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Torah Sparks

PARASHAT HUKKAT-BALAK
July 4, 2009 – 12 Tammuz 5769

Annual: Numbers 19:1 – 25:9 (Etz Hayim, p. 880; Hertz p. 652)
Triennial: Numbers:: 21:21 – 22:38 (Etz Hayim, p. 891; Hertz p. 662)
Haftarah: Micah: 5:6 – 6:8 (Etz Hayim, p. 915; Hertz p. 682)

Prepared by Rabbi Joyce Newmark
Teaneck, New Jersey

Torah Portion Summary

God instructs Moses and Aaron concerning the ritual of the red cow, whose ashes were to be used to purify people who had become ritually impure through contact with a corpse.

Miriam dies and is buried at Kadesh. Once again, the Israelites lack water and turn to Moses and Aaron with complaints and recriminations. God tells Moses to take his rod, then he and Aaron should assemble the community and order a rock to produce water.

Moses strikes the rock with his staff and the rock produces enough water for the Israelites and their animals. But God is displeased and tells Moses and Aaron that they will not enter the land He is giving to the Israelites.

Moses sends messengers to the king of Edom, asking for permission to cross his territory. The king refuses and sends an armed force to prevent the Israelites from entering his land. The people take a different path and come to Mount Hor. Aaron dies on Mount Hor and Moses invests Aaron’s son Eleazar as the new high priest. The people mourn for Aaron for 30 days. The Canaanite king of Arad attacks the Israelites and is defeated at Hormah.

The people begin complaining yet again and God sends poisonous snakes to punish them. The Israelites approach Moses saying they realize they have sinned and they ask him to intercede with God for them. God tells Moses to make a copper serpent and place it on a pole so that anyone bitten by a snake could look at it and be cured.

The Israelites continue their journey through the territory east of the Jordan. They ask Sihon, the king of the Amorites, for permission to cross his land, but he refuses and attacks. The Israelites defeat the Amorites and take possession of their land. The Israelites also defeat King Og of Bashan and his people, taking their land as well. The Israelites camp in Moab, across the Jordan from Jericho.

Balak, the king of Moab, sees that the Israelites have defeated the neighboring Amorites and is afraid. He joins forces with the Midianites in order to hire the prophet Balaam to curse the Israelites to insure their defeat. Balaam receives the delegation from Moab and Midian and asks them to spend the night so that he can receive God’s instruction. God tells Balaam he may not go with them, for he must not curse the Israelites, who already are blessed. Balaam sends the delegation away. Balak sends a second delegation, promising Balaam great riches for his services. Once again he asks them to wait overnight, and this time God tells Balaam that he may go if he wants to, but he will be able to do only what God commands.

Balaam sets out, riding on his ass. An angel appears and blocks the road. Balaam doesn’t see it but his ass does and refuses to move. Balaam beats the animal, but it still refuses to move. After three beatings, the ass speaks, complaining that it doesn’t deserve this treatment. God then allows Balaam to see the angel, who rebukes him for beating the ass but permits him to continue on his journey with the warning that he may say only what God tells him.

Balaam asks Balak to build seven altars and provide animals for sacrifices. After Balaam makes his offerings he speaks the words God gives him, praising and blessing Israel. Balak is furious, but Balaam explains that he can speak only as God commands him. Twice more Balaam offers sacrifices and then praises and blesses Israel. Balak sends Balaam away; he leaves after describing the defeat of several other nations.

While the Israelites are camped at Shittim, the men are enticed by Moabite women into illicit sex and worshiping their god, Baal-peor. God tells Moses to have the ringleaders publicly executed. An Israelite man brings a Midianite woman to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting and engages in public sex. Pinhas, the son of Eleazar the high priest, grabs a spear and stabs them both, ending the plague that had resulted from God’s wrath.

1. Is Greed Still Good?

Balaam replied to Balak’s officials, “Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I cold not do anything, big or little, contrary to the command of the Lord my God.” (Numbers 22:18)

  1. Hence it teaches us that his soul was greedy, and he coveted the wealth of others. (Balaam) said: It is proper for him to give me all his silver and gold, for he must (otherwise) hire many troops that might or might not conquer (his enemies), but I shall certainly conquer. (Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki), 1040- 1105, France)
  2. “Hence it teaches us that.. he coveted the wealth of others” (Rashi). This seems difficult, because we are told in Avot 6:9 that Rabbi Yose said: “If you would give me all the gold and silver and precious stones in the world, I would only live in a place of Torah.” Why, then, in the case of Balaam is basically the same statement viewed negatively? The answer is as follows: A man came to Rabbi Yose and asked him to live in the man’s city. In return, he would give Rabbi Yose a million gold dinars. It was the man who mentioned money in the first place, and Rabbi Yose therefore answered him along the same lines. In the case of Balaam, though, Balak had not mentioned any money, and had only told him, “I will honor you greatly.” Why, then, did Balaam mention money? This proves that he desired the money of others. (Torah Temimah (Rabbi Baruch Epstein), 1860-1942, Russia)
  3. Rabbi Eliezer HaKappar said, how do we know that someone who honors another person for the sake of money in the end will have it taken from him in disgrace? From what we find concerning the wicked Balaam who honored Balak for the sake of money, as it is said, “Balaam replied to Balak’s officials, “Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold.” And how do we know it was taken from him in disgrace? It is said (24:11), “Back with you at once to your own place!... The Lord has denied you the reward.” (Avot d’Rabbi Natan)
  4. There are eight things that in large quantities are harmful but in small quantities are beneficial... wealth. (Gittin 70a)
  5. The Almighty has not created the universe that we may have opportunities to satisfy our greed, envy, and ambition. (Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, 1907- 1972, Poland, Germany, and the United States)

Sparks for Discussion

Our commentators understand Balaam’s seemingly disingenuous remark – “though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold” – as an indirect demand for payment. Therefore, it is greed that prompts Balaam to disregard God’s initial directive and ask again for permission to go with Balak’s emissaries. Do you think Balaam was motivated primarily by greed? What other motives might he have had?

Certainly most people hope to earn a good living, to have a nice house, car, and other possessions, and to be able to send their children to college and enjoy a secure retirement. At what point does this desire cross the line into greed? Do you think that most people have a “price,” that they would do something they know is illegal or unethical for enough money?

2. Willful Blindness

Balaam said to the angel of the Lord, “I erred [hatati – I sinned] because I did not know that you were standing in my way. If you still disapprove, I will turn back.” (Numbers 22:34)

  1. He said it because he was a cunning villain and knew that nothing can prevent retribution except repentance, and that if anyone who committed a crime says “I have sinned,” the angel has no power to touch him. (Bamidbar Rabbah 20:15)
  2. This also was to his disgrace, and against his will he confessed, for he prided himself that he knew the knowledge of the Most High (24:16), and his mouth testified, “I did not know.” (Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki), 1040-1105, France, based on Tanhuma)
  3. This seems surprising: If he did not know, what sin was there? The answer is that there are certain things where ignorance itself is a sin. For example, if a son beats his father, he cannot justify himself by claiming that he did not know that this is forbidden. Similarly, the king’s bodyguard cannot claim that he did not know who is the king. The same is true in this case. Balaam was a prophet, and as such he should have known that there was an angel blocking his ass. Balaam indeed said, “I sinned because I did not know.” As a prophet, I should have known that there was an angel blocking me. My ignorance is a sin in itself. (Kanfei Nesharim (Rabbi Isaiah Shur of Jassy), 1781-1881, Romania)
  4. Rabbi Hayyim of Sanz once asked a rabbi of a certain town, who was a Sanzer Hasid, whether he was involved in trying to help one of the men in his town who was in dire straits. The rabbi answered: “I didn’t even know he was in such trouble.” Rabbi Hayyim became angry at the rabbi and said to him: “We are told that Balaam exclaimed, ‘I have sinned because I did not know.’ This seems difficult, for why should he be a sinner if he did not know? This shows that ignorance itself can be a sin. A rabbi or other community leader must know of any case of injustice or distress in his town; he must sense these things, and if he does not know and does not sense them, that is a sin.” (Mei-Otzar Ha- Hasidut, cited in Itturei Torah, Rabbi Aharon Yaakov Greenberg)
  5. The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. The opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference. (Elie Wiesel)

Sparks for Discussion

Balaam confessed that he had sinned. To what sin was he confessing? Do you agree with our commentators that ignorance can be a sin? Under what circumstances?


 
 
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