A double portion. Chukkat: purity, death, water, 38 years in 87 verses. Balak: a worried king, a puffed-up sorcerer, a talking ass (literally), and a nasty ending.
Comments are based on 2016-Chukkat and 2017-Balak.
Chukkat starts with the laws of the red heifer, parah adumah, for ritual purification after contact with a corpse. An unblemished, completely red-haired, unworked heifer is sacrificed and burned to ashes outside the camp, along with cedar, wood, hyssop, and tola’at shani (red bug or worm, a red dye source). The ashes are kept outside the camp. A mixture of water and ashes is sprinkled on the person who needs to be purified. This is an example of a chok (long o), a command that has no rational explanation. Naturally, commentators have tried to explain it anyway. For example, Rabbi David Stav writes, “Why ashes? Why a cow? And why did it need to be red?… An explanation is offered in another Midrash: ‘Why the red heifer? To atone for the sin that was done with the golden calf. …All sins are red, so the heifer must be red. And when ashes of the heifer are burnt, they turn white, as it is said: ‘if your sins are red as scarlet, they will become white as snow’… (Yishayahu / Isaiah 1:18).”
According to Rashi, everything from Chapter 20 onwards takes place in the 40th year in the wilderness, so we have a gap of over 38 years with nothing worth writing about. We’ll read a travelogue of those years in a few weeks. For now, it’s mainly sealing fates and segueing from the slave generation to the free one.
Water, always important in the wilderness, figures at several critical points. Miriam dies, and the people complain there’s no water (leading commentators to posit a miraculous well that followed the Israelites until her death). And the Israelites start whining that they should have died like their brethren: “Why did you make us leave Egypt to bring us to this wretched place, a place with no grain or figs or vines or pomegranates? There is not even water to drink!”(20:4-5) Instead of happily anticipating the bounty of the Promised Land, they (the remaining ex-slaves) realize they will never experience it; they will eat nothing but manna until they drop dead in the wilderness (which will be soon if they don’t find water). Really, do you blame them?
Moses is told by the Lord to speak to a rock to get water, but instead he loses his temper and strikes it, saying, “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” The people get their water, but Moses and Aaron are refused entry into the Promised Land. Such a harsh punishment has had the commentators scratching their heads ever since. Basically, the miracle would have been a lot more impressive if Moses had just spoken to the rock. Also, Moses implied that he and Aaron were responsible for it (“shall we get’). And the brothers were part of the condemned generation and a little old (123 and 120) to lead a military conquest of the Promised Land.
Then Edom refuses passage across their land, even if the Israelites pay for their water. Aaron dies and his son Elazar becomes High Priest. The people complain about the lack of water and the omnipresence of manna, are attacked by serpents (a change from plagues), repent, and are saved by a copper serpent made by Moses. They sing their gratitude for the well of water now following them. They win battles against local chieftains Sihon and Og. Finally, the Israelites are encamped in the plains of Moab, on the bank of the Jordan River opposite Jericho. The end of their journey is in sight. Despair is replaced by hope.
Parashat Balak is one of a handful of Torah portions named for a non-Israelite, and its featured character is another non-Israelite. The Israelites do not appear until the last nine verses, (spoiler alert) which relate an episode of apostasy and bloody retribution (to be continued next week). The style of the story varies from slapstick to poetry. In fact R’ David Frankel, in The Prehistory of the Balaam Story, posits it is actually a composite of at least two earlier stories, one about Balak and the other about Bil’am (That’s the modern Hebrew pronunciation. My scholarly brother told me that “Balaam” is probably closer to the ancient Hebrew.). Commentators have also identified three different “Bil’ams” in the text: a genuine, if limited, prophet who is basically a good guy; a conceited buffoon; and a treacherous villain.
The story: Balak, king of Moab, is alarmed at news of the military successes of the Israelites. He decides to hire Bil’am ben Beor, a reputed prophet/sorcerer, to curse the Israelites. Bil’am actually does have some connection to the Lord, which he exploits for material, rather than spiritual, advantage. Bil’am dutifully asks the Lord about the proposed undertaking and is told it’s useless: the Israelites are blessed by the Lord. Nevertheless, enticed by flattery and the promise of riches, Bil’am really wants to go. He seems to receive contradictory divine responses (not really – it’s a question of his being given the chance to choose correctly and of the difference between actually joining Balak’s men and just physically accompanying them), assumes it’s OK, and enthusiastically sets out.
Annoyed, the Lord sends a fiery, sword-wielding angel to block his path. Only his female donkey can see the angel, and she refuses to move forward. He beats her three times, until the poor thing turns around and complains. Yes, by talking. Now he can see and listen to the angel. [This story invariably leads to cutesy wordplay by modern commentators, like What Can a Donkey Teach a Jackass? (Robert L. Deffinbaugh ), Is the Ass a Prophet or is the Prophet an Ass? (Carol Ochs), and Bil’am as a prophet made a fool by an ass (R’ Joel Alter).]
Anyhow, every time Bil’am tries to curse the Israelite camp, he blesses them instead. In dismay, Balak moves him around so he can see the camp from a different perspective, as if that would help. It doesn’t. Words from of one of the blessings have even become part of our liturgy, “Mah tovu ohalekha Ya’akov…,” “How good are your tents, Jacob..,” 24:5. The third time Bil’am speaks, he is actually, genuinely, divinely inspired, not just speaking words put into his mouth by the Lord. However, he soon descends from these spiritual heights to instigate a plan to destroy the Israelites internally, which we’ll review next week.
The whole thing feels force fit into the Torah. In Fear, Truth and a Donkey, R’ Joel Alter writes, “What is this slapstick figure doing here in the Torah?” Fear and truth drive the story. Truth is what Balak and Bil’am try to deny: “What’s going on in the story of Balak and Bilam is a doomed attempt to change what is, and will remain, true.”
What R’ Jan Uhrbach writes in Dreaming of Being Balaam is probably the most imaginative take, if difficult to swallow: “… perhaps the story is instead a dream Moses dreams. … It is not a stretch to imagine Moses plagued with doubts about his legacy, his authenticity, and his character… Or perhaps Moses identifies even more closely with the donkey.” [Yes, I remember that season of Dallas that was subsequently erased by declaring it to have been a dream.]
Finally, JTS Chancellor Arnold Eisen (Penn, 1973), in A People Dwelling Apart, focuses on how Bil’am describes Israel as a people dwelling apart (or alone) (23:8-9). This has been a key issue throughout the history of the Jewish people. To what degree do we stay apart? How do we balance an inward versus outward focus? Eisen writes:
“Parashat Balak gives expression to the fact that the balance is often hard to strike. But Torah—our covenant with God and one another—impels Jews to care about and cooperate with others, even as it mandates that we preserve our differences and, to some degree, our distance.”
Shabbat shalom, Happy Independence Day, and stay well,
Just a sampling of what’s at this site:
Red hair (or ginger hair) occurs naturally in one to two percent of the human population
The term redhead has been in use since at least 1510.
Red hair is caused by a relatively rare recessive allele (variant of a gene), the expression of which can skip generations. It is not likely to disappear at any time in the foreseeable future.
Quotes about Water
A woman is like a tea bag – you can’t tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water. Eleanor Roosevelt
When a child is locked in the bathroom with water running and he says he’s doing nothing but the dog is barking, call 911. Erma Bombeck
Soap and water and common sense are the best disinfectants. William Osler
My books are like water; those of the great geniuses are wine. (Fortunately) everybody drinks water. Mark Twain
When the well is dry, they know the worth of water. Benjamin Franklin
It’s just coming into winter where I live, so I pitched a tent and put a disco ball inside.
Because now is the winter of my disco tent.
I was on a camping trip when the coronavirus outbreak was announced. To try to stop the spread, we stayed in our tents all day. I guess you could say,
the camping trip was in tents.
Did you know you can’t run through a campground?
You can only ran… ’cause it’s past tents.
I was out camping one night just laying down in my sleeping bag and looking up at the stars wondering….
Where the hell is my tent?
I lost 25% of my tent.
But it’s okay, now I have ten.