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Parashat Chukat-Balak (Numbers 19:1-25:9)

“As Balaam looked up and saw Israel encamped tribe by tribe,
the spirit of God came upon him.” (Numbers 24:2)

We read two parashot (portions) this week because of how the Jewish calendar is calculated. The moon’s cycle determines the months, but the sun’s cycle determines the year. Therefore, a Jewish year) can have from 50 to 55 weeks. Since the number of parashot doesn’t change, some years require certain parashot to “double up” on a given Shabbat.

Parashat Balak tells the story of Balak, a xenophobic ruler who fears the Israelites approaching his borders and plots their destruction by hiring Bilaam, a wizard, to curse them. It backfires spectacularly and Bilaam blesses the Israelites three times in succession instead. These attempts, collectively and singularly, provide a lesson for today’s world.

Balak brings Bilaam to three different locations to do his work. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888; German rabbi considered the father of modern Orthodox Judaism) says each spot represents a potential Israelite weakness for Bilaam to exploit. Bamot habaal (the high places of Baal; Num. 22:41) represents material and physical strength and s’deh tzofim, (Field of Seers; Num. 23:14) represents cognitive and spiritual ability. But the Israelites are stronger than their numbers would indicate and do not rely upon magic for its wisdom and so each time, Bilaam blesses the Israelites. Desperate, Balak brings Bilaam to rosh hap’or (Peak of P’or; Num. 23:28), to test the strength of their morality and social cohesion. Here, too, the Israelites are impervious and Bilaam blesses them yet again.

This Shabbat coincides with American Independence Day and it is worth considering: how would the US fare if Bilaam were looking down at it from those three vantage points?

Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom

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