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Parashat Chukat / Balak

In memory of Nelly and Gabriel Ades by Albert Ades and family.

Parashat Chukat / Balak

The Red Heifer

This week’s parasha, Chukat, opens with the laws of para adumah—the red heifer. The para adumah is a decree from Hashem that’s well beyond human comprehension. This law is a chok, a law whose reason Hashem has not revealed to us.

More than that, it’s a paradox because the ashes of the red heifer will purify anyone contaminated from contact with a dead body. Yet, those who engage in its preparation themselves become contaminated. Regarding this, King Solomon exclaimed in Mishlei, “I said I would be wise, but it’s far from me.” In other words, an essential component of wisdom is the knowledge that man’s failure to understand the truth does not make it untrue!

Rabbi Yohanan told his students, “It’s not the corpse that causes contamination or the ashes of the cow that cause purity. These laws are decrees from Hashem, and man has no right to question them.”

There’s a story in Masechet Kiddushin (31a) where the Rabbis wanted to buy a stone for the efod for the kohen gadol from a non-Jew. But the key to the gentile’s safe was lying under his father’s pillow. He refused to disturb his father’s sleep to get the key, thereby passing up on a tremendous profit.

Hashem blessed this non-Jew the following year with a para adumah in his herd. The Rabbis went to him to purchase the red heifer. He said to the rabbis, “I know that if I asked you for all the money in the world, you would give it to me. But I will only ask for the amount I lost due to honoring my father last year.” If a red heifer was the reward a non-Jew received for respecting his father, how much more will we Jews receive because we are commanded by the Torah to respect our parents!

The mitzvah of the para adumah shows the greatness of the Jewish people. They are willing to spend large sums of money on a mitzvah like para adumah, which has no known logical reason. We still spend exorbitant amounts of cash on mitzvot today, like etrogs for Sukkot, shemura matzah for Pesach, and tefillin.

Hitting the Rock

B’nei Yisrael complained of having no water to drink. Hashem instructed Moshe to bring the people water by speaking to the rock. At first, Moshe tried to talk to the rock, but it didn’t work, so he hit it. The passuk says, “Kach et hamatteh— Take the staff and gather together the assembly, you and Aharon your brother, speak to the rock before their eyes that it shall give its waters (20:8).”

As commanded, Moshe took the staff and went with Aharon to summon the entire assembly and give them water so that Hashem’s name would be sanctified. Moshe succeeded in drawing forth water from a stone but did not sanctify Hashem’s name, at least not to the degree to which he had been directed.

Water would have eventually come if they continued to try and speak to the rock. Hashem’s name would have been sanctified. B’nei Yisrael would have drawn the intended lesson. “If a rock, which does not speak, hear, or need sustenance, listens to the word of Hashem, then, of course, we must listen and follow the words of Hashem!”

The nature of this sin has puzzled the rabbis and has been interpreted repeatedly by the commentators. Even Rambam comments that this is really beyond the scope of our comprehension and is one of the great secrets of the Torah. Rashi believes Moshe sinned because he struck the rock rather than speaking to it as Hashem had commanded him to. He also states that Moshe sinned because he became angry at the people for demanding water. Abarbanel agrees with Rashi that the immediate cause for the sin was hitting the rock, but he says there were other sins before this, like Aharon having a hand in the sin of the golden calf, which caused national suffering to this day. Another possible idea is that Moshe sent the spies to check out the land. Their false report led to the punishment of wandering through the desert for the next forty years and the death of an entire generation. Hashem chose to keep Moshe and Aharon from entering the land — like the rest of the generation — since they were their leaders and therefore held responsible for the spies’ actions.

Rabbenu Hananel and Rambam say that the words when Moshe asked, “Shall we bring forth water?” implied that Moshe and Aharon had the power to bring water on their own. Instead, Moshe should have said, “Shall Hashem bring forth water?” as Hashem is our true caretaker.

In His Hands

There is a story in Living Emunah 3 about a businessman on a flight, seated next to an unaccompanied little girl. After the plane took off, she took out her crayons and coloring book and happily kept herself occupied.

About an hour into the flight, the aircraft suddenly experienced extreme turbulence. The pilot’s voice came over the PA system, asking everyone to fasten their seatbelts and remain calm as they encountered rough weather. The plane made drastic dips and turns and shook for the next half hour.

People were crying and praying; the businessman was sweating and holding on to his seat as tightly as he could. Meanwhile, the little girl, about eight years old, sat quietly. Her crayons and coloring book were put away neatly in the seat pocket in front of her, and her hands rested folded in her lap. She was the picture of calm.

When the turbulence ended and the plane finally began its descent to land, the man asked the little girl, “How did you manage to remain calm the entire flight, especially since you are here all alone?” She looked at the man and said, “My father is flying the plane. He is the best pilot, and he’s taking me home.”

The little girl felt secure because she was in her father’s hands. When a Jew knows he’s in Hashem’s hands, he has peace of mind. Don’t hit the rock; remember that we depend on Hashem, and He will always care for us, whether it’s health, financial success, a shidduch, or anything else!

Rabbi Zev Smith recounted that he once attended the brit milah of a boy who was the first child of a couple who had been married for 20 years. The father stood up to speak and emotionally described the trials and tribulations that he and his wife had gone through. “I’m sure you can imagine,” he told his guests, “All the blessings we received from rabbis, and all the heartfelt prayers we recited.” He then proceeded to tell how he made a point to visit a great tzaddik who was visiting the United States. When he asked the rabbi for his blessing, the rabbi asked if he had been praying.

The man was insulted by the question. “What does The Rabbi think I'm doing for the last 20 years?” he wondered. However, he swallowed his feelings and respectfully told the rabbi, “Yes, of course, I have been praying.” “You don’t understand,” the rabbi replied. “Did you ever pray with the firm belief that Hashem is the Only One Who can help you? Did you ever put out of your mind everything the doctors have been saying, to focus on the fact that this is all the Will of Hashem? Or was Hashem just a side point along with the doctors the whole time?”

The man immediately acknowledged that the rabbi was right. He never really prayed with that kind of emunah. “This child,” the man said at his son’s milah, “is testimony to the fact that when you truly believe that Hashem is the source of your salvation, He comes through for you.”

Hiring Bilaam

The parasha continues with Balak sending messengers to Bilaam to ask him to curse the Israelites. Bilaam was the greatest prophet that the gentile nations had ever had, and he knew the exact moment of the day that Hashem was angry with B’nei Yisrael! Bilaam answered the messengers that they should stay the night. In the morning he would talk to Hashem and give them an answer. Hashem came to Bilaam and said to him that “Lo ta’or et haam, ki baruch hu — you should not try to curse the Israelites, because they are a blessed people!”

The messengers went back to Balak and told him that he shouldn’t curse the Israelites. Balak kept on sending more messengers and higher-level officers to convince Bilaam. Then Hashem came to Bilaam and said, “Im likro lecha bau ha’anashim, kum lech itam ve’ah et hadavvar asher adaber elecha oto taasehIf these men have come to call for you, arise and go with them, but the word I speak to you, that you shall do.”

Our Rabbis interpret this pasuk as referring to an offer of gold and silver. Yet why did Hashem say that it’s okay for Bilaam to go now that there’s an offer of money? Did Hashem care about Bilaam getting silver and gold?

The answer is that Bilaam hated B’nei Yisrael, and he would therefore take pleasure in trying to curse them. But now when he was offered all this money to curse them, cursing them would be motivated by the desire for money, not just hatred of B’nei Yisrael. Now that he had an ulterior motive for cursing them, his curses would not be as effective.

The Talking Donkey

As Bilaam was on the way, an angel of Hashem stood in his donkey’s path, so he couldn’t pass. First, the angel stood to the right, and then to the left, and then it blocked the whole path. But still, each time Bilaam hit the donkey to go!

Hashem opened the donkey’s mouth and it said, “What have I done to you that you have struck me these three times?” In other words, “Why are you hitting me? Haven’t I always followed your orders well? Can’t you figure out that there’s a problem here and that’s why I can’t pass?”

Hashem opened Bilaam’s eyes and he was able to see that there was an angel blocking his path. He became embarrassed because he realized that his faithful donkey was trying to save his life from the angel.

This is an important lesson for all of us, to teach us that sometimes we try and do something, but for some reason unknown to us, it’s just not happening, no matter how hard we try and push. We must realize that it’s a sign from Hashem to stop and rethink what we’re trying to accomplish. It must be that it will not be good for us in the long run, but only Hashem would know that. It may be a house that we’re trying to purchase, a business deal that we want to complete, or a shidduch that’s just not working out.

The Ramban writes, “The purpose of the miracle [of the talking donkey] was to teach Bilaam that Hashem enables one to speak, and He can make one silent.” Therefore, he shouldn't try to curse the Jews because Hashem will not allow it, as indeed occurred. The Midrash writes, “Hashem can cause a donkey, whose mouth was closed until then, to speak, and Hashem can close the mouth of [Bilaam] who until then was able to speak so that he won't curse B’nei Yisrael.”

Ma Tovu Ohalecha

Any curse that Bilaam attempted would come out the opposite. For example, if he wanted to curse them to be poor, the blessing of wealth would come out instead. If he wanted to curse them to be sick, they would be blessed with health. Balak complained to Bilaam, “I have brought you here to curse B’nei Yisrael, but you blessed them instead!” Bilaam answered, “How can I curse them if Hashem does not let me curse them, and how can I get angry at them if Hashem is not angry with them?”

The Midrash teaches that one of the blessings that Hashem caused Bilaam to say was that there is no division among the Jewish people. They are as one, and when they are united, then Hashem is with them and they cannot be cursed or destroyed! It’s like taking a single twig — anyone can break it — but if you put a bunch of twigs together, they become unbreakable!

Another blessing was when Bilaam saw the dwelling of B’nei Yisrael and said the famous line that we sing at the chuppah of every Jewish wedding, “Ma tovu ohalecha yaakov mishkenotecha yisraelHow great are your tents, O’ Yaakov, your dwelling places, O’ Israel.”

Bilaam saw the exemplary order of B’nei Yisrael’s camps. Though they were unified as a nation, the tribes maintained their separate identities, and the tents were arranged so that their entrances did not face one another, which prevented intrusions on the privacy of other families. This was their practice so that the tribes and large extended family groups stayed together. The people felt responsible for one another, but at the same time, they zealously protected the personal dignity and rights of individual families.

May we realize how important it is to follow and trust Hashem, even for a mitzvah that we don’t understand. May we always know, like with the rock, that Hashem is the source of our sustenance. May we continually pray to Him to give everyone in the community happiness, health, and success! May we all have emunah and merit for Hashem’s blessings to “come through” for us and help us overcome our challenges. Amen!

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Amram Sananes, written by Jack Rahmey

Discussion Point:

  • How far are we willing to go for mitzvot and halachot that “may not make sense to us?”

Etz Haim

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