Posted on March 23, 2011
by David Farber
This week’s Torah portion is a combination of two parshiot, Chukat and Balak, so I decided to write a little about both.
The obvious choice for discussion in the Parasha Chukat is about the Parah Adumah, or Red Heifer. The Red Heifer was used in the ritual purification of people and objects that had come in contact with someone who had died. This ritual has often baffled Religious scholars though. It is said that King Solomon once declared: “I have labored to understand the word of God and have understood it all, except for the ritual of the brown [red] cow.” Many Rabbis concluded that this law should be followed solely because God commands us to do it, not because our own logic tells us to. It shows that we have so much faith that we will follow God even if his laws do not make sense to us.
However, in the spirit of Conservative Judaism we are encouraged to find the meaning behind the rituals ad rites of the Torah, so let’s try to have a stab at this law. After being sacrificed the cows ashes are added to water and are used to purify those who have become ritually impure. On the flip side all the people associated with the sacrifice and gathering of the ashes of the Red Heifer, become impure after the sacrifice is completed. This contradiction was noted by Israel of Ruzhin, who saw that the Red Heifer purifies the impure, but makes the pure impure. The priest and his assistants give up their own purity so someone else can become pure. The ritual of the Red Heifer shows us that we may have to give up something, in order to help another person.
In Parashat Balak we see the story of Balaam, the wizard, being called upon by Balak, King of Moab, to curse the people of Israel before Balak intends to wage war against them. However Balaam instead of cursing the people of Israel blesses them three times.
In the beginning Balak sends a delegation to Balaam to try and persuade him to curse the people of Israel, Balaam ‘consults’ with God on the matter, and after listening to God’s wishes, sends the Moabite delegation back. However, the Moabites come once more to ask Balaam for his curse against the Israelites. This time the Moabites add an element that wasn’t there the first time. The Moabites offer Balaam “his [Balak's] house full of silver and gold”, this time God comes to Balaam and says: “If these men have invited you, go with them.” It seems that God is ordering Balaam to go with the Moabites, however the Rambam (Maimonides – a prominent torah commentator) explains that God is really giving Balaam a right to exercise his free will. It seems that Balaam is swayed to go by the fact that he is offered money, his greed overcomes his conscience. On the way to Moab, however, Balaam is confronted by an angel who shows Balak that God does not want Balaam to curse the Israelites, he tells Balak to keep going to Moab, but only say what God tells him to.
Later in the portion, when Balaam is going to curse/bless Israel, it seems that God does not let Balaam exercise his free will, but rather “puts the words in his mouth,” literally. Each time God tells Balaam what to say, and Balaam says it. However, at the end of the portion, after Balaam’s third blessing upon the Israelites, he tells Balak why he could not curse the Israelites. He explains to Balak that “I could not do anything good or bad contrary to the Lord’s command.” He says I could not (In Hebrew – “Lo Uchal”) instead of I must not … showing that he really does have free will, but he uses his free will to follow the commandments of God.
This portion teaches us that although we have the free will to follow or not follow the commandments of God, we should follow Balaam’s example, and uphold the commandments of God upon our own accord. This is how we show true reverence to God by choosing to follow what he commands us to do.