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Torah Sparks

June 22, 2002 - 5762

Prepared by Rabbi David L. Blumenfeld, PhD
Department of Services to Affiliated Congregations

Annual Cycle: Num. 19:1-25:9; Hertz, p. 652; Etz Hayim, p. 880
Triennial Cycle I: Num. 19:1-21:20; Hertz, p. 652; Etz Hayim, p.880
Haftarah: Micah 5:6-6:8; Hertz, p. 682; Etz Hayim, p. 914

Torah Portion Summary


(19:1-22) The ritual of the red heifer: a perfect red cow is sacrificed outside the camp, and then burned down to its ashes, which were then used for ritual purification of someone who had touched a corpse. However, someone who is ritually pure and comes into contact with the ashes of the red heifer is rendered ritually impure. This paradox caused our sages to point to this passage as a prime example of a "hok", a Divine decree which cannot be rationally explained and simply must be obeyed.

(20:1-13) Moses brings water from a rock by striking it with his staff, contradicting God's instructions to talk to the rock. God tells Moses and Aaron that they will not lead the people into the promised land.

(20:14-21) Edom refuses to allow Israel to pass through its territory, forcing them to detour.

(20:22-21:3) The death of Aaron; an encounter with the Canaanites.

(21:4-10) The people complain against God and Moses. God sends poisonous snakes to punish them. Many Israelites die, but Moses intercedes with God for them. God tells Moses to set up a copper statue of a snake; when anyone was bitten by a snake, he looked at the statue and was cured.

(21:11-20) Further stages of the Israelites' journey through the Transjordan wilderness.

(21:21-22:1) The conquest of the land of Sichon and Og and all the Transjordan area, the first permanent possessions.


(Num. 22:2-20) Balak, King of Moab, invites Balaam, who has the power to bless and curse, to help him by cursing the Israelites. Balaam says he must consult with God before he can decide; eventually God tells him that he may go, "but whatever I command you, that you shall do."

(22:21-38) Balaam sets out riding his ass. On the way, an angel of the Lord appears. He does not see it, but his ass does, and refuses to move. After being beaten three times, the ass speaks and complains of this ill treatment. God then opens Balaam's eyes so that he sees the angel, who also rebukes Balaam for beating the ass. Balaam offers to turn back; the angel tells him to go, but warns him again only to say what God tells him.

(22:39-23:26) Balaam arrives in Moab and is received by Balak with great honor. But to Balak's distress, Balaam, compelled by God, twice blesses and praises the Israelites, and predicts great things for their future.

(23:27-24:9) Balaam makes a third attempt. In this blessing, he says the famous words of the Mah Tovu: "How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel!" He concludes, "Blessed are they who bless you, accursed those who curse you!"

(24:10-25) Balak, totally infuriated, tells Balaam that he won't pay him, and discharges him. Balaam reminds him that he said all along that he could only say what God told him to say, and throws in a fourth blessing, unsolicited, predicting Israel's conquest of Moab. Balaam goes on to make predictions concerning other nations.

Discussion Theme: Cloning - A Modern Dilemma

This is the ritual law that the Lord has commanded: Instruct the Israelite people to bring you a red cow (heifer) without blemish, in which there is no defect and on which no yoke has laid (Numbers 19:2)

  1. "Red... without blemish" - A cow completely uniform in color, without specks of white or black or without even two black or white hairs, is extremely rare. (Etz Hayim, p.881, note)
  2. If two hairs of the animal were not red, it was invalid. As a result, the red heifer was rare and costly. Several stories are told in the Talmud about the exorbitant price demanded for it. (See Talm. Jerus., Pe'ah 1:1, 15c; Talm. Bab. Kiddushin 31a) The ritual of the Red Heifer, of course, fell into disuse with the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the abolition of this law. Interestingly though there are those who, in preparation for the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem, are busying themselves these days in breeding the perfect blemishless red heifer. But it still is an expensive proposition. To the rescue - modern science! It has been suggested that just as Dolly, the sheep was cloned from the udder of an adult ewe in Scotland in 1996 that the same method could be applied for the animal prescribed in the Torah for ritual purification. Clearly, this matter is not precisely high on our agenda. But it does remind us again parenthetically of an issue which is bound to surface over and over in the 21st century.
  3. Concerning cloning, Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff writes: "The creation of cloned animals suggests that cloning of human beings may not be far behind. People are interested in that possibility for a number of good reasons. Scientists could learn much about the etiology and cures of diseases like cancer and Parkinson's and the technique could be used to overcome infertility. Even when used to accomplish those good ends, though, human cloning poses what are undoubtedly the most intriguing and the most complex moral problems of scientific research."
  4. "Moral Issues: Who would be cloned?... Human cloning may be open to economic exploitation... What would determine good results?... How would bad results be disposed of?... How would the environment be protected from the bad results?..." (For a full consideration of this subject see E. Dorff, Matters of Life and Death, A Jewish Approach to Modern Medical Ethics, pp. 310-324)

"Sparks" for Discussion:

I'm certain that most of us have done some reading on the subject of human cloning and have probably seen a television program or two on the subject. Let's share what we know (if this discussion is to be held in the synagogue or at our Shabbat afternoon tables at home) and analyze our positions. Is there a "generation gap" on this issue? Are religions differing with each other about cloning? Where do you stand?

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