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Balak’s Reward Print E-mail
Thursday, 29 June 2023

In Parshat Balak (Bamidbar, Chapters 22-23), Balak hired Bilam to curse B’nai Yisrael so that it would be easier for him to destroy them. In Chapter 23 (verses 1-2, 14, 29-30), on three different occasions, Bilam directed Balak to set up seven altars where Balak offered a bull and a ram on each altar. In total, Balak offered 42 korbanot (sacrifices).

Based on Balak’s sacrifices, we learn in the Talmud, Sotah 47a:

Rav Yehuda said in the name of Rav: A person should always engage in the study of Torah and the performance of mitzvot even if not for their own sake (even for ulterior motives) because from learning Torah and performing mitzvot not for their own sake, one will eventually come to learn and do mitzvot for their own sake (out of pure motives). As a reward for the 42 korbanot that Balak, the king of Moav offered to God, he merited that Ruth, the convert be descended from him. King Shlomo would descend from him as well. In Melachim I 3:4, King Shlomo also brough many sacrifices, “The king went to Givon to sacrifice there, for that was the great high place. Shlomo offered up a thousand burnt offerings on that altar.” Rabbi Yosi ben Choni said: Ruth was the daughter of Eglon, who was the son of Balak.

In the Talmud, Nazir 23b we find a similar passage to the one above from Sotah. Tosafot comment that since Ruth lived many generations after Eglon, she was not actually his daughter but rather his descendent.

The text in the Ein Yaakov expands the generations:

Ruth was the granddaughter of Eglon, who was the grandson of Balak, the king of Moav.

Rashi on Melachim I 3:4 says that King Shlomo brought all 1000 offerings on one day.

Radak teaches that King Shlomo didn’t bring them all in one day but rather he brought the 1000 offerings while he was in Givon, before returning to Jerusalem.

Whatever the situation was of how King Shlomo’s sacrifices were spread out, they were brought with good intentions, unlike in Balak’s case.

We can learn from Balak that it is valuable to do good things no matter what your motives are. Even though Balak wanted to curse B’nai Yisrael, he was still rewarded for bringing the sacrifices. Imagine how much greater the reward would be if one actually intends to do something positive!

Where in Moav Did B’nai Yisrael Camp? Print E-mail
Tuesday, 05 July 2022

Parshat Balak is named for the first verse in the Parsha (Bamidbar 22:2): And Balak the son of Tzipor saw all that Yisrael did to the Emori.”

However, if you want to know where it all took place, you have to go back one verse, to Bamidbar 22:1 (the last verse of Parshat Chukat): “B’nai Yisrael travelled and camped in the western plains of Moav, across the Jordan from Jericho.” This is the spot where they will remain until the Book of Yehoshua when B’nai Yisrael will cross the Jordan River into Jericho.

Rashbam describes the location of “me’ever l’Yareden Yericho”, across the Jordan from Jericho :

They were camped across from the Jordan River and opposite the City of Jericho which was on the other bank of the river. It is neither south nor north of Jericho. The formulation of “me’ever l’Yareden” is justified as it is perceived from the vantage point of those who had already crossed the Jordan River, so that the Jordan River was on the far side of Jericho from their point of view.

In other words, the Torah was written for those who are already in the Land of Israel. Therefore, “Ever l’Yarden” refers to the other side of the Jordan, outside of Israel, in the land that originally belonged to Moav.

How was it possible for all of B’nai Yisrael to be camped out in that spot?

Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, the Netziv in Ha’Amek Davar explains that the camp itself was in the western plains of Moav. However, B’nai Yisrael were spread out in the different cities in the lands of Sichon and Og and only the Aron (Ark) and Ohel Moed (the Tent of Meeting) were actually in the western plains of Moav as we see in the beginning of the Book of Devarim.

In Parshat Masei, Bamidbar 33:48-49 we read about the area where they camped:

They journeyed from the Avarim Mountains and camped in the plains of Moav along the Jordan near Jericho. They camped along the Jordan from Beit HaYeshimot until Avel HaSheetim, in the plains of Moav.

Beit HaYeshimot is the southern border of the territory (right above the Dead Sea) and Avel HaSheetim is the northern border.

Rashi explains that the measure of the Israelite camp was 12 mil by 12 mil, one mil is 2000 amot, about 3500 feet.

In the Talmud, Eruvin 55b, Rabbah bar bar Chana affirmed that he visited the spot and confirmed those measurements.

Today, on the Israeli side, near Jericho we can look over the Jordan River to the spot where B’nai Yisrael camped from before Moshe’s death until the crossing the Jordan with Yehoshua. Vacationers in Jordan can visit what once were the plains of Moav which were conquered by B’nai Yisrael and inherited by the tribe of Reuven.

A curse from a friend or a blessing from an enemy? Print E-mail
Friday, 25 June 2021

In Melachim I 14:15, the Jewish prophet, Achiya the Shiloni prophesied against the king, Yeravam ben Navat for leading B’nai Yisrael to worship idolatry:

God will smite Israel as a reed lurches about in the water, and He will uproot Israel from upon this bountiful land that He gave to their forefathers, and He will scatter them beyond the river- because they have made their Ashera trees, angering God.

In the Talmud, Taanit 20a we read:

Rav Yehuda said in the name of Rav: The comparison of B’nai Yirael to a reed implies a blessing. For Rav Shmuel bar Nachmani said in the name of Rabbi Yonatan: What is the meaning of that which is written (Mishlei 27:6) “The wounds inflicted by a friend are trustworthy; while the kisses of an enemy are deceitful.” Better is the curse with which Achiya the Shiloni cursed Israel than the blessing with which the wicked Bilam blessed them. Achiya the Shiloni cursed them with the metaphor of the reed. Just as the reed stands in a watery place and its stalk grows back when it is cut, while its roots are numerous; and even if all the winds of the world come and blow upon it, they cannot budge it from its place, rather it merely sways to and fro with them. And as soon as the winds subside, the reed stands upright in its place.

Like the reed blowing in the wind, B’nai Yisrael will sway under the attacks of its enemies, but will not be destroyed and will once again revive and flourish as soon as the oppression passes.

In contrast, in Parshat Balak, as part of the blessing that Bilam, the non-Jewish prophet unwillingly blessed B’nai Yisrael, he said (Bamidbar 24:6):

…Stretching out like brooks, like gardens by a river, like aloes planted by God, like cedars by water.

The Gemara explains:

Just like the cedar tree does not stand in a watery place and its trunk does not grow back once it is cut off, and its roots are not numerous- and even if all of the ordinary winds of the world blow upon it, they can not budge it from its place; when the powerful south wind blows upon it, it uproots it and overturns it.

According to Bilam’s “blessing” B’nai Yisrael will not easily be brought down, but should the blow be sufficiently powerful, it will never recover.

We see from here that the “curse” inflicted by Achiya the Shiloni was better for Israel’s long term prospects than Bilam’s “blessing.”

The Talmud concludes that the reed merited to have quill-like pens drawn from its ranks to be used to write scrolls of the Tanach.

May we merit to only receive blessings.

The message of the donkey Print E-mail
Wednesday, 01 July 2020

In Parshat Balak, Bilam is commanded by Balak, the king of Moav to curse B’nai Yisrael. Although the Torah does not waste words, Bilam’s means of transportation which he is hoping will quickly get to his destination is described at length in Bamdbar 22:21-27:

Bilam arose in the morning, saddled his donkey, and went with the Moavite dignitaries. God showed anger because he went, and an angel of God placed himself in the way to thwart him, as he was riding on his donkey accompanied by his two attendants. The donkey saw the angel of God standing in the way with his sword drawn in his hand; the donkey turned aside from the way and went into the field; Bilam struck the donkey to get it back on the way…When the donkey saw the angel of God, she was pressed against the wall and pressed Bilam’s foot against the wall; and he struck her even more…When the donkey saw the angel of God, it crouched beneath Bilam; Bilam became angry and beat the donkey with a stick.

Bamidbar 22:28-30 recounts the conversation that Bilam had with his donkey:

God opened the mouth of the donkey and she said to Bilam: “What have I done to you that you have hit me these three times?” Bilam said to the donkey: “Because you have ridiculed me; if I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you now.” The donkey replied to Bilam: “Am I not the very same donkey that you have been riding on all your life until this very day? Was it ever my habit to do this to you?” And he said: “No.”

Finally, Bilam saw the angel of God and in verses 32-33, the angel of God said to him: “Why did you hit your donkey these three times? Behold, I came out to obstruct you, because your way is contrary to me. And when the donkey saw me, it turned aside these three times; had she not turned aside before me as she did now I would surely have killed you and I would have let her live.”

Dr. Rachel Reich points out ten stories in Tanach where the donkey is mentioned: Avraham getting ready for the Akeda, the Binding of Isaac (Breisheet 22:3), Moshe on the way to Egypt with Tzipora and their two sons (Shmot 4:20), Bilam heading over to curse B’nai Yisrael (Bamidbar 22:21), the Levi going to retrieve his concubine who ends up getting abused in Givah (Shoftim 19:28), Avigail rushing to try to appease King David (Shmuel I 25:20), Achitophel’s last journey before he ends up committing suicide (Shmuel II 17:23),  Mephiboshet’s plans to ride the donkey but Ziba the servant doesn’t help him (Shmuel II 19:27), Shimi hurrying to get his slaves back, despite his oath that he would not leave Jerusalem (Melachim I 2:40), The sons of the false prophet saddling the donkey so that their father could pursue the man of God (Melachim I 13:13), The Shunamite woman dashing to see Elisha to beg him to revive her child (Melachim II 4:24).

 In each of these stories, the person riding on the donkey is trying to fulfill a mission with a sense of urgency and each time things don’t turn out as expected.

Of course, there are many other stories in Tanach where they must have rode on a donkey (that was their main form of transportation), yet it is not specifically mentioned when Avraham and his family traveled to the Land of C’naan or when they went down to Egypt.

In the stories where the donkey was explicitly mentioned, each protagonist was on a mission but in the end God had His own ideas and the operation did not usually turn out as expected. Avraham did not sacrifice Yitzchak even though he thought that he would be expected to, Tzipra and her family didn’t end up going to Egypt, rather they went back to Midian, Bilam blessed B’nai Yisrael instead of cursing them and the list goes on…

We can see from here that we can try our best to do what we can, but at the end of the day, God will decide what the final outcome will be.

Micha and his connection to Parshat Balak Print E-mail
Wednesday, 10 July 2019

The Haftara for Parsha Balak is from Micha 5:6-6:8.

In the first verse of the Book of Micha (the sixth book of Trei Asar) we learn that Micha was a prophet during the reigns of Yotam, Achaz and Hezkia (kings of Yehuda) and that he prophesied to both the Northern and Southern Kingdoms.

The Talmud, Psachim 87a teaches us that Micha, Hoshea, Yishayahu and Amos prophesied during the same time period. They were all prophets at the time of the same kings and their prophecies consisted of both strong rebuke and comfort and hope.

Micha’s prophecies were given circa 740 BCE, shortly before the Assyrians exiled the ten tribes of the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 722 BCE.

Rabbi Menachem Leibtag points out that by the time of Yotam and Achaz, both Micha and Yishayahu realized that the people were not worthy of the prosperity that God gave them. Their prophecies focus on social injustice, corruption and dishonesty.

The first section of the Haftara from Chapter 5 brings a message of comfort. In the future, at the time of the Mashiach, the Jews who will be scattered around the world will place their hope in God, who has the keys to the salvation, just as He holds the keys to the dew and rain. The Jews will be like he lion of the forest, nobody will stand up to them. No more wars will be fought. There will be no horses, chariots or walled cities nor fortune tellers.

In Chapter 6 we are back to the rebuke. Micha calls to the mountains and hills on God’s behalf and instructs them to listen to a suit between God and Israel. He reminds them how God acted kindly to them and how they were ungrateful. He admonishes them for not following the Torah.

The people during the time of Micha were corrupt. However, they thought that God was with them as long as they continued to go to the Beit HaMikdash to offer sacrifices.

A few chapters before our Haftara, in Micha 3:9-11, we read about how the leadership at the time of Micha was unethical. They detested justice and made crooked all that was straight. Judges were bribed. Zion was built with crime and iniquity. The punishment is laid out in Micha 3:12, “Zion would be plowed as a field and Jerusalem would become heaps of ruins and the Temple Mount a shrine in the woods.”

Rabbi Leibtag explains that the people became affluent and haughty. It is this hypocrisy that so angers God that he decides the Beit HaMikdash must be destroyed.

The main connection between Parshat Balak and the Haftara (aside from Micha 5:11 which talks about destroying sorcery) is in Micha 6:5, “My nation, remember what Balak, the King of Moav conspired and what Bilam ben Beor answered him, from Shitim to Gilgal.”

Why is Micha bringing up the story of Balak and Bilam hundreds of years after it took place?

Ibn Ezra explains that this incident teaches us God’s mercy. God did not allow Bilam to curse them. God gave Bilam prophecy to ensure that he would bless them. When B’nei Yisrael were about to go into the land they sinned at Ba’al Peor. God could have killed them all off, but He didn’t. Twenty-four thousand people died in the plague and then God had mercy on the rest and allowed them to enter the Land of Israel.

According to Malbim, B’nei Yisrael thought that they would need to bring sacrifices or even sacrifice their own children in order to do Tshuva after sinning which was caused by Bilam’s advice. God said that He does not need their sacrifices. God is not giving them difficult assignments, He just wants them to do justice, righteousness, kindness and observe the mitzvot.

The concept of sacrificing animals and even their own children to atone for their sins (Micha 6:7) comes from the pagan culture of idolatry. God sees little value in animal sacrifices and no value in human sacrifice.

We see this clearly in Parshat Balak. Balak slaughtered cattle (Bamidbar 22:40) and took Bilam to Bamot Ba’al (22:41). Bilam asked Balak to build seven altars, prepare seven rams and seven bulls (23:1). Balak did as Bilam requested. They sacrificed as burnt offerings an ox and a ram on each alter (23:2).

Balak thought that if he would appease God with sacrifices then God would let them curse B’nai Yisrael. After trying this three times, it was clear that his plan did not work. Bilam had to admit that God will only let him say what He allows him to say.

Balak and Bilam thought that they could convince God by bringing sacrifices at a high place. That did not work. If we want to have God on our side, we need to change our behavior, not just pray and bring sacrifices.

When Bilam saw that the only way that the Jewish people will be cursed by God is if they don’t follow His laws, especially in the area of immorality, he set a trap for B’nai Yisrael to sin with the daughters of Moav and Midian. We see that Bilam was behind this in Bamidbar 35:15-16, Rashi, Bamidbar 25:1 and in Perek Chelek (Chapter 11, Sanhedrin 106a).

In Pirkei Avot 5:19, contrasted to Avraham, Bilam is called a “rasha”, wicked, and that is how he is looked upon until today.

At the end of our Haftara (Micha 6:7-8), Micha makes it clear that God sees little value in sacrifices and prayers.

How do we walk in His ways? We need to “do justice, love goodness and walk modestly with God.”


Do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God Print E-mail
Wednesday, 27 June 2018

Dedicated by Malya and Yehudah Kunstler in honor of the marriage of their daughter, Zahava to Itamar Lustiger 

In the Haftara for Parshat Balak (Micha 5:6-6:8), we read the prophecy of Micha which recalls some of the ways in which God protected B’nai Yisrael during the forty years that they spent in the wilderness. One of the incidents mentioned is Balak’s plot to have Bilam curse B’nai Yisrael, a clear link to the Torah reading.

The Haftara ends with what God requires from us: “to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly (hatznea lechet) with God.”

The mitzvot of doing justice and loving kindness are “mitzvot ben adam l’chavero”, commandments between a person and their fellow person while the mitzvah of walking humbly with God seems like a “mitzvah ben adam l’makom”, a commandment between a person and God. However, The Talmud, Makkot 24a states that “walk humbly with God” is also a “mitzvah ben adam l’chavero” as it refers to funerals and weddings.

What does “walk humbly” have to do with funerals and weddings?

According to Rivan, the Talmud chose these two examples due to their associations with the word “lechet”, “to go” in Kohelet 7:2, “It is better to go (lalechet) to the house of mourning than to go (milechet) to a house of feasting, for that is the end of all people and the living should take it to heart.”

One way to look at this:

It is humbling to go to a funeral or shiva house where eulogies stimulate one to think about the beauty of life and focus on the fact that only a good reputation has lasting value.

Parties where there is a lot of eating and drinking and playing around can become distasteful if not conducted properly and modestly. Unfortunately, in many different cultures there are instances of people getting drunk at weddings and acting inappropriately.

Another way to look at this:

Funerals and weddings should be conducted in a modest and tasteful manner.

Burial outside of Israel should be done with a simple coffin, in Israel no coffin is used at all. Shrouds, the simplest of clothing are used for the burial.

Weddings should be within the range of what the families can afford. It is not helpful for newlyweds to start their married lives in debt.

What is interesting about our Haftara is that the concept of being humble which is related in Hoshea and in the Talmud is not directed specifically at women and is not about women’s clothing. Rather it is about being humble in the way that we conduct our lives especially during our happiest and saddest moments.

We Don’t Practice Divination Print E-mail
Friday, 03 July 2015

Sponsored by Sharona and Josh Halickman in Honor of their 20th Wedding Anniversary!

In Parshat Balak (Bamidbar 23:23) Bilam declares: “Ki lo nachash b’Yaakov v’lo kesem b’Yisrael”, “There is no divination in Yaakov and no sorcery in Yisrael.”

In Vayikra 19:26 we are commanded: “You shall not eat over the blood; you shall not indulge in divination and you shall not believe in lucky times.”

Is it true that Jewish people do not practice divination?

On Rosh HaShana, it is customary to conduct a seder with symbolic foods, reciting a symbolic prayer for each food. Apples and honey are sweet tasting and when we eat them we pray for a sweet new year. Pomegranates allude to abundance and we focus on an increase in Israel’s mitzvah performance. Gourds, fenugreek, leeks, beets and dates are specifically mentioned in the Gemara in Kritot 6a as good omens to be eaten on Rosh HaShana.

Can the Rosh HaShana seder be considered to be divination?

According to the Maharsha the omens at the Rosh HaShana seder are good omens so there is no concern of divination.

The Mordechai states that a “Yehi Ratzon”, “May it be Your will” blessing should be recited when we eat each food at the Rosh HaShana seder. The Meiri explains that these special blessings prevent the omens from being a form of divination as they are there to help us focus on our prayers.

Rav Yosef Zvi Rimon of JobKatif explains that according to the Maharal, Chayei Adam and the Ramban (Breisheet 21:6), the symbols help us create reality.

When Avraham passed through the Land of Israel, he was setting the scene for the time when B’nai Yisrael would eventually take possession of the land. In Breisheet 12:7, God made the promise to Avram: “To your offspring I will give this land” and then immediately in sentence 8 we see that Avram pitched his tent between Bei El and Ai. This would later be the place that Yehoshua would conquer first in battle (Yehoshua 8) which turned Avraham’s symbolic “camping” into the reality of Jewish possession of the Land of Israel.

According to Rav Rimon, the Rosh HaShana symbols are the opposite of divination. In divination one sees a sign and acts upon it. The simanim of Rosh HaShana on the other hand help create the reality. When we see and do good things we create positive energy. When we eat good things and say the accompanying blessings we are creating a positive atmosphere. This is not considered divination, rather this is doing our part to have kavana (intent) that good things should happen to us.

Rav Rimon’s positive attitude has helped many Israelis who were evacuated from their homes in Gush Katif ten years ago. Instead of lamenting the terrible tragedy that occurred he has helped many of these families find new jobs and start their lives anew. As we are about to commemorate the evacuation of Israelis from their homes during the summer of 2005 we must appreciate our leaders like Rav Rimon who with a positive attitude helped those families move on. After seeing the failure of the plan and the fact that the Gaza strip is now in worse shape than ever we must use a positive attitude to make sure that mistakes like that are not made in the future. We must continue to travel throughout the Land of Israel as Avraham did and show our love and appreciation for it.

Choosing Good over Evil Print E-mail
Thursday, 03 July 2014

In Honor of Sharona and Josh Halickman’s 19th  Anniversary

In Parshat Balak we read about Bilam, a prophet who on the one hand wants to follow God’s instructions not to curse the Jewish people yet on the other hand wants to follow King Balak’s commandment to curse them.


In Bamidbar 22:12 we read: “God said to Bilam: ‘Do not go with them! You shall not curse the people for they are blessed.’”


A few psukim later, King Balak still wants Bilam to go with Moav’s dignitaries. In Bamidbar 22:20 we read: “God appeared to Bilam that night and said to him: ‘If the men have come to call you, arise and go with them; however whatever I will say to you, you will do.’”


In sentences 21-22 “Bilam arose in the morning, saddled his donkey and went with the Moavite dignitaries. God showed anger because he went…”


If God first told Bilam not to go, then why does God later tell Bilam to go? And once God tells Bilam that he can go, why does He get angry when Bilam actually does go?


Nechama Leibowitz quotes the Rambam in Hilchot Tshuva 6:5 who teaches the words from the Talmud, Shabbat 104a: “He who comes to purify himself is assisted from on high”. The Gemara also states: “He who comes to defile himself, the way is opened for him”.


In other words, God gives us free choice. If Bilam is so set on going with the dignitaries then God is not going to hold him back. It is clear from the way that Bilam woke up early and saddled his donkey that he was anxious to go with them.


If someone wants to violate the Torah or commit a crime, God does not interfere.


However, if someone wants to do a good deed, then God will help them to achieve their goal.


It says in Breisheet 1:27: “And God created the person in His form, in the form of God, he created him, male and female he created them”.


Every human being is created in the image of God. We each have the power to choose right from wrong. In Dvarim 30:19 we are told: “I call to witness against you this day the heaven and the earth, life and death. I have set before you the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life that you may live, you and your seed.”


Although God is not going to choose for us, we know which path He would like us to follow, the path of life.


In Breisheet 4:10, it is clear that God was not happy when Kayin killed Hevel: “God said to Kayin: What have you done? The voice of your brother’s bloods cries out to me from the ground”.


If we make an effort to try to be constructive and make a positive mark on this world then God will help us achieve that goal. However, if someone God forbid wants to do the opposite, the door will be left open for him.


Our task is to teach our children the difference between good and evil so that they will be capable of ensuring that good, not evil will prevail.

We Are Never Alone When God is on Our Side Print E-mail
Friday, 21 June 2013

In Parshat Balak, when Bilam (our enemy) blessed Israel (Bamidbar 23:9) he said “For from the top of the rocks I see him, and from hills I behold him. Behold! It is a nation that will dwell in solitude (am levadad yishkon) and not be reckoned among the nations.”


According to Midrash Hagadol, this is a reference to Israel’s mission to remain separate and distinct from the nations.


The Gemara is Sanhedrin 105a states that Bilam was among four commoners who have no share in Olam HaBa (the world to come).


The name Bilam can be separated into two words, Bilo Am (without a nation), meaning that he had no connection to the Jewish people and will not share their lot in Olam HaBa.


Bilam set a sign for himself where it is derived that he has no share in Olam HaBa. He said in Bamidbar 23:18: “May my soul die the death of the upright and my end will be like his.”


The Gemara explains what Bilam was implying when he made that statement: If I die a natural death, then my fate will be like the Jewish people and I will have a place in Olam HaBa. If I do not die a natural death, then I will join my people in Gehenom (Hell).


Bilam did not die a natural death, rather he was killed by the sword (Bamidbar 31:8). We therefore learn from here that he descended to Gehenom.


We learn here that righteous gentiles do have the opportunity to enter Olam HaBa.


Rav Saadya Gaon says that the words “and not be reckoned among the nations” means that B’nai Yisrael are not counted as equals among the nations because they are chosen and special.


Sforno says that Israel is a nation that will dwell in solitude and as it says in Parshat Haazinu, Devarim 32:12: “So the Lord alone did lead him and there was no strange god with him”. In the end, the Jewish people will always dwell on their own protected by God, how could anyone try to destroy them?”


We see from here that Bilam’s words do ring true. The Jewish people have remained separate and distinct from all of the other nations. Although we may sometimes feel alone, God is always with us.

Looking Forward to the True Fulfillment of the Ma Tovu Prayer Print E-mail
Friday, 13 July 2012

In Honor of Sharona and Josh Halickman’s 17th wedding Anniversary

Balaam, the sorcerer and enemy of the Jews was sent by Balak the King of Moav to curse the Jews. However, God did not want the Jewish people to be cursed so he miraculously turned the curse into a blessing. The famous words of the Ma Tovu prayer that we recite upon entering the synagogue actually came from Balaam’s mouth (Bamidbar 24:5) yet they were placed there by God as a blessing for the Jewish people.


“Ma Tovu Ohalecha Yaakov Mishkenotecha Yirsael”, “How goodly are your tents O Yaakov, your dwelling places, O Israel.”


According to the Gemara in Sanhedrin 105b the tents refer to houses of study (tents of Torah).


The dwelling places were the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and later the Beit HaMikdash (Temple). In our time, since the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash, the dwelling places refer to our synagogues.


The next verse in the Ma Tovu comes from Tehilim, Psalms 5:8: “VeAni B’Rov Chasdecha Avo Veitecha, Eshtachave el Heichal Kodsheva BiYiratecha”, “As for me, through your abundant kindness I will enter Your House; I will prostrate myself toward your Holy Sanctuary in awe of You.”


Rabbi Nissan Mindel comments that as God welcomes us in to His Home each day, we must not take the opportunity to go to the synagogue for granted and we must be filled with awe and reverence, realizing that we are in the immediate presence of God.


The third verse comes from Psalms 26:8 “HaShem Ahavti Meon Beitecha UMikom Mishkan Kevodecha”, “O God, I love the House where you dwell and the place where your glory resides.”


Each time we are in a synagogue we must work on feeling God’s glory. When we visit the Kotel, Kever Rachel (Rachel’s Tomb), Maarat HaMachpela (Cave of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs), Shilo (where the Mishkan stood) etc. it is often easier to feel God’s glory then in the shul that we pray in every week.


The fourth verse is from Psalms 95:6: “VaAni Eshtachave VeEchraah, Evrecha Lifnei HaShem Osi”, “I shall prostrate myself and bow, I shall kneel before God my maker.”


When we bow down during the Amida, it is important to have proper Kavana (intent) and focus on the fact that we are bowing down to God, not just going through the motions.


The final verse originates from Psalms 69:14 and concludes: “VaAni Tefilati Lecha HaShem et RatzonElokim BeRov Chasdecha Aneni BiEmet Yishecha”, “As for me, may my prayer to You, God, be at an opportune time: O God, in Your abundant kindness, answer me with the truth of Your salvation.”


Here we see the concept of praying at an opportune time. The best time to pray, even for someone who for whatever reason can’t make it to shul is the time that the congregation is praying as the person’s prayers will join the public prayer and be answered.


This Sunday, we begin the three weeks of mourning for the Beit HaMikdash. These three weeks are an opportune time for us to think about the fact that we don’t have the true Mishkan which is referred to in the Ma Tovu prayer. As we walk through the streets of Jerusalem, it is uplifting to see how much has been rebuilt including the Hurva synagogue yet the Beit Hamikdash still remains in ruins and the Jewish people are forbidden to pray on Har HaBayit (The Temple Mount).


How uplifting would it be if by next year Tisha B’Av could be a true day of celebration where we could say with true kavana “As for me, through your abundant kindness I will enter Your House; I will prostrate myself toward your Holy Sanctuary in awe of You” in the Third Beit HaMikdash Bimhera Biyamenu, speedily in out days.


The Difference Between Bilam and the Prophets of Israel Print E-mail
Friday, 08 July 2011


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The prophets of Israel were not interested in being prophets. Not only were they not looking for the honor, in many cases they tried to turn down the job. Some of the most well known prophets such as Moshe and Yirminyahu actually told God that they were “not interested in the position” yet God did not take no for an answer.


Bilam, a non Jewish sorcerer, on the other hand, did everything that he could in order to try to convince God to make him a prophet. He built seven altars, offered seven bulls and seven rams with the hope that (Bamidbar 13:3) “perhaps God will happen toward me and show me something that I can tell you.”


Each time that God appeared to Bilam, he was convinced for the moment to bless the Jewish people but then he went back to his evil ways.


According to Rashbam, when Bilam finally gave up his divinations (Chapter 24), he did receive prophecy. However, the way that he gave over his prophecy was very different from the prophets of Israel.


Nechama Leibowitz points out that the prophets of Israel started their prophecies by saying: “The word of God…” (We find this phraseology in Yirmiyahu, Yechezkel, Hoshea and Yoel). Bilam on the other hand says in Bamidbar 24:3 “The words of Bilam son of  Beor, the words of the man with the open eye; the words of the one who hears the sayings of God, who sees the vision of Shadai, while fallen and with uncovered eyes.”


According to Hirsch, this prophecy, his third, was not words forced into his mouth, against his will the way that the first two prophecies were. Rather “the spirit of God came upon him”.


Although Bilam did finally see the light, it took him a long time to part with his sorcery. Bilam, unlike the prophets of Israel was self-centered and focused on chasing after honors.


When looking for role models, it is clear that the prophets of Israel win hands down as humble men and women who are not seeking out honor yet in their own quiet way end up earning the honor and respect of B’nai Yisrael.

Only the Jews Can Fix Up the Land of Israel Print E-mail
Friday, 25 June 2010

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Parsha Balak starts off with the words (Bamidbar 22:2) “And Balak the son of Tzipor saw all that Israel had done (asah) to the Emorite”.


Sfat Emet says that the word “asah” can mean to correct or to fix.


We see the root “asah”, to improve, other times in the Tanach as well.


One place that we see the root “asah” is in Ki Tetze (Devarim 21:11) in the story of “Eshet Yefat Toar”, a Beautiful Non Jewish Woman that the Jewish man desires from among the prisoners of war. The man is told to shave off her hair as well as “v’astah et tziporneah” she should pare her nails. According to Chizkuni, paring her nails is fixing them up, making a “tikkun”. According to Rabbi Eliezer (in Sifri) by cutting off her hair and fixing up her nails she is ridding herself of the Avoda Zara (idol worship) that she was brought up with and starting again.


Another place where “asah” is found is in Shmuel Bet 19:25 “And Mefiboshet the son of Shaul came down to meet the king, and he had neither dressed his feet (velo asah raglav) nor trimmed his beard (velo asah sfamo)…”


The Gemara in Yevamot 48a teaches us that “velo asah raglav” means that he did not cut his toenails, he did not groom himself.


Now that we know that “asah” means to fix, the question is how did B’nai Yisrael “fix” the Land of the Emorites? B’nai Yisrael fixed the land of Sichon and Og by conquering these lands and including them in the inheritance of the Land of Israel. It was a difficult land with a difficult king and a difficult state yet B’nai Yisrael were able to fix it.


Today, the students of Balak are still worried about the Jewish people “fixing up” the Land of Israel and are doing everything that they can to try to prevent it.

Who Would You Rather Be Like Avraham or Bilam? Print E-mail
Thursday, 02 July 2009

 Dedicated in Honor of Sharona & Josh Halickman's 14th Wedding Anniversary


The Mishna in Pirkei Avot 5:22 teaches:


Whoever has the following three traits is among the disciples of our forefather Avraham and whoever has three different traits is among the disciples of the wicked Bilam (a sorcerer who was on a mission to curse the Jewish people).


Those who have a good eye, a humble spirit and a meek soul are among the disciples of our forefather Avraham. Those who have an evil eye, an arrogant spirit and a greedy soul are among the disciples of the wicked Bilam.


How are the disciples of our forefather Avraham different from the disciples of the wicked Bilam? The disciples of Avraham enjoy the fruits of their good deeds in this world and inherit the World to Come…But the disciples of Bilam inherit Gehenom and descend into the well of destruction…


It is clear from this Mishna that the followers of Avraham, modest people, always looking for the good, are the ones who will succeed while the haughty ones who are looking for the bad will fail.


Throughout the generations, how many enemies, following in the footsteps of Bilam, have we seen who were looking to destroy the Jewish nation and the State of Israel? However, it is the followers of Avraham who in the end prevail.


It is our job to do what we can to continue Avraham’s role of Chesed, to concentrate our efforts on performing acts of loving kindness.

Seeing the Whole Story Print E-mail
Thursday, 10 July 2008

Parshat Balak begins with the words “And Balak ben Tzippor saw all that Yisrael had done to the Emori. And Moav became terrified of the people of Israel because of their great numbers” (Bamidbar 22:2-3).

The Gur Aryeh says that Balak did not witness the victory but rather heard about it. When the pasuk says the Balak saw, it is referring to intellectual vision. He saw from the fall of the Emori that his country would not be able to withstand Israel.

According to Rav Avraham Naftali Glanti, Balak saw what Yisrael did to the Emori (Yisrael defeated the Emori with the edge of the sword and took possession of their land). However, Balak did not see (or did not want to see) what the Emori did to Yisrael first (Sichon gathered all his people and went out against Yisrael in the wilderness).

Today we have the same problem with the media. Front page headlines declare that Israel is accused of killing or injuring innocent civilians. However, there is no report about the fact that the IDF was retaliating after being attacked first! Most of the time you will only find out the whole story a few days later buried in the corrections column.

We must do our part to find out the whole story and take a stand against biased reporting.


The Lion King Print E-mail
Monday, 02 July 2007

In Parshat Balak, the wicked Balaam, who intended to curse the Jewish people ended up being forced by God to pronounce blessings upon them.

In Balaam’s second blessing (Bamidbar 23:24), he uses the following parable: “Hen am k’lavie yakum v’chari yitnansa”, “Behold the people will arise like a lion cub and raise itself like a lion”.

According to Onkelos, Balaam foretold that Israel would begin its conquest of the Land and like a young lion maturing to full strength, grow even more powerful. It would not finish its work until it conquered and plundered all of the C’naanite kings.

Rashi, quoting Midrash Tanchuma states that from the moment a Jew arises in the morning, they seek to perform commandments such as reciting the Shma prayer, the way that a growing lion learns to become skilled at seeking prey.

In Balaam’s third blessing (Bamidbar 24:9), he uses a similar parable “Kara shachav kiari u’chelavie mi yekimenu?” “He crouched and lay down like a lion and like a lion cub- who can stand him up?

According to Rashi, the Jewish people shall occupy the Land of Israel with strength and power. Onkelos adds that once they are there, they will be immovable.

Rabbi Zechariah Tubi of Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh states that the more the Jewish people are involved in keeping the mitzvoth, our claim to the land will become stronger. The lavie, the young lion, is quick to do mitzvoth, the ari, the older lion holds on to the land.

If we each take this opportunity to focus on a stronger commitment to mitzvah observance, then we can help make this bracha a reality. We must do our part to ensure that Israel will remain in Jewish hands forever.
We Shall Prevail Print E-mail
Tuesday, 04 July 2006


Pirkei Avot 5:6 lists ten miracles that were created on the friday of creation, right before twilight:

  1. The mouth of the earth that swallowed Korach
  2. The mouth of the well that supplied the Jewish people with water in the wilderness
  3. The mouth of the donkey (who spoke in Parshat Balak)
  4. The rainbow from Noah's ark
  5. The manna
  6. Moshe's staff
  7. The Shamir worm that cut the stones for the Beit HaMikdash

8, 9, 10. The letters, the writing and the tablets of the ten commandments.

Why does the talking donkey rank with all of those other miracles?

Why does the Torah, which does not usually waste words, spend so much time describing a talking donkey and the episode of Bilam, a non-Jewish prophet and sorcerer who wanted to curse Israel?

As Bilam rushed to curse Israel, his donkey saw an angel holding a sword in his hand. The donkey swerved to avoid the angel. Since Bilam didn't see the angel he began to hit his donkey.

At this point, Bamidbar 22:26 we read "And God opened the mouth of the donkey and she said to Bilam, What have I done to you that you have hit me these three times?"

According to Rashi in Bamidbar 22:23, the donkey saw more than Bilam did on three occasions: "The donkey saw, but Bilam did not see for God granted an animal greater perception than a man".

The midrash in Bamidbar Raba 20:12 explains the importance of why the donkey spoke: To teach Bilam that the mouth and the tongue are in God's power. If Bilam sought to curse, Bilam's mouth was in God's power.

In the end, against his will, Bilam ended up blessing rather than cursing the Jewish people with the famous phrase that we recite each morning, Bamidbar 24:5, "Ma Tovu Ohalecha Yaakov, Mishkenotecha Yisrael", "How goodly are your tents, Yaakov, your dwelling places Yisrael".

Balak, the king of Moav, who had called on Bilam to curse the Jewish people was angry and said (Bamidbar 24:10): "I called you to curse my enemies, but you have blessed them".

Bilam's response was (Bamidbar 24:13): "Even if Balak would give me his house full of silver and gold, I cannot transgress the word of HaShem to do good or evil on my own. I will speak only what God declares."

A clear message from Parshat Balak is that those who want to curse Israel and the Jewish people will not get away with it.

Let's hope and pray that God will deliver us from our enemies in Israel and throughout the world.