my eyes.

Living in Jerusalem certainly has sensitized me to this total lack of inhibition in dress and public behavior. However, I am sure there has also been a precipitous decline in what used to be known as standards of public indecency. Wherever I went, the sidewalks, the billboards and the backs of buses were impossible to look at.

There was a total lack of tzniut.

Tzniut is a difficult world to translate. Most translators use the word ‘modesty’, but that’s woefully inadequate. Really, the reason why tzniut is so difficult to render into English is because it is something quintessentially Jewish. Words that define the essence of a nation rarely have single-word translations. The French word chic comes to mind; to adequately translate chic to any other tongue would require a truckload of adjectives: smart, well-tailored, fashionable, stylish, well-dressed, elegant, well-groomed, modish, well put together etc., etc., etc.

Tzniut is that uniquely Jewish combination of inconspicuous self-effacement, privacy, modesty, understatement and that quality of not-wishing-to-catch-the eye (that’s as inelegant an adjectival phrase as one could find!). The verse states about this essential Jewish quality: “All the honor of the daughter of the king is inwardness.

As Jews, both female and male, we cherish inwardness and withdraw from public display.

At the end of this week’s Torah portion, the Jewish People start to commit acts of immorality with the women of Moav. The Moavite women lure the Jewish men into idol worship by promising them their favors if they would worship the god Peor.

The worship of Peor was by defecating in front of the idol. One could hardly think of a more disgusting method of worship than this. What was behind this obscenity, however, was the premise that man is no more than a machine that produces waste, no better than an animal.

By seducing the Jewish men to worship Peor, it was as if the women of Moav were saying to them “There’s nothing special about the Jewish People! How can this nation dream of tzniut, of a higher calling, when their own digestive systems belie their earthly nature? Why don’t you just be like the rest of us and ‘Let it all hang out’.”

The daughters of Moav are alive and well and living in London…and in New York, Paris, Munich, Rome, Athens, Los Angeles...

The Talmud explains that all of Bilaam’s blessings in this week’s Parsha returned to curses. With the exception of one: “How goodly are your tents, O Yaakov.”

The tents of Yaakov are the tents of Torah.

To the extent that the Jewish home is built around the immortal values of the Torah and the priceless value it attaches to tzniut, will we protect ourselves and our children from a world obsessed with the body; while at the same time fulfill our vocation to be a light to the nations.

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