‘The Forest and the Trees’ Parashat Balak / Chukat 5779

Mr. Leiden, my science teacher in junior high school, often accused me of “not being able to see the forest because of the trees.” Last week, while trying to find a topic for this lesson, I understood exactly what he meant.

Preparation for one of these lessons typically begins on a Friday morning the week before. I open a Chumash and read over the verses. Sometimes I’ll look at a particular commentary that happens to tickle my fancy that year[1]. This year, I found something interesting to write about Parashat Balak. I was trying to understand how G-d could tell Balaam to go with King Balak’s emissaries and then suddenly become angry when Balaam actually goes with them. For some reason, I paused in order to zoom out and look at the entire picture. Seeing the forest entirely changed the way I understand this entire Parasha.

Let me explain: Last week (in Israel and this week in the Diaspora), we read Parashat Chukat, a parasha that begins with the discussion of the Red Heifer. The Torah introduces the Red Heifer with the words [Bemidbar 19:2] “This is the ritual law (chok) that G-d has commanded…” In last week’s lesson, we explained that the Red Heifer is the archetype of a chok – a “suprarational” commandment that defies human logic. Other examples include the entire concept of Kashrut, ritual purity and impurity, and shaatnez – the prohibition of wearing wool and linen together. Here is an exercise: Imagine that the Torah did not call the Red Heifer the ultimate chok. Which commandment would you choose as your ultimate chok – a commandment that makes absolutely no sense or at least gets as close to absolute zero as (meta)physically possible[2]?

The commandment that I would choose is, at first glance, not even a chok. In fact, this particular commandment seems to make perfect sense. I am referring to the prohibition of marrying an Ammonite or a Moabite [Devarim 23:4-6]: “An Ammonite or Moabite shall not enter the assembly of G-d… Because they did not greet you with bread and water on the way, when you left Egypt and because [the people of Moab] hired Balaam the son of Beor from Petor in Aram Nahara’im against you, to curse you. But G-d did not want to listen to Balaam. So G-d transformed the curse into a blessing for you because G-d loves you.” The prohibition is a sort of quid pro quo: The Ammonites and the Moabites acted in a way unbefitting of Jews[3] and so they were banned from ever becoming Jewish. Let’s take a closer look at their actions. Their first faux-pas, not offering water to the Jewish People, is not explicitly written anywhere in the Torah. The commentators offer a wide array of explanations to reconcile this verse with the verses in the Book of Bemidbar that describe the encounters between the Jewish People and the nations they met on their way to Israel. Moab’s second misdeed seems much more clear-cut. They hired the prophet Balaam to curse the Jewish People. The entire episode is written very clearly in Parashat Balak in chapters 22-24 in the Book of Bemidbar.

The reason I consider the prohibition of intermarriage with Moabites to be the biggest chok in the Torah stems from the Torah’s second justification – their hiring of Balaam. What is so suprarational about that? This week, off the coast of Queensland in northern Australia, the navies of the United States, Australia, Canada and Japan are participating in a joint exercise called “Talisman Sabre”. Coincidentally, a Type 815G Dongdiao-class electronic surveillance ship of the Chinese Navy is now anchored north of Papua New Guinea, about two thousand kilometres from Australia. The ship is travelling in international waters and it has every right to be there. However, it is entirely clear that this ship will soon be making its way down the coast of Queensland in an effort to electronically snoop in on the allied war games. The Australian Defence Department said it “was aware that there will likely be interest from other countries in exercise Talisman Sabre”. Interest? Well, that’s an understatement. The Chinese are gathering intelligence on an allied battle-group that looks very much like something that they might see in a future Pacific conflict . They’re going to want to know exactly what’s going on those boats and they have the means to find out.

Let’s take a closer look at the goings-on in Parashat Balak: King Balak of Moab hires the prophet Balaam to curse the Jewish People. Balaam consults with G-d and gets what he believes to be a green light. He is, of course, mistaken and even his ox tries to prevent him from going to Moab. Balaam is persistent: three times he tries to curse the Jewish People and three times G-d twists his words so that he ends up blessing them. Balak fires Balaam and Balaam goes home. The End. But here’s a question: Assuming Moses did not have access to advanced Chinese listening devices, how could he know of the strategic conversations that took place between Balak and Balaam? They were the  only two witnesses to the entire episode! How could Moses know of Balaam’s flowery language as he struggled to condemn the Jewish People to death? How could he write the whole thing down in the Torah? The answer to these questions is trivial: G-d heard everything and He relayed it to Moses for inclusion in the Torah. But here’s the thing: When the Torah attributes Balak’s attempt to curse the Jewish People as the cause for their permanent exclusion from the Jewish People, it is treating the episode as historically factual. This is what the Moabites did and this is the result. But because there were no witnesses, the only way the episode can only be considered historically factual is if complete credibility is given to Moses’ prophetic prowess. Is that so strange? There are many sections of the Torah that were not personally witnessed by Moses, for instance, the creation of the world. What is so special about Balak and Balaam? The reason that this particular instance stands out is that in this particular instance, the complete accuracy of Moses’ prophecy is woven into the fabric of Jewish Law. While the episode may have transpired in Moses’ mind, the Torah treats it as though he saw it with his own eyes. There is no law more suprarational than this.

This idea can explain a cryptic piece of Talmud in Tractate Bava Batra [14b] where the Talmud is attributing authorship to the various books of the Bible. The Talmud writes “Moses wrote his own book (the Torah), the portion of Balaam in the Torah, and the book of Job.” Isn’t “the portion of Balaam in the Torah” also written in the Torah? What is the Talmud coming to add? The answer is that we might have thought that the story of Balaam, as it appears in the Torah, is no different than the story of the exodus from Egypt as it appears in the Torah. Moses was witness to both events and he wrote them both down as he saw them. The Talmud is telling us that there is a huge difference between the two events. Moses witnessed the Ten Plagues inflicted on the Egyptians. He walked through the Reed Sea. He climbed Mount Sinai to receive the Torah. He could write down these historic events because he participated in them. The “portion of Balaam in the Torah” is completely different. Moses did not participate in this event. But as far as the Talmud is concerned, Moses was on the Dongdiao, electronically listening in to Balak and Balaam.

It is interesting to note that the same “portion in the Torah” that illustrates the absolute purity of Moses’ prophecy is the very same portion in the Torah that illustrates the dangers of prophecy gone bad. What is important is not the power that you have, but the way that you wield your power.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5779

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza and Moshe David ben Gisha.

[1] This year I am looking at short, pithy, explanations from second-tier Hassidic Rabbis. Really.

[2] The most uncomfortable chok is the obligation to put on tefillin in an airport.

[3] The Talmud in Tractate Yevamot [69a] identifies three traits that are burnt into Jewish DNA. One of these traits is a burning desire to commit wanton acts of kindness. A nation that shows cruelty on a national scale cannot be Jewish.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty-five years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science", and his speaking events are regularly sold-out. Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA and Canada. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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