Chukat-Balak 5769

June 28, 2009

10 min read


Chukat-Balak (Numbers 19:1-25:9 )

GOOD MORNING! What is the value of keeping your word? What is the value of keeping Shabbos (religiously fulfilling the laws of the Sabbath)? I once had the pleasure of speaking with Morris Engelson, a stalwart of the Kesser Israel Congregation that my great-grandfather helped found close to 100 years ago in Portland, Oregon. In our conversation, Morris mentioned that he was a Holocaust survivor. I expressed my surprise since Morris is relatively young - and few young people survived the Holocaust.

Morris smiled and said, "You're right. Few children survived the Holocaust. My family was hidden for several years by a non-Jewish family and even that was relatively rare. The Nazis rewarded those who turned in Jews with a bag of flour or sugar and "rewarded" those who hid Jews with a bullet. Non-Jews were generally not keen to hide Jews unless they had money, but when the money ran out they would often turn in the Jews. How we survived really goes back to the story of my grandfather."

Morris continued, "My grandfather was a grain merchant. Generally, he would buy grain from the feudal lords in Poland and sell it to the mills. In addition, he had one farmer who owned his own land with whom he had a good relationship. One day a flour mill became available for purchase. My grandfather wanted to buy the mill, but had no money. He presented a plan to the farmer to loan him the money for a very substantial return."

"The farmer agreed to the plan and gave my grandfather his whole crop to sell and then to use the proceeds to buy the mill. My grandfather stored the farmer's grain in a silo in order to sell it. The next Shabbat there was a fire in the silo (they suspected the other mill owners, but nothing was proven). Since there was no danger to human life, the halacha (Jewish law) is clear. The fire may not be put out. All of the grain was burnt.

"My grandfather went to the farmer and explained what had happened; he reassured him that he would repay every zlata that he had promised in the original deal; he just needed time. There was no way the farmer could have collected from my father; there really was no recourse for the farmer. Yet for the next 20 years my grandfather paid the farmer until the debt was finished. He never bought the mill.

"Then along came Hitler, yimach shmo v'zichrono (may his name and his memory be blotted out) and started murdering the Jews of Poland. My father went to the two sons of the farmer and made them this proposition: 'Hitler will not win this war. I have lost almost my whole family already, many brothers and sisters. If you will hide me and my family, whatever I inherit from them will be yours.'

"The brothers conferred. Then one of them told my father, 'Over 20 years ago your father made a promise to our father and he kept it. We know you will keep your promise. We will hide you.' "

One can look at this story and learn the value of keeping one's word to one's fellow human being, the value of integrity. However, there is even a deeper lesson. When the Jewish people were at Mt. Sinai, we accepted upon ourselves to keep the Torah. We said, "We will do and we will understand." Rashi, the great commentator, tells us that all of the souls of the Jewish people for all times were there at Mt. Sinai and agreed to the covenant with the Almighty to observe His Torah.

When Morris' grandfather didn't extinguish the fire in the silo that Shabbos, he was perhaps expressing an even greater level of integrity in keeping the covenant of the Almighty by not breaking the Shabbos. His grandfather could have put out the fire. He knew the consequences of his action, the great loss financially, the loss of his dream of owning a mill and perhaps becoming a rich man. It is likely that Morris' grandfather's commitment to the farmer was rooted in his understanding that there is a God Who has set forth standards for us to keep in relating to our fellow human beings - and keeping these standards is as an important part of the covenant as is keeping the Shabbos.

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Torah Portion of the Week
Chukat- Balak

Another week of action, adventure and mystery as the Jewish people wander the desert in their 38th year. First, the laws of the red heifer (parah adumah) which was burned with cedar wood, hyssop and scarlet thread. The ashes were then used in a purification ceremony for those who had come in contact with the dead. Strangely enough, all who were involved in the making of the ashes became ritually impure, but all who were sprinkled with them became ritually pure.

Miriam, Moshe's sister and a prophetess, dies. The portable well which had accompanied the Israelites on her merit, ceases to flow. Once again the people rebel against Moshe and Aharon because of the lack of water. The Almighty tells Moshe to speak to the rock for water. Moshe gets angry and hits the rock and water rushes forth. (There are two incidences of Moshe hitting the rock; the first time he was told to hit it - this time he was told to speak to the rock.) However, the Almighty punishes Moshe and Aharon for not sanctifying Him by forbidding their entry into the land of Israel. (It pays to follow instructions and to withhold anger!)

Aharon dies. His son, Elazar, is appointed the new High Priest. The Canaanite king of Arad attacks the Israelites and later is soundly defeated. Then there is another rebellion over the food and water which is answered by a plague of poisonous snakes. Moshe prays for the people and is instructed by God to put the image of a snake on a high pole. All who saw it would think of God, then repent and therefore live.

The Israelites then annihilate the Amorites and Bashanites who not only would not let us pass peacefully through their lands, but attacked us. (There are many questions which need to be asked. Please consult the original work and a good commentary.)

The second portion this week, Balak, is one of the most fascinating psychologically-revealing portions in the whole Torah! Bilaam, a non-Jewish prophet, is granted a level of prophecy close to Moshe's level of prophecy. The Almighty gives Bilaam these powers so that the nations of the world could not say at some point in the future, "If we had a prophet like Moshe, we too would have accepted the Torah and would have lived according to it." Bilaam is an intriguing character - honor driven, arrogant and self- serving. (Unfortunately, not too unique amongst mankind.)

Balak, the king of Moav, desires to hire Bilaam for a fortune of money to curse the Jewish people. It is interesting that Balak believes in God and the power of invoking a curse from God, yet thinks that God would change His mind about His Chosen People. (God is not a man who changes his mind). Bilaam is very desirous to accept the assignment to curse the Jews (more for the profit motive than the prophet motive).

The Almighty allows Bilaam to travel to Balak (cautioning him to only say what God told him). The Almighty gives every person free-will and allows us to go in the direction that we choose. Three times Bilaam tries to curse us and three times the Almighty places blessings in his mouth. Balak is furious! So, Bilaam gives him advice with hopes of collecting his fee - "If you want to destroy the Jewish people, entice the men with Moabite women and tell the women not to submit until the men bow down to an idol." Balak follows the advice and consequently the Almighty brings a plague against the Jewish people because the men fell for Bilaam's plot. We see from this that the Almighty hates licentiousness and idol worship.

* * *

Dvar Torah
based on Growth Through Torah by Rabbi Zelig Pliskin

The Torah states regarding Moshe's hitting the rock instead of speaking to it (as he was commanded to do by the Almighty):

"And the Almighty said to Moshe and Aharon, because you did not believe in Me to sanctify Me in the eyes of the Children of Israel, therefore, you will not bring this congregation to the Land which I gave them." (Numbers 20:12)

Rashi elucidates that if Moshe were to have spoken to the rock (instead of hitting it) and it would have given forth water, there would have been a greater sanctification of the Almighty in the eyes of the congregation. The people would say, "If this rock which does not speak and does not hear fulfills the word of the Almighty, all the more so should we."

We see from here that the essence of sanctifying the Almighty's name is not merely that someone should be impressed by another person's righteous behavior or to think that a person is acting in an elevated manner. Rather, the key factor is that other people should be influenced to improve their own behavior. Whenever you behave in a manner that influences others to follow the Almighty's will, you sanctify His name.


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Integrity is what we do,
what we say, and what we say we do.
--  Don Gale


With Deep Appreciation to

Leonard & Barbara Wien

Miami Beach


Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Kalman Packouz

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