Bilam Ben Be’or

Who was Bilam Ben Be’or? On one hand he blessed Israel three times, one of which became part of our liturgy every time we enter a synagogue, מה טובו אהלך יעקב משכנותך ישראל, “How great are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling place O Israel.” On the other hand, he was a mercenary prophet hired by King Balak to curse Israel. Last year I spoke about how Bilam was meant to sanctify G-d’s name but instead desecrated it. This year I want to go more into the character of Bilam to determine the type of person he was.

From our parsha it does not appear that Bilam is a bad guy. He will only go with Balak with G-d’s permission and he blesses our ancestors rather than cursing them because that’s what G-d wants. However, what do we do with Parshat Matot[1] two weeks from today when we read “and Bilam the son of Be’or they killed with sword?” If Bilam was such a great guy, why would we have killed him along with the five Midianite kings? One interpretation is that Bilam had engaged in sorcery, forbidden even to non-Jews in accordance with the seven Noachide laws and punishable by the sword.[2]

Another interpretation is that Bilam tricked Israel. The Talmud teaches that Bilam recognized that he could not curse the Israelites because G-d wouldn’t allow him to. Therefore, he seduced them with the Midianite women, and they succumbed at Baal Pe’or, which resulted in 24,000 Israelites dying from a plague. Bilam went to receive an award for causing their destruction at which point Israel saw him and killed him.[3] Others say that the rulers of Midian turned on Bilam and killed him for his sorcery.[4]

However, the story gets more fascinating when considering the interpretation of Rabbi Yonatan.[5] He stated that Pinhas saw Bilam, the instigator of Baal Pe’or, and rushed to kill him. When Bilam the sinner saw Pinhas the Kohen pursuing Bilam from behind, he did a sorcery trick and floated in the air.  Immediately Pinhas mentioned the great, holy name, floated after him, grabbed him by his head and lowered him to the ground.  He pulled out a sword and sought to kill him.  Bilam opened his mouth with words of supplication and said to Pinhas “If you allow me to live, I swear to you that all of the days that I live I will not curse your nation.”  Pinhas replied to him, “Aren’t you Lavan the Aramean that you wanted to cut off Yakov our father and you went down to Egypt on account of trying to destroy his seed? After they left Egypt, you provoked them with evil Amalek, and now you have surely provoked to curse them, and since you saw that they will not be moved by your deeds, and you did not accept the words of God, you gave evil counsel to Balak to put his daughters at the crossroads to entice the Israelites, and as a result of this  24,000 of them fell.  Because of this, there is no way for you to continue to live,” and Pinhas pulled his sword from its sheath and killed Bilam.

Is it really fair to blame Bilam for Israel’s downfalls? Why does Balak get off scot-free, merely fading from the scene whereas Bilam is the one of whom an example was made? The lesson here is that the prophet is punished not for being a mercenary but because his actions led to the downfall of our ancestors. He kept trying until he was successful. Evidence of this is in Rashi’s comment “He (Bilam) set upon Israel and exchanged his craft for theirs, for they (Israel) are only victorious through verbal expression and through prayer and supplication.  He came and took their craft to curse them verbally.  So they came to him by exchanging their craft for the craft of the nations, who come with sword, as it says (Genesis 27:40) “You shall live by your sword.”[6] Bilam had seen that fighting the Israelites would not work, for they had already defeated the great armies of Sihon and Og. Therefore, he needed to speak against them. When that did not work, he got the Midianites to seduce them and turn them away from G-d. He was so determined to bring down the Israelites that he himself had to be brought down.

Where does this leave us? We are commanded to be like Aaron, to love peace and pursue peace. This does not mean to love the concept of peace but to actively pursue it in every action. Bilam represents the antithesis of this, one who loved to oppose our people and eagerly and craftily pursued ways to do so. That is why he had to be brought down.

When we are in pursuit of a philosophy or ideology, we cannot blindly run towards it, pursuing it at any cost, but rather we must be reflective of whether or not it is in our best interest. We cannot be like Bilam, who refused to see all the signs that he was going in the wrong direction, even his obstinate donkey, which instead of stepping back and reflecting on his actions blindly pursued the same course. Let us instead take the time to think about our motivations and our emotions. Are we trying to avoid someone because of feelings of enmity towards him/her? Do we hate someone because of a petty grievance? What signs are we missing that can teach us to utilize this negative energy for positive purposes? Let us also recognize that our talents come from G-d, unlike Bilam who used his prophetic abilities to serve his own ends. Ken Yhi Ratzon, may it be our will to do so.

[1] Numbers 31:8

[2] Sanhedrin 56b, retold in Baal HaTurim’s comment on Numbers 31:8

[3] Sanhedrin 106a

[4] Malbim on Numbers 31:8

[5] As told in Targum Yonatan on Numbers 31:8

[6] Rashi on Numbers 31:8


The Fiery Serpent

One of the strangest sections of the Torah appears this week. Moses and Aaron are challenged again, the people proclaiming “there is no food or water, and we are disgusted with this rotten bread.”[1] The response from G-d is to set against the people fiery snakes to bite them. According to Rashi the fire was venom which burned the people it bit.[2] Rashi views this punishment as an act of מדה כנגד מדה, a measure-for-measure punishment: as the snake was smitten for speaking wickedly, it is fitting that it punishes the people who spoke wickedly.  Likewise, as the people who complained about manna, which tasted like anything they wanted, were punished by the animal for which everything tastes the same. [3]

We know from the beginning of the Torah that snakes are not endearing animals. We have the trickster snake which entices Eve to eat the fruit in the Garden of Eden. We have Moses’ rod turning into a snake which Rashi takes as a rebuke for Moses doubting G-d.[4] Now we have snakes afflicting the Israelites. What’s even more bizarre is that the when the Israelites cry out to G-d, He tells Moses to construct a fiery seraph[5] and hang it on a pole and when those bitten look at it they will recover. Moses follows G-d’s command, making a copper snake, a נחש נחשת, which healed our ancestors of their afflictions.

Why create a serpent to look at? Isn’t this a form of idolatry? Why not tell the Israelites to pray to G-d? As a matter of fact the Mishnah[6] does just that, proclaiming “at such time as the Israelites directed their thoughts on high and kept their hearts in subjection to their Father in Heaven, they were healed; otherwise they died.” Similarly the Zohar[7] states “as soon as the victim turns his eyes and sees the likeness of the serpent, he becomes filled with awe and prays to G-d, knowing that this was the punishment that he deserved.”

However, are these serpents really a sign of G-d rather than of an alternative deity? While the original intent might be for the serpent to be a sign for one to turn to G-d, we see later in the Bible that it became viewed as a separate deity. We learn that King Hezekiah destroyed “the brazen serpent that Moses had made for in those days the children of Israel made offerings to it; and it was called Nehushtan.”[8] The Torah does not give a name to the serpent presumably because it was a tangible emanation of G-d. By turning to it in repentance, our ancestors were healed from their snakebites. As we learn from the Talmud,[9] it was not the serpent that healed the Israelites but rather their looking up and submitting themselves to G-d. However, over time the serpent became viewed as a deity on its own, having been given a name and receiving its own offerings.

Was this snake ever meant to promote worship of our G-d or was it taken from a religion who worshipped the snake? While we can speculate about the origin of the snake, it is clear that snakes have played a vital role in our sacred text. The first reference to the snake is that it was cleverer  ( ערום) than any other animal[10]. Although its cleverness would prove to be its undoing, the snake has remained a key figure in our tradition. The same seraph, or winged, fiery snake described in our sedra, becomes one of the classifications of angels up in heaven. The seraphim are the angels that cry out קדוש קדוש קדוש ה צבאות מלא כל הארץ כבודו-Holy Holy Holy is the LORD of Hosts; the entire earth is filled with his glory![11] These seraphim maintain a lofty place in the celestial realms as messengers of G-d and as angels which proclaim G-d’s greatness. They represent what the serpent was supposed to be before its fall in the Garden of Eden: an intelligent, exalted creature of high magnitude.

Things are not always as they appear prima facie. The snake of the Garden of Eden is a messenger of G-d, sent not to give into temptation. The snakes which bite the people are also messengers of G-d to be grateful for what you have and not take it for granted. The snake, the animal which punishes the people, also saves them from death, for G-d can use any creature or any representation as a means through which to bring about salvation. It is this lesson that we need to remember: nothing is good or bad per se; what’s important is what it represents at any given moment in time. We need to remember that everything comes from G-d and can be used for good or for bad. The snake can represent G-d’s great power, messenger of G-d, or become worshipped in and of itself, devoid of the Almighty. We need to keep it as the former, a symbol of G-d’s great power.

[1] Numbers 21:5

[2] Rashi on Numbers 21:6

[3] Ibid

[4] Rashi on Exodus 4:3

[5] A snake with wings, taken by our tradition to be one of the types of angels.

[6] Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 3:5

[7] Zohar Shelach Lecha 175

[8] 2 Kings 18:4

[9] Rosh Hashanah 29a

[10] Genesis 3:1

[11] Isaiah 6:3

Sweeping Out Evil

One of the most common refrains in the Torah after a punishment is enacted is ובערת הרע מקרבך that you shall “sweep out evil from your midst.”[1] It’s not uncommon to find sinners who receive the ultimate punishment: death. At the same time, there is a discrepancy between this week’s portion and last week’s in terms of how Moses and Aaron respond to the evil. The punishment for the Israelites’ being influenced by the 10 spies who gave bad reports after scouting out the land for 40 days was to wander in the desert for 40 years, each year corresponding to a day that the spies had scouted. Every single Israelite from “the old generation” will die, making way for a new generation who will conquer the land. G-d was planning to destroy the people in that instant. Moses did not deny G-d’s ruling that the entire nation is unjust, only challenging their destruction in that moment. He states that if G-d destroys them now, His reputation will suffer, for the other nations will murmur, “G-d brought out this people from Egypt only to kill them in the desert.”[2]

One parsha later and once again Moses and Aaron’s authority is challenged. Once again, G-d threatens to destroy everyone, and Moses and Aaron intervene. The difference, however, is Moses and Aaron’s response: “if one man sins shall You be angry with the entire congregation?”[3] Why did Moses and Aaron blame the entire people for rebelling in the incident of the spies, whereas here they seem to put all of the blame on Korach?

Rabbenu Hananel from 11th century North Africa deals with this quandary. He states, “if the Israelites had in no way sinned or rebelled against their master, why the anger against them and the threat to consume them in an instant? If they too had rebelled like Korah and his band how could Moses and Aaron say ‘Shall you punish the entire congregation for one man’s sin?”[4] The answer he gives is that G-d had only intended to punish “the congregation of Korah” and not the entire community of Israel. However, Rabbi Yitzhak Arama writes that not all of Israel had sinned with the Golden Calf yet there G-d also states that he would consume the entire nation. He concludes, “The individual is part of the whole; just as the whole man is sick even when only one part of his body is affected.”[5] This is related to the statement כל ישראל ערבים זה בזה, all of Israel is responsible for one another.[6] We are not an assortment of individuals but rather one community, so if someone acts wrongly, it is our responsibility to correct it in that moment, הוכח תוכיח את עמיתך.[7]

How do we feel about this notion of collective punishment? We certainly have precedent for it in the Torah. After all the continuation of the 13 attributes of G-d reads פוקד עון אבות על בנים ועל בני בנים על שלשים ועל רבעים, “G-d revisits the sins of the fathers on their children and on the children’s children to the third and fourth generation.”[8]  At the same time, we have the statement from Deuteronomy, “Parents shall not be put to death for the sins of children nor children for the sins of their parents: a person shall only be judged for his/her own crime.”[9] How do we reconcile the two? Some argue that collective punishment is necessary in order to truly wipe out evil, that by punishing not only the perpetrator but his/her entire household, we set an example that evil actions will not be tolerated, and we deter others from acting accordingly. Others assert that it is unjust to punish someone for a crime they did not commit and that we can only target the perpetrators.

How is evil best uprooted-through targeting everyone who is influenced by the evil or just those actively perpetuating it? Some would argue the former because just targeting terrorists and not their loved ones leaves alive those who have been motivated by their train of thought and who might very well commit an attack in the future. Others assert that we cannot collectively punish an entire group based off the actions of an individual terrorist. It is not for us to decide this question today but rather to recognize that in this case Moses did not propose attacking all of Israel, just taking out the ringleaders. At the same time, the way he and his closest followers were “taken out,” being swallowed up by the earth, set an example that stopped others from challenging Moses’ and Aaron’s leadership. May we recognize the best approach to sweep out evil in our day and age and utilize this to build a community which serves the high ideals emphasized by our tradition.

[1] See Deuteronomy 13:6 and 17:7; Also Deuteronomy 17:12 for a reference to ובערת הרע מישראל.

[2] Based off Numbers 14:16

[3] Numbers 16:22

[4] Rabbenu Hananel on Numbers 16:22

[5] Akedat Yitzhak on Numbers 16:22

[6] Babylonian Talmud Shavuot 39a

[7] Leviticus 19:17

[8] Exodus 34:9. A contemporary understanding of this is that the children learn from the parents’ example, so they internalize their parents’ sins and perpetuate them onto the next generation.

[9] Deuteronomy 24:16

The Meaning of Minyan

What’s the source of our synagogue’s greatest strength? I would argue that it is having two daily minyanim. The minyanim enable people to fulfill their daily prayer obligations as well as for mourners to say the Kaddish, elevating their loved one’s soul ever higher. We know that the name of G-d is elevated when ten Jews gather for worship, and this is why G-d’s name is added to the Birkat HaMazon (prayer for after meals) every time there are ten Jews who eat together. However, why is a minyan required and why specifically ten individuals?

Ironically, one of the sources for the Minyan requiring ten comes from this week’s reading. The Jerusalem Talmud uses the technique of a Gezerah Shavah, or the same word appearing in two biblical verses, to derive this. It first references Parshat Kedoshim, which states דבר אל כל עדת בני ישראל ואמרת עליהם קדושים תהיו, “Speak to the entire congregation of Israel and say to them ‘You shall be holy.’”[1] The entire Israelite community is supposed to imitate G-d in being holy. However, our portion is then cited to indicate this was not the case, as 10 of the spies returned with negative reports and tried to get the Israelite community to return to Egypt. Because of this, G-d told Moses עד מתי לעדה הרעה הזאת אשר המה מלינים אותי, “How much longer will this evil congregation mutter against me?”[2]  As these 10 individuals representing 10 of the tribes of Israel did not have faith in G-d, they represent an “evil congregation.” In contrast, we are commanded to be “holy” through gathering 10 individuals to sing G-d’s praises at each and every service.[3]

Why pray to G-d three times a day with 10 people? If we have 9 or 8 is G-d no longer there? I don’t think that’s what the Talmud is saying but it is indicating that something is lost if a minyan is not present. Through being part of a minyan we are more than just a collection of individuals-we are individuals coming together as a community to invoke our belief in G-d and our faith in G-d’s sovereignty. In a minyan, the שליח צבור, or prayer leader, concludes each blessing, and the others respond אמן. אמן does not just mean “I agree” but rather comes from the word אמונה, meaning “faith.” Through participating in a minyan, we are demonstrating that we publicly affirm our Creator and thus counteract the negative message of the spies. The ten spies were wrong not necessarily in their report but because they didn’t have faith that G-d would help them conquer the Promised Land. As Caleb and Joshua replied, “If G-d is pleased with us, He will bring us into that land, a land that flows with milk and honey, and give it to us; only you must not rebel against G-d.”[4]

The Ishbitzer Rebbe in his book מי השילוח uses the example of the spies to indicate the power of prayer.[5] He references the Zohar, stating that there are three worlds to G-d: a world in which He is hidden and about which is not known, a world in which He always makes himself known and a world in which He makes himself both known and unknown. One who does not find any benefit in prayer corresponds to the world in which G-d is not known, because G-d removes His glory from such an individual. The world in which He is always known corresponds to the person who always helps and aides others and doesn’t need to rely on prayer to G-d. The world in which G-d makes Himself both known and unknown corresponds to the person who needs prayer in order to reach G-d. For the Ishbitzer, the 10 evil spies correspond to those who don’t find any benefit in prayer. What their eyes see is all that matters, and they do not rely at all on G-d. Caleb corresponds to the one to whom G-d both reveals Himself and does not. When Caleb first addresses the ten spies, he says “Let us by all means go up and we shall take possession of it, for we shall surely overcome it.”[6] He does not mention G-d, just his belief in the people. The 10 spies counter him stating “we cannot attack that people, for it is stronger than we.”[7] It’s Caleb’s word against theirs, and they win over the masses. It is not until Joshua, one to whom G-d always reveals himself, intervenes that the people are able to be shushed. Joshua has Divine inspiration and he knows what to do to quiet the people. He leads Caleb in the rending of their clothes and rebuking the others for their lack of faith in G-d, for how quickly they spurned G-d for a different path.

I imagine that most of us are like Caleb. We wouldn’t be here today if we saw no benefit to prayer-instead we’d be at the beach or doing a BBQ. At the same time, we don’t necessarily find G-d in every aspect of our lives without prayer. It would be great to always be imbued with Divine inspiration but at times we are left bereft and needing to search for it. That is why Caleb is the prime example for us of someone to whom G-d revealed Himself to at times yet was hidden from at others, and he needed prayer in order to connect with G-d. That is the primary purpose of minyan: to come together to pray to G-d, to sing G-d’s praises, to thank G-d, to ask G-d questions, even to cry out to G-d in anger sometimes. That is why it is so significant that regardless the size of our congregation, we have maintained a twice daily minyan 365 days of the year. In so doing we are showing our faith in Hashem and in the power of prayer. Let us continue to find G-d in our prayer and increase the frequency that we come together to affirm our faith in G-d through our participation in minyan.

[1] Leviticus 19:2

[2] Numbers 14:27

[3] Based off Yerushalmi Megillah 4:4

[4] Numbers 14:8-9

[5] Mei HaShiloach, comment on שלח לך אנשים

[6] Numbers 13:30

[7] Numbers 13:31