CCAR Newsletter May - June 2017 - 3
(Continued from page 3)
precisely what he should do, Moses makes the
wrong decision: rather than speaking to the rock,
he hits it in a monumental show of anger.
The punishment for making the wrong decision
is devastating: God bans them from entering
the land of Canaan; they are condemned to die
in the wilderness. Without scope for appeal nor
opportunity for a change of mind, Moses and
Aaron have condemned themselves through their
own actions. They must await their fate. It is a
timely reminder to us all to decide wisely, and well.
Peace that is achieved through zealotry cannot be
whole and complete.
Balak #1 (Ruth Adar)
In 1967, at Deir Alla, Jordan, approximately 8
km east of the Jordan River, archaeologists found
an inscription relating visions of the "seer of the
gods Balaam, son of Be'or." It was a startling find,
since "Balaam, son of Be'or" is the central figure
of Parashat Balak in our Torah. However, instead
of being a prophet of the Hebrew God, in the Deir
Alla inscription he is associated with a number
of deities, including "the Shaddai gods" and the
In the inscription, the gods tell Balaam that the
world will be destroyed. The disaster is explained
to him via animals: birds shrieking, animals of the
field and herd disrupted. He is able to avert the
disaster, although the details are lost to damage to
While there are many important differences
between the Balaam of Parashat Balak and
the Balaam of the inscription, one striking
similarity is the communication with animals.
In Torah, the seer has a donkey who speaks to
him. In the inscription, birds communicate the
news. In another similarity, both stories concern
communications that entail deadly serious subject
matter: in Torah, a curse to be put upon the
Israelites; in the Deir Alla inscription, news of the
end of the world.
In the present time, we also receive messages
from the natural world: warnings conveyed by the
migration of polar bears, warnings communicated
through the shifting of fish in the sea. Like the
ancient Balaam, whoever he was, we ignore these
messages at our peril.
Balak #2 (Charles Middleburgh)
If we can derive anything from the comedic
story of Balaam and his she-ass, beyond its
clear statement of Balaam's stupidity and shortsightedness, it is the fact that animals are often
much more percipient and quick-witted than
intelligence. It should also alert us to the crimes we
perpetrate against them: laboratory experiments,
innate cruelty, the quest for food that could just
as easily come from other sources, and the lust
for their riches (such as ivory or the despicable
hunting of whales) are entirely indefensible.
Balaam threatens his ass with violence, but it is
she who sees the sword-wielding angel blocking
their path. Had she not seen the angel, the "great
seer" who communed with God but was blind to
what stood before him would have been struck
down. Balaam claims to be a prophet, but it is
the ass who speaks the wisest words.
Many famous people have been credited with
saying, "The more I come to know people, the
more I love my dog."
All this reminds us of the importance of animals:
They sense and become aware of things before
we do and, in many cases, exhibit greater
Seen in this light, Balaam and his ass become
nothing less than paradigms: he for the crass
myopia of people, she for the suffering of an
innocent animal kingdom. As we ponder this
thought, I am sure that we should not ignore the
fact that in the final analysis it is the beast, and
not the man, who is vindicated.
Pinchas (Michael Boyden)
Who would have thought that religious zealotry
would still be an issue in the 21st century? We
are all too familiar with the ruthless violence of
the Taliban and ISIS, but religious extremism sadly
also exists in other societies-including our own.
This week's parashah tells of how Aaron's
grandson, Pinchas, impales Zimri and Cozbi,
who are involved in coitus. Torah justifies their
slaughter on the grounds of the spread of
idolatry within the Israelite community.
Indeed, God appears to condone Pinchas's
action. Pinchas ... has turned back My wrath....
Therefore, tell him that I grant him a covenant of
Why, then, is Pinchas rewarded with "a covenant
of peace"? A closer look at the word shalom
(Numbers 25:12) shows that the letter vav is written
defectively and is cut in the middle, turning it into
shaleim. Rabbi Judah comments that the covenant
of peace will only be conferred upon Pinchas when
he is whole (shaleim)-but not when he is deficient
(BT Kiddushin 62b).
Matot-Mas'ei (Amy Scheinerman)
Two 18th-century Hasidic views on the opening of
Parashat Mas'ei and its peculiarly worded account
of the Israelites' journey through the wilderness
provide food for thought and discussion in the 21st
century. "Moses wrote of their departures and their
journeys according to Adonai," and then, "These
are their journeys according to their departures"
First view: The Isbitza Rebbe, Mordechai Yosef
Leiner (1765-1827), in Mei HaShiloach, associates
the first mention of Israel's journeys-"according
to Adonai"-with God's viewpoint by which all
Israelites, regardless of their moral behavior,
"all live in an existence coming from God's
essence...there is no advantage in one's actions."
Accordingly, every Israelite "found grace and
goodness with God" and experienced redemption.
"Their journeys according to their departures"
reflects the human perspective where "one
acquires goodness by means of actions and trials."
How do we balance the two?
Second view: The Chozeh of Lublin, Yaakov Yitzhak
Horowitz (1745-1815), in Divrei Emet, learns from
R. Bachya ibn Pakuda that the same two phrases
in Numbers 33:2 allude to two rungs on the
spiritual ladder. Abraham exemplifies the higher
rung: "[He] attained the entire Torah before it was
given." Abraham was able to perceive the depth
of Torah's spiritual qualities and adhere to God
without its laws. Concerning the lower rung, "In the
exile of Egypt, our ancestors became coarsened.
We needed to receive the Torah first, in order to
become attached to God." Moses, the prophets,
and the Israelites needed both the Written and the
Oral Torahs to teach Abraham's spiritual level.
peace (Numbers 25:11-12).
This episode stands in marked contrast to Hillel's
statement that we should be Aaron's disciples,
loving peace, pursuing peace, and loving
humanity (Pirkei Avot 1:12).
At one time or another, we all (both individuals
and societies) have to contend with the dissonance
between our hopes and how things turn out. Both in
the United States and Israel, reality is often different
from what our founding ancestors envisaged.
The Talmud is clearly unhappy with the story.
R. Chisda says that if Zimri had left Cozbi and
Pinchas had killed him, then Pinchas would have
been guilty of murder. Furthermore, if Zimri had
turned over and killed Pinchas, then Zimri would
not have been punished, because he would have
acted in self-defense (BT Sanhedrin 82a).
Moses was filled with optimism. Adonai, the God
of your ancestors, will increase your numbers a
thousand-fold and bless you as [God] promised
you (Deuteronomy 1:11).
Fast-forward six hundred years to the period
prior to the destruction of the First Temple and
(Continued on page 5)
Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of CCAR Newsletter May - June 2017
CCAR Newsletter May - June 2017 - 1
CCAR Newsletter May - June 2017 - 2
CCAR Newsletter May - June 2017 - 3
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