Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Hebrew Insights into Parashat Balak – Bamidbar (Numbers): 22 – 25: 9

Hebrew Insights into Parashat Balak – Bamidbar (Numbers): 22 – 25: 9

Israel’s exploits and adventures (including the surprise attack of the Canaanite King of Arad, who defeated Yisrael) in the last Parasha, terminated with victory over the Amorites, which makes Balak, King of Mo’av (Moab) quite concerned. He therefore solicits the services of Bil’am (Balaam) son of Be’or the Midianite sorcerer, who is commissioned to put a curse on the people that constitutes so great of a threat to the Moabite monarch. ”Now shall this company lick up all that are round about us, as the ox licks up the grass of the field… there is a people come out from Egypt: behold, they cover the face of the earth, and they abide over against me… for they are too mighty for me” (22:4,5), says Balak. In other words, ‘These numerous multitudes are liable to devour my land and my people, just like a hungry ox would green grass in a field. There are so many of them, that they cover every visible part of the land.’ The “face of the earth” or the ‘visible part’ is rendered here as “the eye of the earth.” The imagery of the “eye” (which has many and varied uses), is not utilized in this case for that which sees, but rather for that which is seen. Since the very theme of the Parasha centers on Bil’am’s ‘visions,’ it only stands to reason that sight and eyes are mentioned frequently. Thus, in the beginning of chapter 24 we read that Bil’am “lifted his eyes”… and said about himself: “Balaam the son of Beor has said, and the man whose eyes are open has said the words of Elohim, which saw the vision of the Almighty, falling, with uncovered eyes” (literal translation, vv. 3,4,16). Interestingly, the term for ”he whose eyes are open” is “sh’tum ey’na’yim.” With a slight modification “shatum” becomes “satum,” making it “that which is covered, or not revealed” (e.g. Ez. 28:3). Truly, Bil’am’s assurance about his inherent ability to ‘see’ is more than questionable. This is demonstrated very graphically in the episode with the she-ass, when it was only after YHVH “uncovered the eyes of Bila’m” (22:31) that the latter was able to see what his animal had noticed so clearly.

The meaning of the name Bil’am, just like Par’oh’s (ref. Parashat Miketz, Gen. 41 – 43), happens to be appropriate and relevant to its bearer, as it contains the letters that make up “bela” (b.l.a, bet, lamed, ayin), which is to “swallow or swallow down.” “Frequently this word is used as a symbol of destruction and ruin: Lam. 2:2, 5:8; Isa. 3:12; 49:19 etc.” [1] In Psalms 52:4 “devouring words” are “divery bela.” Balak’s intention was just that. He intended for Bil’am’s words to become a source of destruction for Yisrael. The Theological Wordbook Book of the Old Testament goes on to say that “bela” and “am” [making up the name “Bil’ am”] mean “destruction of a people” which accords with his reputation as a charmer and a conjurer.” Albright believes that its origin is from the Amorite “yabil’ammu,” meaning, “the (divine) uncle brings.” [2]

“Come now therefore, I pray, curse [“ara”] me this people… for I know that he whom you bless is blessed and he whom you curse is cursed” (22: 6), is the essence of Balak’s assignment for Bil’am. When the latter quotes the former (in 22: 11), he uses “kava” for “curse.” Hebrew is replete with verbs having to do with “cursing.” The most common is “kalel” (k.l.l, kof, lamed, lamed) which stems from “kal” meaning “light” and “easy,” inferring “of no esteem,” with its primal meaning being therefore, by default, “no blessing.” However a.r.r (alef, resh, resh) and k.v.v (kof, vet, vet), which are used in this narrative, are more ‘dynamic.’ “On the basis of the Akkadian “araru,” the Hebrew arar is to snare or bind, and the noun irritu is a noose or a sling. Brichto, following Speiser, advances the interpretation that the Hebrew “arar” means to bind (with a spell), hem in with obstacles, and render powerless to resist. Thus the original curse in B’resheet (Genesis 3:14, 17 ‘cursed are you above all cattle’ and ‘cursed is the ground for your sake’( means you are banned/anathematized from all the other animals and condemned be the soil on your account. Kavav connotes the act of uttering a formula designed to undo its object. The most frequent use of this root relates to the incident involving Bil’am and Balak. Certainly the ‘magical’ belief and intent of Balak is prominent here.” [3] Both a.r.r and k.v.v are used throughout the Parasha, denoting that the issue at stake is steeped in witchcraft. Several other terms found here verify that fact. In 22:7 the elders of Mo’av and Midian come with “divinations – “k’samim” - in their hands.” Again, in 23:23 we read the words that YHVH puts in Bila’ms’ mouth: “There is no enchantment in Jacob and no divination – “kesem” – in Israel.” And thusly “it shall be said to Jacob and to Israel what YHVH has wrought” (literal translation, italics added), and not that which the diviners and sorcerers have uttered. Therefore “when Balaam saw that it pleased YHVH to bless Israel, he went not, as at other times, to seek for enchantments [“n’cha’shim”], but he set his face toward the wilderness” (24:1).

An interesting encounter forms a prelude to Bil’am’s oracles about Yisrael. As he is about to walk with Balak’s messengers (“mal’achim”), “the angel – “mal’ach” - of YHVH stood in the way as an adversary – “(le)satan” - against him… with his sword drawn in his hand (22:23,32). Juxtaposing “mal’ach” with “satan,” in this particular context may allude to YHVH’s supremacy over all powers and to the control He exerts over them to the point of using them (simultaneously and/or intermittently) for His own purposes.

However, the would-be prophet, unlike his she-ass, is unaware of YHVH’s messenger. When the animal is forced to divert from the path and to put its master in what appears - to him - as a compromising situation, Bil’am loses his temper and strikes the ass with his staff (22:27). What ensues is the most improbable dialog between a man and his donkey. Thus, Bil’am not only finds himself mishandled physically, he also has to deal with his own unjustified anger and express regret to a vindicated beast. And as if this is not enough, when his eyes are opened, he is the one who is seen as the blind fool who incurs a rebuke from the angel: “And the ass saw me, and turned from me these three times: unless she had turned from me, surely now also I would have slain you, and saved her alive” (22:33). Bil’am forthwith admits to being wrong, and only then is given permission to “go with the men,” while at the same time he is warned to utter only that which YHVH will speak to him (ref. v. 35). In the dialog between Bil’am and his she-ass, the latter justifies her conduct by asking (rhetorically) if she had ever caused her master any trouble “as a rule.” “A’has’ken his’kanti?” is the question. “Sachen” (s.ch.n, samech, chaf, noon) in this context is “customarily or habitually.” In other words, “has it been my custom (to so treat you)?” The root s.ch.n, however, also means to “be of use, benefit or service,” as indeed the she-ass had been in the past, and even more so in this particular case, acting as a tool in the hand of YHVH.

Three times in this text we encounter the phrase, “three times” (22:28,32,33). The word for “times” here is “r’galim” (“regel” singular). “Time” as referred to here, is “an occurrence, event, or occasion.” The much more common phrase is “pa’am” (a word we briefly looked at in Parashat Tetzaveh, Ex. 28; 33, where we noted that it means, among other things, “pulse or beat”). “Regel” on the other hand, is the word for “foot.” It is evident that both “pa’am” and “regel” connote movement, which of course is an indication of the passing of time, but also, and especially in the case of the latter (“regel”), point to a purposeful advance such as walking. Since walking assumes an arrival, and arrival points to a specific destination (a place), we are led once more to the conclusion that in the Hebrew mind there exists an interrelation between time and place (as we have already observed when we examined “mo’ed” - appointed time in Leviticus 23, Parashat Emor). It was Bil’am’s crushed “regel” (“foot” in 22:25) which prevented him from arriving at his destination, thus perhaps prompting the usage of “r’galim” for “times,” rather than “p’amim” (both in the plural). Note that at the end of Parashat Chu’kat we met the spies that Moshe had dispatched (21:32), who were called “m’raglim,” again of the root r.g.l, not to mention “ragal,” which means “slanderer” (e.g. Ps. 15:3), thus taking us back to our protagonist.

The extraordinary episode just experienced by Bil’am proves to be part of his preparation for speaking YHVH words, couched in four powerful prophetic oracles describing Elohim’s intended destiny for His people. “The three blessings are… differentiated in their relation to the time factor; the first one refers to the immediate present, to the generation of the wilderness facing him, the second to the immediate future, to the generation which would conquer the land, whilst the third concerns the distant future, to an era when wars and conquests will be no more and when the lion will lie down to rest after it has finished its task” [4] However, there is a fourth blessing, one which has not been solicited (as a curse) by Balak (24:14-19).

After uttering the curses-turned-blessings, the angry king commands his appointee to flee, adding the following: “I thought to promote you to great honor; but, lo, YHVH has kept you back from honor” (24:11). Stubborn and blind, Balak dares to make the statement, “YHVH has kept you back from honor” (“kept you back” being “mah’nah”, m.n.a, mem, noon, ayin, meaning “withheld”)! It is at this point that Bil’am, now as a persona-non-grata, offers to speak out what “this people [Yisrael] will do to your [Balak’s] people in the latter days” (24:14). What comes next does not please the Moabite monarch, but at the same time (surprisingly) does not incur his protest (perhaps because of the late date ascribed to it). At the end of a very significant prophecy pertaining to Yisrael and to some of its neighbors, the two men depart silently; one “to his place,” while the other is said to be “on his way” (v. 25). All the pomp and ceremony planned by Balak have just been deflated without as much as another word.

The story of a pagan enchanter and magician, who is commissioned by an equally pagan king to lay a debilitating curse on YHVH’s people, and whose mouth utters some of the most profound words regarding the very people whom he is called to curse, is rather curious and stands out in the Torah narrative. The addition of the talking donkey episode makes for an even more intriguing text. “The dialog between the man and the ass, [as interpreted by some of the commentators] is the Torah’s scornful commentary on the imaginary powers ascribed to sorcerers, its mockery of human gullibility, in believing in the power of the magician to curse and subject the supernatural to his will.” [5] Thus, the story of the she-ass echoes that of Bil’am’s and his so called wonder-working abilities. But, if an ass can talk, so can a con man be made to speak out YHVH’s words, calling to mind what 1st Corinthians 1 has to say about those who are wise in their own eyes: ”I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent. … Elohim has chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise… [and] the things which are mighty; … and things which are not, to bring to naught things that are: That no flesh should glory in his presence “ (vv. 19, 27-29). In the end, it is YHVH’s sovereignty that prevails far above any and all of man’s feeble attempts at controlling life.

The last section of the Parasha actually begins next week’s Parashat Pinchas. That which was not achieved by war or by sorcery is now being accomplished by seduction. [6] In 25:3 we read: “And Israel joined himself to Baal Pe’or.” In the former narrative, chapter 22:41, mention was made of Bamot Ba’al, the “high places of Ba’al,” as being one of the sites designated by Balak for Bil’am to curse Yisrael from. Several places later, when Balak’s aspirations were not realized, he took the seer to Rosh (the “head of”) Pe’or (23:28). Thus we are introduced to both Ba’al and Pe’or earlier on; a premonition, as it were, to the tragic words: “And Israel joined himself [va’yitza’med – “clung”] to Ba’al Pe’or.” And is it a coincidence that Pe’or is similar to the verb “pa’or” (p.a.r, pey, ayin, resh), which means to “open wide,” such as is employed by Yisha’ya’hu (Isaiah) in 5:14: ”Therefore hell has enlarged herself, and opened [“pa’ara”, root p.a.r) her mouth without measure: and their glory, and their multitude, and their pomp, and he that rejoices, shall descend into it”? Indeed the elders of the people were “destroyed before YHVH against the sun” (25:4). Here “destroyed” is from the root y.k.a (yod, kof, ayin), literally meaning to “dislocate or pluck out” from the roots. Thus, the leaders who did not take care to root out sin were now the ones to be “rooted out.”

1 Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, ed. R. Laird Harris, Moody Press, Chicago,
2 Ibid.
3 Ibid.
4 New Studies in Devarim, Nechama Leibowitz, trans. Aryeh Newman. Eliner
Library, Department for Torah Education and Culture in the Diaspora. Hemed Books Inc.,
Brooklyn, N.Y
5 Ibid.
6 Gill Commentary, Online Bible

Hebrew Insights into Parashat Chu'kat – Bamidbar (Numbers) 19 – 22:1

Hebrew Insights into Parashat Chu'kat – Bamidbar (Numbers) 19 – 22:1

This week’s Parashat Chu'kat (“statute of…”), not unlike many of the other Parashot, deals with several issues, some of which are unrelated or appear to be so. Moreover, a number of these topics are clouded over with an air of mystery, or at least with insufficient information, leaving us wondering as to their full meaning. Nechama Leibowitz [1] lists for us some of the queries which our Parasha gives rise to:
1) Chapter 19: “The chapter on the red heifer… is one of the most mystifying in the Torah…
[which] even the wisdom of the wisest of men failed to fathom.”
2) Chapter 20:7-13: “What was Moses’ sin for which he was so severely punished?”
3) Chapter 20:14-21: “What was the point of referring to all their [Israel’s] travail? Did
Moses wish to arouse their [the Edomites’] compassion?”
4) Chapter 21:1-3: “What made the King of Arad attack the Israelites? Especially with view to
the assertion made in the Song of the Red Sea that all the nations of the world were terror-
struck by the Divine miracles and dared not interfere with Israel (Ex. 15:14-15)?”
5) Chapter 21:4-9: “The serpents’ description as “fiery,” which in Hebrew is seraphim
[s’rafim], is curious in itself, but more so is this method given to Moses to heal the victims
[which] is somewhat strange” and “has puzzled many commentators…”

Although we shall not make an attempt to solve these puzzles, word investigations may help us to connect some of these ideas and discover a possible ‘internal logic’ within Parashat Chu’kat.

The red heifer, described as being "without blemish, in which there is no defect (“t’mee’ma”) and on which a yoke has never come”, is “para – cow – aduma - red” (19:2). As far back as Parashat B’resheet (Genesis 1-6:8) we noted that “man” – “a’dam” – is ‘rooted’ in “adama,” “earth” and that “dam” is “blood,” and hence the color “red.” Thus, the animal used in the purification process, whose blood was to be sprinkled (ref. 19:4) was ‘earthy,’ but was also without blemish or defect, recalling the humanity of Messiah (who “was in all points tempted as we are,” Heb. 4:15), as well as His perfection (“a lamb without blemish and without spot,” 1Pet. 1:19). Messiah is also the One who turns our scarlet sins, making them as white as snow and wool (ref. Is. 1:18). The mixture contained the ashes of the red heifer and the “scarlet of a [special] worm (tolah),” referring to the same scarlet (of the sins) that we just read about in Yisha’ya’hu-Isaiah (in both cases literal translation). It was this mixture which was made available to the impure for “cleansing” or “purification,” with the verb used being “yit’cha’teh” (“shall cleanse himself”, v. 12ff). The root of this type of purification is ch.t.a. (chet, tet, alef), which means “sin” (as we have already seen a number of times, e.g. Ex. 29:36; Lev. 6:19; 14:49 etc.). In the past we have noted that the remedy, or cure, for "missing the mark" (i.e. sinning) is already taken into account in sin’s very definition. This principle takes us to another topic of examination contained in the Parasha - the bronze serpent: “And it shall be that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, shall live" (21:8). Once again, the very cause of the disease (the serpents’ bite) also becomes, symbolically, its cure. Additionally, the serpents’ rendering as “srafim” (“fiery or burning”, of the root s.r.f – sin, resh, fey) forms another link to the red heifer (whose carcass was to be burnt), as the same root for “burning” is employed several times in the course of the red heifer passage.

At the very onset of the narrative, which leads up to Moshe smiting the rock, the congregation gathers around him and Ah’aron, striving with them (ref. 20:2,3). “Striving” is “meriva” (y.r.b/v, yod, resh, bet/vet), and as we read concerning the Waters of Meriva (Parashat B’shalach, Ex. 17:7), here too it says: “This is the water of Meribah, because the children of Israel contended [“ravu”] with YHVH, and He was hallowed among them” (20:13). Right along with the striving comes rebellion and opposition. In verse 10 Moshe addresses the “rebels” who are called “morim” - “those who are contentious or disobedient.” The root is m.r.h (mem, resh, hey) and it means “oppose.” Moshe, like Y’chezkel (Ezekiel), was not to be “rebellious [“meri”] like that rebellious house [“beit ha-meri”]” (Ez. 2:8) of Yisrael, and although commanded to “take the rod,” he was to speak peaceably to the rock (ref. 20:8). Moshe and Ah’aron, however, failed, proving their faith to be deficient (20:12) and acted much like their compatriots.

Moshe’s “rod” is called “ma’teh,” which aside from being rooted in the verb to “stretch out” also means to “incline, turn or turn away.” Thus, it was the rod, symbolic of Moshe and A’haron’s authority, which the people followed, while the two leaders had the power to turn their subordinates either toward YHVH or away from Him.

The next part of the chapter presents Moshe’s surprising approach to the Edomites (20:14-21), whose compassion he appears to be seeking, promising that the procession of Israelites will not trespass or trample down their land, nor use anything of theirs along the road saying, “we will not turn aside (“nita”, once again of the root n.t.h that we just looked at) to the right hand or to the left” (v. 17). And when “Edom refused to give Israel passage through his territory, Israel turned away [“va-yet”] from him” (v. 21). Thus the last two episodes (the people’s rebellion and Moshe’s response, and the Edomites’ retort) seem to be characterized by acts of “turning” and “diversions” (of the root n.t.h – noon, tet, hey - again) from YHVH’s ‘straight and narrow’ path.

Following A’haron’s death on Mount Hor, the Canaanite King of Arad, upon hearing of Yisrael’s approach, fights them and takes some of them captive (21:1). As we have already pointed out, the fact that he dared to do so is rather curious. However, the mention, in that connection, of the “road to Atarim” led Nahmanides to connect the sad spy episode to this present adversity, as “Atarim” may share the root “tour” – to “spy out” - which we looked at in Parashat Sh’lach Lecha (Lev. 13-15)). “What connection then was there between the incident of the spies and this attack on the children of Israel? The latter had shown their lack of confidence and fear of the future, by sending the spies. The Canaanites fortified themselves with the knowledge of Israel’s sense of weakness and inferiority. The lowering of the Israelites’ morale was followed, automatically, by the rising morale of their enemies.” [2] Thus, if Yisrael were indeed coming by “the way - or manner - of the spies” it would have given the Canaanite king the confidence to assail them.

We now return to the snakes’ story. The people complain once more, this time resulting in YHVH sending them fiery serpents which bit them, causing the death of many (ref. 21:5,6). Nechama Leibvowitz points out that the verb “sent”, “(va)y’sha’lach,” being in the conjugation of “pi’el”, and not in the more regular one of “kal”, connotes a “letting go” or “releasing” of the serpents, whereas up until that time they were held back by YHVH, who did not permit them to harm the Israelites in the desert. [3] The serpents’ title points to their characteristic of “burning” or of being “firey” (“saraf”), although the actual word for serpent is “nachash” and the bronze object made by Moshe is called “nachash” – serpent - ha’nchoshet” (of the) brass. The play on words and alliteration continues in 21:9: “If a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived.” “A serpent had bitten” is “nachash nashach” (although there no etymological connection between these two words). This unusual ‘formula’ of looking at the brass serpent and being cured, is interpreted for us by Yeshua: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3: 14, 15). The healing is found in lifting up one’s eyes to the Creator, while the object (which has no power in and of itself) may serve as a reminder of one’s sin and disbelief on one hand, and of YHVH’s grace on the other.

In 21:17-18 we read the following: “Then Israel sang this song, ‘Spring up, O well. Sing to it. The well which the rulers dug, which the nobles of the people dug with their lawgivers’ staves and rods’”. Daat Mikra Commentary says: “The digging was initiated by the ‘nobles of the people’, being a reference to Moshe and A’haron who dug it without using ordinary work tools, but with ‘m’chokek mish’a’notam’ (‘their lawgivers’ staves’). [4] A “m’chokek” is a prince, ruler or lawgiver, but it is also the word used for the ruler’s staff (see Gen. 49:10). “The usage of this term is aimed at pointing out that many miracles were performed with this staff.” “M’chokek” originates with the root ch.k.k (chet, kof, kof) and means to “inscribe or engrave” (see Parashat Yitro, Ex. 18 – 21, where we examined this root more extensively), and is thus employed in the word “statute” – “chok” or “chukka”, such as we see in the title of our Parasha (“chu’kat” – the “statute of”). Perhaps the content of this song, describing a source of water that has been dug by a ruler’s staff of the law, sets out to present a counter-distinction to what otherwise should have been a bringing forth of water from a rock and that by an utterance of a word. This takes us back to the beginning of the Parasha, where the “statute/rule (chok) of the Torah” concerning the red heifer is presented for the purpose of “purification from sin,” enhancing the idea that the “rules/laws/statutes” have to be wielded and enforced in order to deal with rebellion (sin) against the Water (of the Spirit) flowing by the Word from the Rock.

The encounter with the Amorites, after bypassing Moav, resulted in a military victory and the possession of their cities. One of those cities was their capital, Cheshbon (Heshbon). This conquest engendered a statement by the “those who use proverbs … ‘Come to Cheshbon…’” (21:27). The ‘users of proverbs’ is “moshlim” – also meaning rulers - while “cheshbon” is rooted in ch.sh.v (chet, shin, b/vet), which means “important, to think, ponder, calculate.” Thus, the combination of proverb and rule, as well as ponder and calculate led the commentators of the past to view the above quote as a statement relating to the rule (control) one should have over one’s natural inclinations (“flesh”) by self-examination (pondering and evaluating). In Parashat Cha’yey Sarah (in Gen. 24:2), we saw another connection between “proverb” and “rule.”

The Parasha ends with another spying episode. Before the Israelites venture out to conquer the Amorites, we read in 21:32: “Then Moses sent to spy out Jazer…” The word there for “spy out” is different than the one we encountered previously, this time it is “(le)ra’gel”, of the root r.g.l, meaning “foot or leg” (“regel”), a term also used for the spies who were later sent by Yehoshua (Joshua) to explore Yericho (ref. Joshua 2:1). It seems that these spies (“footmen”) were not to “tour” – survey – the land, but rather walk to their designated destination one step at a time.

1. Nechama Leibowitz, Studies in Bamidbar, Eliner Library, Dept. of Torah Education and
Culture in the Diaspora, Joint Authority for Jewish Zionist Education, Jerusalem, 1995.
2. ibid
3. ibid.
4. Da’at Mikra, A’haron Mirski, Rav Kook Inst., Jerusalem, 2001