This Week’s Parasha (Chukat-Balak) – Numbers 19-25

Various commentaries.

* Judaism and Christianity have different preoccupations with sin. For Christianity, the primary problem with sin is that it cuts off the individual from God and heavenly salvation. For Judaism, the primary problem with sin is that it contaminates the community. The Sin Offering, for example, does not seem to purify the offerer, it “is not carried out on the offerer but only on his behalf.”

The Siddur, the Jewish prayer book, does not have prayers in the first person. All the prayers are for the community.

There is no forgiveness in the sacrificial system for sins of man against man, and almost never is there forgiveness for any deliberate sin against God. “The inadvertent offender needs forgiveness not because of his act per se…but because of the consequences of his act.”

* “God won’t dwell in a polluted sanctuary.” If we want God to grant us serenity, we need to make choices to enhance our serenity. if we want God around, we probably can’t have unholy movie posters in our home.

* Upon entering, I can immediately sense the difference between a religious and a secular home.

* If you want to walk in the sunlight of the spirit, what does that require of you? How that does that affect your choices of friends, work, recreation? How does it shape your choices of music and books and movies? How does that affect how you lay out your home?

* Appearances matter. How you dress matters. “Priestly legists have not focused on disease per se but only on the appearance of disease.”

* L’chaim (choose life) is a good approach to living. Celebrating Halloween seems to be a choice for celebrating death.

* What is the metadivine realm? Christine Hayes: “This is the realm of supreme and ultimate power and it transcends the deities. The deity or the deities emerge from and are therefore subject to the laws of the metadivine realm, the forces and powers of the metadivine realm. And the nature of this realm will vary from pagan tradition to pagan tradition.”

* Apotropaic magic is a type of magic intended to turn away harm or evil influences, as in deflecting misfortune or averting the evil eye.”

* Theurgy: “the operation or effect of a supernatural or divine agency in human affairs.”

* In this week’s parasha, the Jews are undocumented immigrants seeking comprehensive immigration reform in Canaan. Do you think they had valid passports? No way. They were no longer citizens of Egypt. They were seeking sanctuary and a better life and freedom to practice their religion.

* Jews are great at bitter remonstrance. Take Numbers 20:3-5: And the people contended with Moses and spoke, saying: “If only we had died when our brethren died before the Lord! 4 Why have you brought up the assembly of the Lord into this wilderness, that we and our animals should die here? 5 And why have you made us come up out of Egypt, to bring us to this evil place? It is not a place of grain or figs or vines or pomegranates; nor is there any water to drink.”

* Moshe and Aaron walk away and fall on their faces. That doesn’t seem like great leadership. They’re worn down by the kvetching.

Most of us tend to be nice to other people when we’re feeling good, but as we get under increasing pressure, our kindliness diminishes. That also goes for groups. When groups are prospering, it is easier to be generous to out-groups. When your group is in decline and losing sovereignty of the countries you created, such as whites in the West, you can be expected to be less kind to out-groups. Genocides don’t come out of nowhere. They come out of extreme competition for scarce resources such as land and water.

* Numbers 20:11: Moshe strikes the rock. But this isn’t why he upset God. It’s because he said, “Shall we get water for you out of this rock?” Because Moshe did not acknowledge that God was the source of the miracle, he did not get to enter the promised land.

* Moshe speaks in Numbers 20:15: “how our fathers went down to Egypt, and we dwelt in Egypt a long time, and the Egyptians afflicted us and our fathers.” No mention of how the God of the Jews afflicted the Egyptians. Not a lot of empathy there for the Egyptians who lost all of their first born and suffered through Ten Plagues.

* Numbers 20:18: “Then Edom said to him, “You shall not pass through my land, lest I come out against you with the sword.”

And Moshe replied, “Bro, it’s the current year!”

And another Israelite added: “My wife’s son really wants to come through. Can’t we all get along?”

* It’s a shame that Edom didn’t let the Jews pass through. Think of how the Jew could have enriched Edom with teachings about multiculturalism, sodomy and how to run a central bank. You know why you don’t hear about Edomites today? Because they didn’t allow themselves to be enriched by Jews. Instead they clung to their spears and religion and their narrow parochial ways, and they died out because they weren’t willing to adapt to modernity.

In Numbers 20, Moshe says: “I think there’s a resurgence of anti-Semitism because at this point in time Edom has not yet learned how to be multicultural, and I think we’re gonna be part of the throes of that transformation, which must take place. Edom and the Ancient Near East are not going to be the monolithic societies that they once were in the last century. Jews are going to be at the center of that. It’s a huge transformation for Edom to make. They are now going into a multicultural mode, and Jews will be resented because of our leading role. But without that leading role, and without that transformation, Edom will not survive.”

Aaron added: “I believe what affects the movements in Edom and the Ancient Near East, what affects our attitudes are as much the culture and the arts as anything else. It wasn’t anything we legislatively did. It was the social media. Literally. That’s what changed peoples’ attitudes. Think behind of all that, I bet you 85 percent of those changes, whether it’s in Hollywood or social media are a consequence of Jewish leaders in the industry. The influence is immense, the influence is immense. And, I might add, it is all to the good.”

* The Edomites refusal to let Israel through shows why need the United Nations to mediate such disputes, and why we must move past petty nationalism to embrace globalism and one-world government run by the smartest people, who will of course be Jewish.

* Numbers 21:1-3: “The king of Arad, the Canaanite, who dwelt in the South, heard that Israel was coming on the road to Atharim. Then he fought against Israel and took some of them prisoners. 2 So Israel made a vow to the Lord, and said, “If You will indeed deliver this people into my hand, then I will utterly destroy their cities.” 3 And the Lord listened to the voice of Israel and delivered up the Canaanites, and they utterly destroyed them and their cities. So the name of that place was called Hormah.” That seems fair. If the goyim take us captive, we nuke their towns.

That’s a lot of chutzpah for the Canaanites to go to war with Israel and take some of us captive. I’ve still got a burn against Canaanites for this. I know not all Canaanites are kidnappers, but I’m ticked and I don’t care. Death to the Canaanites!

* Perhaps the Torah should have made clear that not all Canaanites are kidnappers and not all Edomites are bigots, haters and nationalists.

* Numbers 21:5: “And the people spoke against God and against Moses: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and our soul loathes this worthless bread.” More kvetching! Oy vey!

* If somebody is confusing you, and you are sane and sober, the chances are the person is either lying or manipulating.

* Num. 22:3: “Moab was terrified because there were so many people. Indeed, Moab was filled with dread because of the Israelites. 4 The Moabites said to the elders of Midian, “This horde is going to lick up everything around us, as an ox licks up the grass of the field.””

Numbers matter. Demographics matter. Fearing a powerful neighbor is normal. The Torah says nothing about Moab feeling dread because of the superiority of the Jewish religion. Nor is there anything about Moab hating Israel because of its freedom.

* Balaam has supernatural gifts. I am open to people having such gifts. Perhaps God reaches out to those who reach out to him.

* How much do you care about other people blessing or cursing you?

* Balaam has supernatural gifts. I am open to people having such gifts. Perhaps God reaches out to those who reach out to him.

* How much do you care about other people blessing or cursing you?

* Wikipedia entry on Balak.

* When Pinchas kills the fornicators, that’s an intense solution to an intense problem — the public desecration of Judaism’s laws. It is one thing to sin privately, that can be ignored, but if you sin publicly, you’re asking for a response. The more intense the public sin, the more intense the response. What was the proper response to the decadence of Weimar Germany? What is the proper response to the decadence of Weimarica?

* Most men will give up everything for the opportunity to have sex with a hot chick. I see no reason to waste time denying or bemoaning this reality. Instead, we should accept it and design policy around it.

Women are not superior creatures because they have a lower sex drive (when did you last see a female leader fired for her bad sexual choices?). They are superior in the narrow sense that nature enables them to make less impetuous sexual choices just as nature has endowed men with greater strength and intelligence and courage to make sounder choices in other areas of life.

Rabbi Adlerstein writes:

As important as goodness is to His nature, His being incorporates other characteristics as well, including a love of justice. Every aveirah we commit makes us less worthy of receiving His abundant blessings. It frustrates, as it were, His desire to shower us more and more goodness. When we do good, on the other hand, we play a role in the supporting of the entire purpose of creation. Our actions “enable,” as it were, Hashem to give us yet more of His blessing. (This thought clears up another mystery – why the second parshah of the Shema promises material benefit in return for our faithful performance of mitzvos. Here, too, we can read the Torah’s message in a different way. If we listen to Hashem and serve Him with love (as that parshah emphasizes), we fulfill the very purpose of Creation – “enabling” Him to bless us with abundant rains, etc. If instead we turn from Him, thwarting His purpose, we are no longer proper recipients of His blessing. It is then withheld – blocking His intention to send us a rich Divine Influence.)

Perhaps this is also the way we should understand Chazal’s pithy statement5 that one mitzvah pulls along the next. We usually understand this as meaning that the performance of a mitzvah makes it easier for us to do another, or leads to Divine assistance facilitating our future observance. Perhaps, though, Chazal mean something quite different. The performance of any mitzvah inexorably drags along another, specific mitzvah its wake. Each mitzvah accomplishes a second mitzvah: bringing “pleasure,” as it were to Hashem, whose sole objective in creating the world was to give us more and more pleasure!

This is also part of the meaning of our pasuk. When we live by the mitzvos, we bring pleasure to Hashem, Who follows up with more and more blessing, including the ultimate blessing of the closeness to Him known as olam haba.

Rabbi Artson writes:

Living itself is a ‘mitzvah.’ Without maintaining life, no other ‘mitzvot’ and no other holiness is possible. Therefore, the ‘mitzvot’ have context when recognized to be the essential aids along the path toward the sublime.

But they are not themselves the summit. Irreplaceable, yes. Even obligatory and sacred. But still, the ‘mitzvot’ are not identical to the goal; they are the means toward attaining the goal. Choosing not to rely simply on their own authority, the rabbis of the Talmud remark that the Torah itself tells us that the purpose of the ‘mitzvot’ is to help us to live, not to prevent or even to endanger human life. “You shall live by them,” not die by them. And in that simple distinction, our tradition mediates a complex and dynamic balance.

Yes, the ‘mitzvot’ are commanded. Without them, we will be unable to find our way back to the Source of holiness and oneness in the world. Without them, we cannot hope to repair our characters, our people and our world. Yet, for all their tremendous value and their indispensability, the ‘mitzvot’ themselves are but steps along the path, lights to guide us in our walk. The goal is more than just a network of behavior, more than a pattern of study, deed and prayer. The goal is a sufficiently rich inner life, a sufficiently pulsating love of the Jewish People and all humanity, a sufficiently overwhelming responsibility for our planet and its denizens, that out of that rich spirituality, loyalty, love and connection will emerge that most precious of all Jewish commodities: a true sacred servant. Such a person — open to the Divine, respectful of other seekers, yet true to the path of Judaism, able to learn from others and to share with all — testifies through deed and through word to the oneness of the universe and the wisdom and the love of its Source. And that is surely living. ‘Va-chai bahem.’

Jacob Milgrom writes in his popular commentary on Leviticus:

The basic premises of pagan religion are (1) that its deities are themselves dependent on and influenced by a metadivine realm, (2) that this realm spawns a multitude of malevolent and benevolent entities, and (3) that if humans can tap into this realm they can acquire the magical power to coerce the gods to do their will.” The eminent Assyriologist W. G. Lambert has stated, “The impression is gained that everyday religion [in Mesopotamia] was dominated by fear of evil powers and black magic rather than a positive worship of the gods … the world was conceived to be full of evil demons who might cause trouble in any sphere of life. If they had attacked, the right ritual should effect the cure…. Humans, as well as devils, might work evil against a person by the black arts, and here too the appropriate ritual was required””

The Priestly theology negates these premises. It posits the existence of one supreme God who contends neither with a higher realm nor with competing peers. The world of demons is abolished; there is no struggle with autonomous foes, because there are none. With the demise of the demons, only one creature remains with “demonic” power-the human being. Endowed with free will, human power is greater than any attributed to humans by pagan society. Not only can one defy God but, in Priestly imagery, one can drive God out of his sanctuary. In this respect, humans have replaced demons.

The pagans secured the perpetual aid of a benevolent deity by building him/her a temple-residence in which the deity was housed, fed, and worshiped in exchange for protective care. Above all, the temple had to be inoculated by apotropaic rites-utilizing utilizing magic drawn from the metadivine realm-against incursions by malevolent forces from the supernal and infernal worlds. The Priestly theologians make use of the same imagery, except that the demons are replaced by humans. Humans can drive God out of the sanctuary by polluting it with their moral and ritual sins. All that the priests can do is periodically purge the sanctuary of its impurities and influence the people to atone for their wrongs.

This thoroughgoing evisceration of the demonic also transformed the concept of impurity. In Israel, impurity was harmless. It retained potency only with regard to sanctums. Laypersons-but not priests-might contract impurity with impunity; they must not, however, delay their purificatory rites lest their impurity affect the sanctuary. The retention of impurity’s dynamic (but not demonic) power in regard to sanctums tums served a theological function. The sanctuary symbolized the presence of God; impurity represented the wrongdoing of persons. If persons unremittingly polluted the sanctuary, they forced God out of his sanctuary and out of their lives.

The Priestly texts on scale disease (chaps. 13-14) and chronic genital flows (chap. 15) give ample witness to the Priestly polemic against the idea that physical impurity arises from the activity of demons who must be either exorcised or appeased. Purification is neither healing nor theurgy. The afflicted person undergoes purification only after being cured. Ablutions are wordless rites; they are unaccompanied by incantation or gesticulation-the quintessential ingredients in pagan healing rites. The adjective used is “purified,” not “cured”; the verb “cure” never appears in the ritual. A moldy garment or a fungous house (13:47-58; 14:33-53) does not reflect on the character of its owner, for the owner brings no sacrifice and performs no rite that might indicate culpability. Even though the scale-diseased person does bring sacrifices for possible wrongdoing, the only determinable “wrong” is that the owner’s impurity has polluted the sanctuary. Especially noteworthy is the bird rite at the beginning of this purification process, which, in spite of its clear exorcistic origins, gins, has solely a symbolic function in Israel. Above all, it seems likely that most, if not all, of the varieties of scale disease described in chapter 13 are not even contagious, which supports my conclusion that scale disease is only one part of a larger symbolic system.

Another example of the way the Priestly legists excised the demonic from impurity is the case of the person afflicted with chronic genital flux (15:1-15, 25-30). It is the discharge that contaminates, not the person. Hence, objects that are underneath neath such a person-bed, seat, saddle-but no others are considered impure. In Mesopotamia, however, one’s table and cup transmit impurity. The difference is that in Israel, the afflicted man does not contaminate by touch as long as he washes his hands. As a result, he was not banished or isolated but was allowed to remain at home. The same concessions were extended to the menstruant, who was otherwise universally ostracized (chap. 15). She, too, defiled only that which was beneath her. Touching such objects, however, incurred greater impurity than touching her directly (15:19, 21-22). As illogical as it seems, it makes perfect sense when viewed from the larger perspective of the primary Priestly objective to root out the prevalent notion that the menstruant was possessed by demonic powers.

The parade example of the evisceration of the demonic from Israel’s cult is provided by Azazel (16:10). Although Azazel seems to have been the name of a demon, the goat sent to him is not a sacrifice requiring slaughter and blood manipulation; nor does it have the effect of a sacrifice in providing purification, expiation, and the like. The goat is simply the symbolic vehicle for dispatching Israel’s sins to the wilderness (16:21-22). The analogous elimination rites in the pagan world stand in sharp contrast (see chap. 16). The purification of the corpse-contaminated person with the lustral ashes of the red cow (Numbers 19) can also claim pride of place among Israel’s victories over pagan beliefs. The hitherto demonic impurity of the corpse has been devitalized, first by denying its autonomous power to pollute the sanctuary and then by denying that the corpse-contaminated person must be banished from his community during his purificatory period (see chap. 4, Theme A).

Israel’s battle against demonic beliefs was not won in one stroke. Scripture indicates that it was a gradual process. The cultic sphere attests a progressive reduction of contagious impurity in three primary human sources: scale disease, pathological flux, and corpse contamination. The earliest Priestly tradition calls for their banishment (Num 5:2-4) because the presence of God is coextensive with the entire camp, but later strata show that banishment is prescribed only for scale disease (Lev 13:46). The fact that genital flux and corpse contamination permit their bearers to remain at home indicates that the divine presence is not viewed as confined to the sanctuary. Henceforth in P, the only fear evoked by impurity is its potential impact on the sanctuary. H, which extends God’s presence over the entire land of Israel, also innovates a nonritual and nonexpiable impurity (chap. 18). The driving force behind this impurity reduction is Israel’s monotheism. The baneful still inheres in things, but it spreads only under special conditions, for example, carrion when consumed and genital discharges when contacted. But note that impurity springs to life, resuming its virulent character, only in regard to the sphere of the sacred (5:1-13), and that these impurities are not to be confused with evils.

A similar gradation in the contagion of holiness is also exhibited in Scripture, but for different reasons. In the earliest traditions of the Bible, the sanctums communicate holiness to persons, the sanctuary’s inner sanctums more powerfully so-directly directly by sight (if uncovered) and indirectly by touch (if covered), even when the contact is accidental.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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