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Torah Sparks

PARASHAT HUKKAT-BALAK
July 8, 2006 – 12 Tammuz 5766

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 Michael Gold
Congregation Beth Torah, Tamarac, FL

Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Paul Drazen, Director

Summary

Congregations outside Israel read a double portion this Shabbat. In Israel, because of differences in the Torah reading calendar as there is no second day of Shavuot, the two parashiot are read on two separate weeks. Hukkat begins with the very strange law of the red heifer. A pure red cow without blemish is to be sacrificed and fully burned, its ashes mixed with cedar wood, hyssop, and crimson stuff and placed in water. The priest is to sprinkle the mixture on a person who is ritually impure because he or she has been near a corpse. The ashes of the red heifer purify the impure person, who once again is permitted to enter the Tent of Meeting. However, the irony of this strange law is the person who does the sprinkling becomes impure.

Miriam dies at the wilderness of Zin. The people complain about the lack of water. God tells Moses and Aaron to take their rod and speak to the rock, so that it will bring forth water. Instead, Moses speaks angrily to the people and hits the rock. Water comes forth but God punishes Moses and Aaron. They will not enter the holy land. Aaron dies on Mount Hor and the people mourn for him 30 days. Parashat Hukkat ends with accounts of the battles against two kings, Sihon and Og. The people camp on the steppes of Moab, across the Jordan from Jericho.

Parashat Balak tells the story of the pagan prophet Balaam. Balak, the king of Moab, tries to hire the soothsayer Balaam to curse the Israelites. Balaam asks God’s permission, and God refuses to let him go. But when Balak offers more money, God relents and Balaam saddles his ass and travels to curse the Israelites. While Balaam is on the road, an angel blocks his way three times. Each time the ass stops, Balaam beats her. Finally the ass speaks to Balaam, saying “What have I done that you have beaten me three times?” Balaam learns that God does not approve of his mission.

Three times Balaam offers sacrifices and opens his mouth to curse the Israelites. And three times God turns the curses into blessings. Among the blessings from Balaam’s mouth are the words used daily in synagogue, “How fair are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel.” Balaam also prophesies about other nations. At the end of the portion, Israelite men begin to commit acts of harlotry with the Moabite women. When an Israelite man and a Midianite woman desecrate the Tent of Meeting, Pinchas kills them both.

Issue #1 - Controlling Anger

“And Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said unto them, hear now, you rebels, are we to bring you forth water from the rock?” (Numbers 20:10)

Discussion

  1. Of the many personal misfortunes in the Torah, perhaps the most compelling was that Moses was not allowed to enter the Promised Land. What did he do that resulted in such a serious punishment? Rashi says that Moses hit the rock once and only drops came forth, so he hit it a second time. The Torah text shows that God commanded Moses to speak to the rock and bring forth water, not to hit it. Was hitting the rock Moses’ sin? Some commentators instead blame Moses for taking credit for the miracle of the water at the rock, instead of giving credit to God. Moses says to the people, “shall I bring forth water?” rather than saying “Shall God bring forth water…?” Was this Moses’ sin?
  2. Others believe Moses’ sin goes much deeper into the heart of what it means to be a human being. Moses was angry at people who had a legitimate complaint. They were thirsty. Moses allowed his temper to overwhelm him, not only striking at the rock instead of speaking, but screaming at the people, “Hear now, you rebels!” Moses was a man who could not control his anger. And when a leader cannot manage self-control on something so basic, it is time to appoint a new leader.
  3. Many people today claim that anger is a good thing. A person needs to display his or her anger. Too much self-control will lead to anger building up like steam in a tea kettle. If we do not let it burst forth, the anger eventually will explode. In our modern therapeutic community, expressing your anger is positive, even necessary, for psychological health. Is there any truth to this assertion?
  4. Issues of anger management are among the clearest examples of a powerful Jewish teaching. We are taught that every human being is born with two inclinations, the good inclination (yetzer hatov) and the evil inclination (yetzer hara). The yetzer hara is understood to be our appetites out of control. We need our appetites and emotions, and anger has a role to play in that context. Without anger we would never fight injustice; we would stand by passively as wrongs are committed. The problem is not anger, but uncontrolled anger. One of the great rabbis, Ben Zoma, taught, “Who is strong? Whoever controls their appetites” (Avot 4:1). A worthy life is a life of self-control and self-discipline. The object is not to remove anger altogether, but to limit its time and place. How can we learn to control our anger? Is there a difference between controlling anger and letting it build up to a point of creating personal danger?

Issue #2 – Controlling Greed

“They came to Balaam and said to him, Thus says Balak son of Zippor, please do not refuse to come to me. I will reward you richly and I will do anything you ask of me, only come and curse this people for me” (Numbers 22:16-17)

Discussion

  1. I recently had a conversation with one of our college students, home for the summer. Through the year he had spoken about how evil and corrupt the United States economic system is. He wanted to see capitalism replaced with a kinder and gentler economic system. Now, he confessed to me, “I realize the system is not what is evil and corrupt. People are evil and corrupt.” “At last,” I shouted. “You finally get it. Too often we work at changing the system. In truth, we need to change people.” How do we change people? Is it possible to change another person?
  2. In this week’s portion, Balak hires the pagan prophet Balaam to curse the Israelites. He offers Balaam a large sum of money, but Balaam turns down the offer. “God said to Balaam, do not go with them. You must not curse that people, for they are blessed” (Numbers 22:12). That should have ended the matter, but Balak sends a more distinguished delegation with even more money. Balaam approaches God again, and this time God does not stop him. If cursing the Israelites was wrong for a smaller amount of money, it was still wrong for more money. Balaam allows greed to overrule his conscience.
  3. Does everybody have a price? Why is bribery wrong? Can greed be controlled? How do we teach people to avoid the evil inclination when it comes to money? Could allowing influence for money ever be acceptable? If there is a good result from appealing to someone’s greed, is it acceptable to use a person’s appetites to do something good for society?

 
 
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