For the week ending 4 July 2009 / 11 Tammuz 5769

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.



Hocus Pocus

“This the decree of the Torah…” (19:1)

It always amazes me that people who claim to be hardened atheists will open up a newspaper and start reading their horoscopes.

A non-Jew once quizzed Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai about the purification process of the Para Aduma in this week’s Torah portion, “This stuff you do looks like a bunch of hocus-pocus to me. You get a cow and burn it. You pulverize it and make it into dust. If one of you is impure from touching a cadaver you sprinkle a couple of drops over him and say ‘You're pure!’”

Rabbi Yochanan asked him, “Have you ever been possessed?”

The non-Jew replied “No.”

Said Rabbi Yochanan, “Have you ever seen someone who was possessed?”

The non-Jew answered, “Yes.”

“What do you do with him?”

“Well, we put smoking roots underneath him, sprinkle him with water and the evil spirit runs away.”

Rabbi Yochanan said to him, “Let your ears listen to the words of your mouth!”

After the non-Jew had left, Rabbi Yochanan’s students said to him, “Rabbi, you pushed this fellow off with a reed, but what do you say to us?”

He said, “By your lives, the dead do not make impure. Neither does the cow purify, nor the water. Rather the Holy One, Blessed be He says, ‘A statute I have instituted. A decree I have decreed. Yours is not to transgress my decrees, as it says ‘This is the decree of the Torah...’”

People often say, “Look Rabbi, what is all this mumbo-jumbo, putting funny black boxes on your body, not wearing a mixture of wool and linen, not cooking milk and meat together, and putting little metal cases on your door-posts? It’s just a load of hocus-pocus, isn’t it?

So I say to them, “Have you ever used a cellular telephone?” “Yes.” “Do you understand how it works?” “Well, not really; it picks up radio signals that travel through the air.”

“How does it do that?”

“Well, it’s got a receiver inside it.”

“What's a 'receiver'?”

“Well, it’s on a chip. And there are thousands of small circuits on this chip and… Well, it receives the signal… You know, Rabbi, you’re right, I don’t really understand exactly how a cellular phone works.”

“Does that stop you using it?”


“It’s the same thing with mitzvot. I don’t have to know how a mitzvah works in order to do it. As long as G‑d knows how it works that’s fine by me.”

  • Sources: Midrash Tanchuma, Rabbi Mordechai Perlman



"…and the friendship of the King is in him." (23:21)

I have a vivid memory of short film I must have seen as a child.

The screen is filled with gossamer sparkling shards of glass, like floating pine needles and small silver shields. They tumble past one another in a languorous slow-motion ballet.

I notice that they seem to be drawing closer inexorably to one another. They spin and turn faster and faster until quite suddenly all the shards come together and in an instant form a shining electric light bulb.

What I was viewing was a high-speed camera recording a light bulb shattering — in reverse.

There are three names with which you can describe a friend. The first level is a yedid. Yedid is made up of the Hebrew word for 'hand', twice – yad yad. If you alter the vowels this becomes yedid. Yedidut is the entry level of friendship, for two hands, though they may meet and join, remain separate.

The next level of a friend is a chaver. Chaver is connected to the word chibur, which implies being stuck together, joined.

The highest level is a re'ah.

In this week's Torah portion, Bilaam describes the relationship between G-d and the Jewish People thus, "…and the friendship of the King is in him." — “U'tre'ut Melech bo.

It's difficult to understand the connection of re'ut, the highest and deepest level of friendship, with the verse in Tehillim (2:9), "You will smash (Te'roeim) them with an iron rod…"

What is the connection of "smashing" to the greatest level of friendship?

G-d created this world zeh l'umat zeh – a world of exact opposites.

The reverse of that exact same power and degree of destruction described as "smashing" — that breaking into a thousand irreconcilable fragments — defines the closeness of this highest level of friendship.

The light bulb becomes whole.

  • Source: Rabbi Tzadok HaKohen Mi'Lublin

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