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Torah Sparks

June 26, 2010 - 14 Tammuz 5770

Annual (Num. 22:2-25:9): Etz Hayim p. 894; Hertz p. 669
Triennial (Num. 23:27-25:9): Etz Hayim p. 903; Hertz p. 677
Haftarah (Micah 5:6-6:8): Etz Hayim p. 915; Hertz p. 682

Torah Portion Summary

Balak, the king of Moab, sees that the Israelites have defeated the neighboring Amorites and he is afraid. He joins forces with the Midianites to hire the prophet Balaam. His job would be to curse the Israelites and so ensure 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; 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, and an angel appears, blocking 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 to 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, Moabite women entice Israelite men into illicit sex and worshiping their god, Baal-peor. God tells Moses to have the ringleaders executed publicly. An Israelite man brings a Midianite woman to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting and engages in public sex. Pinchas, the son of the high priest Eleazar, grabs a spear and stabs them both, ending the plague that had resulted from God's wrath.

1. Shver Tsu Zayn a Yid - It's Hard to be a Jew

Who can count the dust of Jacob, number the dust-cloud of Israel? May I die the death of the upright, may my fate be like theirs! (Numbers 23:10)

  1. “May I die the death of the upright” - Would that my living spirit die now, providing, however, that my death be that of the righteous - that (my soul) merit eternal life. (Rabbi Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno, 1475-1550, Italy)
  2. We see from the statement of Bilaam that he realized the truth that one should lead a righteous life. Why then did he himself not live righteously and only wished that he could die and be rewarded as the righteous? Rabbi Simcha Zissel of Kelm explained that although Bilaam had an intellectual awareness of the proper way to live, in his own life he found this too difficult. Because he had faulty character traits, he was not able to live according to the ideals and principles he knew were true. (Rabbi Zelig Pliskin, Growth Through Torah, p. 356)
  3. Balaam did not want to live as a believing Jew, but very much wanted to die as one. Why? Because the life of a God-fearing Jew is not an easy one: he has to restrain himself and keep away from many things. There are many commandments he must perform. Each day and every hour he has various obligations. The Jew's death is not like that. For the believing Jew, death is only a transition from a temporary life to a permanent one. For one who believes in the eternity of the soul, in reward and punishment, death is not that frightening, and that is why Balaam wished to die as a believing Jew. But it is no great feat to die a proper death. The real feat is to live a proper life. (Hafetz Hayim (Rabbi Israel Meir HaKohen), 1835-1933, Poland)
  4. Rabbi Yehuda bar Ilai taught: In the time-to-come the Holy One will bring the impulse to evil and slaughter it in the presence of both the righteous and the wicked. To the righteous, it will have the appearance of a towering mountain; and to the wicked, it will have the appearance of a strand of hair. These will weep, and the others will weep. The righteous will weep, saying, “How were we able to cope with such a towering mountain?” The wicked will weep, saying, “How is it that we were unable to cope with a mere strand of hair?” (Talmud Sukkot 52a)

Sparks for Discussion

Is it hard to be a Jew? When someone says “I'd really like to be more observant” - whether in the realm of ritual (keeping kosher, attending shul on Shabbat) or ethics (giving more to tzedakah, visiting mourners and those who are ill) - “but it's just not possible,” what does he or she mean? Is it truly not possible, or is it just inconvenient? How much of this statement is fact and how much is rationalization? What is Rabbi Yehuda bar Ilai trying to teach us?

2. A Modesty Proposal

How fair are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel! (Numbers 24:5)

  1. He saw that their doors were not directed one opposite the other, lest one look into the tent of his fellow. (Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki), 1040-1105, France)
  2. People are naturally curious and are interested in knowing about the comings and goings of their neighbors. This is exactly why our forefathers, during their forty years in the desert, encamped in such a manner that would ensure the greatest amount of privacy. We have an obligation to respect the right to privacy of others. When passing someone's window, we must resist the temptation to look in. (Rabbi Zelig Pliskin, Love Your Neighbor, p. 359)
  3. The person who utters foul language commits a great transgression and becomes despised in the eyes of others, for that person has abandoned the traits of decency and modesty that are the distinguishing marks of his people Israel and walks the path of an insolent and defiant person. (Menorat HaMaor (Rabbi Isaac Aboab), 14th century, Spain)
  4. Everyone knows why the bride enters the bridal chamber, but if anyone speaks obscenely about it, even if seventy years of happiness have been decreed for him on high, the decree is changed for him into evil. (Talmud Ketubot 8b)
  5. A disciple of the wise should be modest at eating, at drinking, at bathing, at anointing himself, at putting on his sandals; in his walking, in dress, in the sound of his voice, in the disposal of his spittle, even in his good deeds. (Derekh Eretz Zuta 7)

Sparks for Discussion

The arrangement of the tents praised by Balaam accomplished two things: it made it more difficult for people to snoop, and it prevented people from becoming inadvertent witnesses to their neighbors' offensive, inappropriate, or private behavior. Most people associate the word tzniut, modesty, with Orthodox women's clothing, and modest dress - for men as well as women - is part of it. But modesty applies to all aspects of behavior. Modesty means avoiding behavior that distracts the people around you or screams “look at me!”

Today it is rarely possible to avoid immodesty - seeing people engaged in “public displays of affection” that inspire the thought “get a room,” hearing the details of others' medical problems or intimate relationships as they conduct cell phone conversations in public, being inundated with all types of inappropriate language and images in the media and on the internet. How do you feel when you are confronted with inappropriate behavior or language in a public place? Do you say something or do you simply turn away? Is modesty a lost cause, a relic of an earlier age, or is it worth fighting for. How do we learn to be more modest in our own behavior?

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