Friday, July 07, 2006

Parshas Chukas-Balak

זאת חקת התורה (19:2)

דא גזרת אוריתא (תרגום אונקלוס)

The Magen Avrohom writes (Orach Chaim 580:9) in the name of the Shibolei Haleket (263) that it is the custom of pious individuals to fast the Erev Shabbos preceding Parshas Chukas in observance of a tragic event which occurred on that day. On this day in the year 5004, 24 cartloads of the Talmud and other holy books were publicly burned in France by non-Jews due to allegations of heretical and rebellious teaching contained therein.

A letter written by Rav Hillel of Verona, a student of the great Rabbeinu Yonah – who was living at the time – is quoted in Chemdah Genuzah (pg. 18), in which he writes that his illustrious teacher noted that just 40 prior to this episode, the Jews had publicly burned in that very spot a number of copies of the controversial philosophical writings of the Rambam, such as Moreh Nevuchim. He saw in this tragedy a Divine punishment being meted out for their actions, and viewed it as a Heavenly message supporting the legitimacy of the teachings of the Rambam. The Jews of the time repented their actions and prayed for Divine forgiveness, thus ending the bitter controversy over the philosophical views of Maimonides.

Although fasts commemorating historical events are normally established on the calendar date on which they occurred – in this case 9 Tammuz – the Rabbis of the time mystically inquired regarding the nature of the decree, and received the cryptic reply דא גזירת אורייתא – this is the decree of the Torah. This is taken from Onkelos’ Aramaic translation of the second verse in Parshas Chukas, a message they interpreted as alluding to the fact that the decree was connected to the day’s proximity to the reading of Parshas Chukas, and they therefore established the fast specifically on the Erev Shabbos preceding the reading of Parshas Chukas. The Magen Avrohom concludes by noting that in the terrible pogroms which occurred in the years Tach V’Tat (1648-9), two entire Jewish communities were brutally destroyed on the Erev Shabbos preceding Parshas Chukas.



זאת חקת התורה (19:2)

לפי שהשטן ואומות העולם מונין את ישראל לומר מה המצוה הזאת ומה טעם יש בה לפיכך כתב בה חקה גזירה היא מלפני ואין לך רשות להרהר אחריה (רש"י)

The Gemora in Sanhedrin (99a) states that a person who studies Torah but neglects to teach it to others has disgraced Hashem’s words and broken His commandments, and as a result, his sin will be upon him and he will be completely cut off from the Jewish nation. Although there is a positive mitzvah to teach Torah to others, it is difficult to understand why is the failure to do so should be judged so harshly?

Rav Pam suggests that the very fact that he is able to keep his learning to himself without spreading it to others inherently proves that he doesn’t appreciate the sweetness of the Torah that he studies. If he appreciated and personally experienced the beauty and depth of the Torah he studied, he would literally be unable to contain it within himself. The Chasam Sofer writes that although Moshe Rabbeinu merited to become the only human who would ever understand the mysteries of the purification of the red heifer, the fact that he wasn’t given Divine permission to share it with a single person caused him so much agony to the point that he would have actually preferred that he not be privy to the secret! Similarly, Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz was wont to quote something which the K’tzos HaChoshen writes in the name of the Mahar”i Muskato: if a person will merit the appearance of angels to reveal to him Divine secrets, he will actually have no pleasure from the intrinsic knowledge until he is able to share it with others. Therefore, if a person studies Torah and feels no desire or need to teach it to others, it can only be because he doesn’t appreciate the value and sweetness of that which he studied, which is indeed the ultimate fulfillment of “scorning the word of Hashem.”



ויראו כל העדה כי גוע אהרן ויבכו את אהרן שלשים יום כל בית ישראל (20:29)

The Torah requires (Bamidbar 35:28) one who accidentally kills another Jew to flee to one of the cities of refuge. In order to be protected from the deceased’s relative and blood-avenger, he must remain there until the death of the Kohen Gadol, at which point he is permitted to return to his community and family. The Meshech Chochma derives from our verse that although this law was applicable during the 40-year sojourn of the Jews in the desert, with the accidental killer required to dwell in the camp of the Levites, such an episode never actually occurred during this entire period.

The Torah relates that upon the death of Aharon, every single member of the Jewish nation cried and mourned his death, which Rashi explains was due to his tremendous efforts to pursue and make peace among quarreling parties. Rav Meir Simcha notes, however, that had there been even a single accidental murderer during that period, he wouldn’t have cried at the death of Aharon – the Kohen Gadol – but rather would have rejoiced at the event which secured his freedom! It is interesting to note that the Matamei Yaakov questions this proof, as it is entirely possible that there was indeed an accidental killer who was exiled to the Levite camp but who died prior to the death of Aharon, which occurred during the last year of the Jews’ 40-year travels through the wilderness, in which case the fact that at the time of his death every living Jew mourned his passing doesn’t constitute an absolute indication that there were no accidental murderers throughout this period.



ויבא אלקים אל בלעם לילה ויאמר לו אם לקרא לך באו האנשים קום לך אתם ואך את הדבר אשר אדבר אליך

אותו תעשה ויקם בלעם בבקר ויחבש את אתנו וילך עם שרי מואב ויחר אף אלהים כי הולך הוא (22:20-22)

The entire back-and-forth between Bilaam and the angels is very difficult to comprehend. Initially, when Balak’s representatives came to invite Bilaam to curse the Jews, Hashem said to Bilaam in no uncertain terms (22:12): לא תלך עמהם – do not go with them. When Balak followed-up by sending higher-ranking officers, Hashem relented and explicitly permitted Bilaam to go with them (22:20), which he indeed did the following morning. Curiously, the very next verse states that Hashem was angry with him for going. Why did Hashem change his position regarding the permissibility of going with Balak’s agents, and why did he get upset when Bilaam merely followed His instructions?

A number of commentators (the Vilna Gaon, Malbim, and Tosefes Bracha) beautifully note that there are two words in the Hebrew language which mean “with them” – עמהם and אתם. As every subtle difference is loading with meaning, they explain that while both words mean “with them,” the word עמהם is used to refer to a case in which one is completely identical “to them,” while אתם is appropriate for a case in which one is similar, but not identical, “to them.”

We may now understand that the agents of Balak wished Bilaam to go with them not just physically but in kindred spirit, united in their plan to curse and destroy the Jewish nation. Not surprisingly, Hashem replied לא תלך עמהם – you may not go together with them in an identical fashion, one in which you share the same motives that they do. When Hashem subsequently appeared to relent, it was with one crucial condition: קום לך אתם – you may walk together with them, but not united with them in your intentions, as Hashem explicitly permitted him to say only what He would command him. Bilaam, with his intense hatred for the Jews, refused to accept this subtle, but critical, distinction, and the Torah relates that וילך עם שרי בלעם – united with them in their mission, and it was precisely at that moment that Hashem got angry at his refusal to follow directions!

We may now answer another difficulty with this understanding. When the angel subsequently gives Bilaam permission to go with the men, Rashi comments (22:35) בדרך שאדם רוצה לילך בה מוליכין אותו – a person is led in the direction in which he truly wishes to go, so in this case Bilaam was given permission to go with Balak’s agents for the purpose of cursing the Jews. Why didn’t Rashi write this comment when Hashem previously allowed him to go with these men? The Gaon explains that until now, he was permitted only to walk with them, but not united with them in their intentions. At this point, the angel said to him לך עם האנשים, thereby giving him permission for the first time to join them in their diabolical scheme, and it was precisely at this point that Rashi noted that Hashem permitted him to travel in the path he truly desired to go in!


Parsha Points to Ponder (and sources which discuss them):

1) According to some opinions (see Orach Chaim 685:7), the annual reading of the beginning of Parshas Chukas, known as Parshas Parah, is a Torah obligation. Where in the Torah is this obligation stated or hinted to? (Aruch HaShulchan 685:7, Shu”t Doveiv Meishorim 2:43, Artzos HaChaim by the Malbim 8, Yismach Moshe quoted in Arugas HaBosem 205, Avodas Yisroel Parshas Parah, Birkas Peretz, Meshech Chochmah, Torah Temimah, Even Yisroel)

2) Does the person who sprinkles the ashes of the parah adumah onto a person who has become ritually impure through contact with a dead body become impure himself? (Niddah 9a)

3) Rashi writes (26:64) that the women didn’t sin by accepting the negative report about the land of Israel offered by the spies and therefore weren’t punished with the decree of dying in the desert instead of meriting to enter the land of Israel. If so why did Miriam die in the wilderness (20:1) before entering the land of Israel? (Yishm’ru Daas, Rashi Devorim 33:8)

4) In the prayer for rain recited by the chazzan during his repetition of the Mussaf prayers on Shemini Atzeres, each stanza invokes the water-related merits of one of our righteous forefathers. In the stanza referring to Moshe Rabbeinu, we include a reference to the fact that at the time that the Jewish nation was thirsty for water, he struck the rock and caused water to come forth (20:11). Since Moshe was punished for his actions and wasn’t allowed to enter the land of Israel as a result, why do we invoke an action which is considered more of a sin than a merit? (Imrei Daas, Taam V’Daas, K’motzei Shalal Rav, M’rafsin Igri)

5) After Hashem decreed that Moshe and Aharon would die in the wilderness and wouldn’t merit to lead the Jewish nation into the land of Israel, Moshe repeatedly petitioned Hashem to reconsider the decree (Devorim 3:23-25). Why didn’t Aharon do the same, and why didn’t Moshe similarly pray on behalf of Aharon? (Panim Yafos, Megaleh Amukos, Bamidbar Rabbah 19:9)

6) Moshe stripped Aharon of the garments of the Kohen Gadol and dressed Elozar in them inside the cave (20:28), as Hashem had commanded him to do, thus inaugurating Elozar as the Kohen Gadol. As a Kohen Gadol is forbidden to become ritually impure even upon the death of his immediate relatives, how was Elozar permitted to remain in the cave in which Aharon died, thus rendering Elozar impure?

7) Which word in the Torah contains three consecutive letters without any nekudos (vowels)? (Hint: the same word appears in both Parshas Chukas and Balak)

8) The first words ever spoken over the telephone are the English translation of a verse in Parshas Balak. What is it?

9) Rashi writes (22:4) that although Balak served as the king of Moav, he was actually a Midianite who was appointed temporary ruler upon the death of Sichon. The Gemora in Sotah (47a) states that Rus was the daughter of the Moabite king Eglon, who was in turn descended from Balak. The Gemora in Kiddushin (66b) rules that the nationality of non-Jews is determined by the father. Why was there a dispute over the ancestry of Rus – and subsequently her descendant Dovid HaMelech – when according to the above, she was considered a Midianite and not a Moabite? (Shiras Dovid quoting Moshav Z’keinim, Ee’bayei L’hu)

10) Rashi writes (22:23) that only Bilaam’s donkey was able to see the angel blocking the way, because if a person with the ability to think – such as Bilaam – would see an angel, he would lose his sanity. When Hashem subsequently uncovered Bilaam’s eyes and permitted him to see the angel (22:31), why didn’t this have such an effect on him? (Ee’bayei L’hu)

11) Did Bilaam’s donkey actually speak to him (22:28) in the physical sense that we are accustomed to? (Ibn Ezra, Rabbeinu Bechaye)


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