Blog Chukkat – Balak Tammuz 12 5780 בלוג חֻקַּת –בָּלָק, י”ב תמוז תש”פ

Chukkat means an ordinance that we do not understand but we need to keep, out of sheer obedience to the Creator. Here we read about the parah adumah – פָרָה אֲדֻמָּ, red heifer, which was “innocent, whole, complete, blameless, simple, etc” (תְּמִימָה t’mimah), about three years old which had never borne a yoke nor had any blemish. The midrashim have various explanations for the red heifer. One is that the red heifer is the mother who paid for the sin of the “golden calf”, represented as her son. The Hebrew language speaks to us through pictures. Red represents life since life is in the blood (Lev.17:11). They say that even King Solomon was not able to comprehend the red heifer. The religious have interpreted this to mean that she could not be acceptable if she had even one white hair. Does the Creator ask us to fulfill certain requirements that are impossible and then punishes us when we fail? Many people believe and have accepted that the Creator toys with us as if He wants us to fail. That would negate the idea of Bechirah Chofshit – בחירה חופשית Free Will and Kavanah –כונה – Intention. We forget that the Creator never used theology, rather He spoke to the people in a way that they could understand Him. If the Creator asked for a red heifer, He would supply one that He would accept.

In Chukkat the Creator had the priest prepare “מֵי הַנִּדָּה mei haniddah” translated as the water of purification. In order to truly understand the Torah, it is necessary to get into the minds of the people who lived four thousand years ago. They were highly superstitious and thought in very simplistic terms. This concoction was similar to the one used in the story of the jealous husband (Numbers 5:11-31- the sota). At that time, a man had total power over the life and death of his wife. If he suspected her of cheating, he would take her to the priest who had her drink a certain mixture of elements including the dust from the Mishkan – Sanctuary. If she was innocent nothing would happen, but if she was guilty, she would probably refuse to drink it out of fear of how it would affect her. It was based upon the psychology of superstition.

In this case of the mei haniddah, the concoction was prepared in advance by the priests and was comprised of similar elements to the water that cleansed the lepers (cedar-wood, hyssop, scarlet and the ashes of the red heifer). It was used for anyone who came in contact with a corpse or the bones of the dead. In Judaism, when someone in our immediate family dies, we sit shiva, seven days of mourning. Family and friends come to visit us and help to lighten our grief. Some sages say that this tradition was derived from Chukkat when we were separated from the community for seven days after touching a cadaver. After that period of time, the person could return to the Mishkan.

Interestingly, the person who was sprinkled with this water became clean (tahor) while the priest who prepared it was declared unclean (tamei). How could the mei haniddah, sprinkled upon the person on the third and seventh day, help them? Without realizing it, the person in mourning was undergoing a psychological process similar to counselling where the patient is able to unburden himself to the counsellor and is alleviated, while the counsellor receives it all upon himself. This is a beautiful picture of spiritual symbiosis.

The second part of this double portion, Balak would be better named Bilaam – בִּלְעָם, the etymology of which is “bli am – בלי עם ”, “without people” showing how self-centered he was. Bilaam was a Gentile prophet of the God of Israel. He had been given the power to bless and to curse similar to our father Abraham, another Gentile (Gen 12:3), “I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you”. It seems, at first glance, that Bilaam was totally dedicated to the Creator when he refused to curse the people of Israel at the time that he was first approached by King Balak. He consulted the Bore Olam and followed His instructions. The second time, he made it clear that he couldn’t curse them, but he decided to go with them anyway. On the way, Bilaam’s faithful donkey spoke to him and tried to stop him. The donkey was able to see what this important and powerful prophet could not see. These pictures were given to us to teach us principles. The simplest of creatures, human or otherwise, can be closer to the Creator than the highest and proudest of us all. Bilaam gave Israel a blessing that is still sung in synagogues all over the world today. Numbers 24:5. “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel!” מַה-טֹּבוּ אֹהָלֶיךָ, יַעֲקֹב; מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶיךָ, יִשְׂרָאֵל Bilaam could not curse Israel but later he would tell Balak how Israel could be destroyed from within by going against the instructions of the Creator. Bilaam could be bought and found ways to circumvent the Creator’s instructions.

We can relate this to the situation in the world today. I am a Zionist, a believer in Israel but I am not blinded to her faults. Israel wants to be accepted more by the world than by the Creator. The problem in Israel is neither the religious factions nor the corrupt politicians, it is the people who allow them to remain in power. How many of us, even though we have received the Creator’s revelation, act sometimes like Bilaam? We prefer to be accepted and recognized by people than to be true to His directions.

Tahor and Tamei mean to be in the condition acceptable or unacceptable to approach the Creator. That is why we speak about teshuva so that we are able to face Him. Anything within us that is tamei holds us back from coming clean to Him. Bilaam represents the understanding that even though we have been endowed with so much by our Creator, we prefer to be accepted by the world, so we play the religious game of being everything to everyone. We were not called to be judges or condemn others, but we are called to stand up for His principles and let people know His Truth even if it is not popular. Let us not compromise ourselves and be the Bilaams of today.