For the week ending 9 July 2022 / 10 Tammuz 5782

Parshat Balak

by Rabbi Yaakov Asher Sinclair -
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Balak, King of Moav, is in morbid fear of the 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 about 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 are issued instead. Balak, seeing that Bilaam has failed, sends him home in disgrace. The 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 act brings an end to the plague — but not before 24,000 people diedThe laws of the Parah Adumah, 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. Hashem 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 Hashem's mastery over the world, which would have resulted had the rock produced water merely at Moshe's word. Therefore, Hashem tells Moshe and Aharon that they will not bring the people into the Land. The Jewish People 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 for 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.


The Last Carriage

“And from there, Bilaam saw the edge of the people.”

Here is a true story. There was an eight-year-old boy who lived in Warsaw. He loved trains and he loved travel. His dream was to go by himself from Warsaw to Lodz, a considerable journey. Over and over again he tried to persuade his parents to let him go. And over and over they told him he was just too young. But he wouldn’t give up. Persistence won the day, and eventually his parents capitulated, telling their young son that he could go. His mother packed him sandwiches and his father dropped him off at the train station. Just as the train was leaving, his father pushed an envelope into his young son’s hand. He said, “When you get near the end of your journey, open this letter.”

The train left the station and the young boy was in seventh heaven. Alone on a train! The beautiful scenery speeding by; blurred occasionally by wisps of gray and white smoke from the train’s engine; the chattering of the wheels congratulating him on the fulfillment of his most precious wish; the train’s whistle heralded his great journey. He opened up his sandwiches and decided to eat one now and save one for later.

The afternoon came, and the sun carved a lazy arc into the rolling hills in the distance. People started to look at him. Who was this young boy by himself on a train? Some of them looked a bit strange. The carriage started to get dark and the landscape grayed into night. His euphoria was replaced first by a slight twinge of loneliness, and that gave way to full-blown fear.

It was then he remembered the envelope. He put his hand into his right pocket. It wasn’t there. Then, his left pocket; it wasn’t there either. Finally, he found it. With trembling hands, he opened the letter. It said, “By the time you read this, it will be getting dark and you may be feeling a little lonely and scared, but don’t worry — I am in the last carriage on the train. Love, Daddy.”

There’s something unusual about Parshat Balak. It’s the only Torah portion in which the Jewish People — the “stars of the show” — seem to only have a “walk-on” part. We see them from a distance — from the top of a hill, across a field; in the wilderness.

At the end of sixth century, the Byzantine Empire completely destroyed the Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel. Unknown to the Jews of Babylon, the Byzantines then poised themselves to also make Babylonia ‘Judenrein’. Before they could implement their plans, however, the Moslem revolt toppled them from power.

Jews played a prominent role in the overthrow of Czarist Russia and in the subsequent Soviet government. Secretly, however, in 1953 Josef Stalin tried unsuccessfully to destroy the Jews in what became known as “The Doctors’ Plot.” According to one theory, if the "Doctors' Plot" had carried on and reached its climax there would have been a mass expulsion of Soviet Jewry. But these plans died along with Stalin on March 6, 1953.

In the series of Psalms that make up Hallel, is the shortest Psalm (117). It speaks of a world in the time of the Mashiach:

“Praise Hashem all nations; laud Him all the peoples; for His kindness to us was overwhelming.”

Once, a Russian prince asked Rabbi Itzaleh of Volozhin why non-Jews will be expected to praise Hashem for His kindness to Israel. Rabbi Itzaleh replied, “The princes of the nations constantly plot our annihilation, but our merciful King foils your plans. You keep your plots so secret that we Jews don’t even realize in how many ways you have tried to harm us and in how many ways Hashem has saved us. Only you, the nations of the non-Jewish world, truly see the extent of Hashem’s kindness to us, and therefore only you can praise Him adequately.”

Even when the night is closing in and we feel very much alone, we should know that our ‘Daddy’ is riding right there along with us ‘in the last carriage’.

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