Blog - Torah Insights

What is Billam doing in the Torah? - בלק


What is Billam doing in the Torah? 

Yes, it is always nice to get a compliment. But why is there an entire portion of the Torah dedicated to the strange story of Billam, a gentile prophet, blessing the Jewish people? 

The entire story (Balak, king of Moab, hired Billam to curse the Jews, and eventually Billam ended up blessing the Jewish people) does not seem to advance the plot of how the Jewish people reach the land of Israel. The Jewish people have no active role in the story. Why then does the Torah devote an entire portion to this story? 

The truth, however, is that the story of Billam is critical to the Jewish mission and the entire purpose of creation. 

The Jewish mission is a universal one. It is to transform the world into a place of peace and harmony, into a home for G-d. The world as we know it is a place of pain and chaos, where often evil wages war against the good and where there are seemingly  insurmountable obstacles in the face of goodness and holiness. 

Billam represents the powerful forces hostile to holiness. Billam represents the creativity, ingenuity, and strength determined to ignore the will of G-d (just as Billam was blind to the angel which even his own donkey could see), determined to destroy the potential for holiness by cursing and thereby destroying the Jewish people. 

And here is the profound significance of the story: unlike the generation of the flood, the wicked people of Sedom, or the Egyptian army drowned in the sea, Billam was not destroyed. He did not lose his gift as a prophet or his oratory skills. Instead, the passion and creativity that Billam hoped to employ to curse the Jews were used to praise and bless them, signifying that ultimately, the very forces of negativity in this world will be transformed to positivity, highlighting and advancing holiness in this world.


The prophecy of Billam remains one of the very few references to the Moshiach in the Torah. As Maimonides writes: 

Reference to Mashiach is also made in the portion of Billam who prophesies about two anointed kings: the first anointed king, David, who saved Israel from her oppressors; and the final anointed king who will arise from his descendants and save Israel in the end of days. That passage {Numbers 24:17-18} relates:

'I see it, but not now' - This refers to David;

I perceive it, but not in the near future;" - This refers to the Messianic king;

'A star shall go forth from Jacob' - This refers to David;

'and a staff shall arise in Israel' - This refers to the Messianic king;

Maimonides emphasizes that Moshiach is mentioned in the "portion of Billam" because the story of Billam signifies the era of Moshiach. As Maimonides states: He will then improve the entire world, motivating all the nations to serve God together, as stated (Tzephaniah 3:9): 'I will transform the peoples to a purer language that they all will call upon the name of God and serve Him with one purpose.'

(Adapted from the teaching of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos 23, Balak 1)

The Mystery of the Copper Serpent - חוקת

The Mystery of the Copper Serpent 

When the Jewish people were bitten by snakes, as a consequence of their complaint against G-d and Moses, G-d told Moses how to heal those who were bitten:

The Lord said to Moses, "Make yourself a serpent and put it on a pole, and let whoever is bitten look at it and live. Moses made a copper snake and put it on a pole, and whenever a snake bit a man, he would gaze upon the copper snake and live. (Numbers, 21:8-9)

Why did Moses decide to make the serpent out of copper if G-d did not command him to do so? And why did G-d not instruct Mosses which material to use to create the snake?

Perhaps the answer can be found earlier in the Torah, when the Torah describes the copper basin which the Jewish people made for the tabernacle in the desert. The verse describes: 

And he made the washstand of copper and its base of copper from the mirrors… (Exodus, 38:8)

If the copper washstand was made of copper mirrors, perhaps the copper serpent was also made of reflective copper, which served as a mirror. If that is correct, then perhaps the message of the copper serpent was as follows: when the Jewish people looked up at the serpent, when they looked heavenward hoping for G-d to inspire them toward repentance and healing, they looked at the reflective serpent and saw themselves. They understood that Moses was telling them that they had matured spiritually to the point where the inspiration for repentance and healing comes not from above but rather from within. After forty years in the desert, they could no longer count on Moses to inspire them to repent; they were able, and therefore required to, take responsibility based on their inner capabilities.  

Perhaps G-d did not tell Moses which material the serpent should be made of, in order to allow Moses to demonstrate to the people that, even in the absence of a direct command from above, one must employ one’s own logic and creativity to discover the correct path. 

It seems that the Jewish people did internalize the message. After the story of the copper serpent, we read how the Jewish people sang a song, praising G-d for the well of water. The opening words of the song "then sang" is the precise wording the Torah uses for the song of the crossing of the sea almost forty years earlier, yet with one important difference. At the sea, when the Jewish people were taking their first steps in their spiritual journey, they could not sing on their own. The verse reads: "then Moses sang and the children of Israel," implying that Moses led the song and the people followed his inspiration. Yet, forty years later, they reached spiritual maturity; this time, the verse says: "Then Israel sang this song:" 'Ascend, O well,' sing to it!". This time the Jewish people were able to generate inspiration independently, whereas Moses is not mentioned. 

Moses completed his task. He taught his people how to sing. 


Can a Relationship Survive Dispute? - קרח


Can a Relationship Survive Dispute? 


After Korach's rebellion against Moses and Aaron, G-d commanded Moses to take the pans which Korach's clan used to offer incense and make it into a covering for the Alter. This would remind the people never to repeat the mistake of Korach and his company. As the verse states: 


as a reminder for the children of Israel, so that no outsider, who is not of the seed of Aaron, shall approach to burn incense before the Lord, so as not to be like Korach and his company, as the Lord spoke regarding him through the hand of Moses. (Numbers 17:5)


Based on the words "as not to be like Korach and his company", the Talmud derives that it is a sin to engage in a dispute:  


With regard to the verse: "And Moses arose and went to Dathan and Abiram" (Numbers 16:25), Reish Lakish says: From here we derive that one may not perpetuate a dispute, as Rav says: Anyone who perpetuates a dispute violates a prohibition, as it is stated: "And he will not be like Korach and his assembly. (Talmud, Sanhedrin 110b)


But is dispute indeed a sin? Are we afraid of varying opinions? Aren't there multiple opinions on every single page of the Talmud? 


The very first "division" in the Torah appears on the second day of creation, when "God said "Let there be an expanse amid the water, and let it be a separation between water and water."". The origin of all division in the world is the division between the spiritual ("the waters of heaven") and the physical ("waters of earth"). The purpose of the separation on the second day of creation was in order to create harmony on the third day. The purpose of the second day was to create two distinct entities that could be interconnected, and whose differences could complement each other. The potential for harmony between the spiritual and physical realms is formed on the third day, when dry land appeared, creating the space for humankind whose task it is to bridge heaven and earth by creating a home for G-d in the physical world. 


The same model is true regarding all relationships. A relationship requires two distinct entities that unite to become one. A healthy relationship, therefore, requires both love (the desire to become one) and respect (honoring the distinct perspective, personality and needs of the other), because the oneness of a healthy relationship is not the absence of distinction but rather, on the contrary, growing as a result of the complementing distinctions.   


The Talmud's wording is precise. Korach wanted to "perpetuate dispute", Korach wanted that distinction should be absolute. He celebrated the differences between people because he believed that each person is independent and self-standing. The proper model of Judaism is that the various points of view complement and enrich the experience. The division between people, which gives each person their unique identity and perspective, is there to enhance each other, each contributing their own unique perspective and personality to the whole. The distinction between heaven and earth, which occurred on Monday, was not, as Korach would have it, meant to be perpetuated. Instead, the distinction was the first step to creating harmony as modeled by Moses in the Torah.  

(Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Hasam Nafsheinu Bachayim 5718)


Your Offering Needs Wine! - שלח


Your Offering Needs Wine!

Immediately after the tragic episode of the spies, when G-d declared that all men liberated from Egypt would perish in the desert over the next forty years, G-d offered a word of encouragement. The verse states: 

The Lord spoke to Moses saying: Speak to the children of Israel and say to them: When you arrive in the Land of your dwelling place, which I am giving you… 

Rashi explains that the commandment is prefaced by the introduction “when you arrive in the land” because: “He {G-d} informed them that they {the children of those who were destined to die in the desert} would enter the Land”. 

Of all the commandments that apply in Israel, the one mentioned here is the commandment of libations, pouring wine on the altar together with an offering. As the verse explains: 

{when} you make a fire offering to the Lord, the one who brings his offering to the Lord shall present... a meal offering containing one tenth fine flour mixed with a quarter of a hin of oil. And a quarter of a hin of wine for a libation, you shall prepare with the burnt offering or for the sacrifice, for each lamb.

The commandment of libations is presented here, and not in Leviticus, the third book of the Torah, where the laws of offerings are discussed, because the libations represent the antidote to the mistake of the spies. Chassidic philosophy explains that the spies preferred to remain in the desert where they would live a spiritual existence, secluded and protected from physical life. They sought to escape the mundane and live a spiritual life where they could be close to G-d. In a word, they sought to be “an offering”; they sought to be utterly devoted to holiness. Their mistake was that they were not aligned  with the purpose of creation, which is to create a home for G-d in the physical reality. They were happy to offer a “fire offering”, like the fire which surges upward, they sought to escape the gravitational pull of the physical. G-d, therefore, introduced the commandment of pouring wine together with the offering. Because the purpose of ascending to spiritual heights is to then "flow downward", to figuratively “pour the wine”, infusing physical life with meaning and joy. 

The Talmud equates the relationship between offering and libations with the relationship between reciting the Shema and putting on tefillin: 

Rabbi Chyya bar Abba said that Rabbi Yoḥanan said: {one who recites Shema without Tefillin} it is as if he has offered a burnt-offering without a meal-offering or a peace-offering without libations. 

When we recite the Shema we are raising ourselves to a higher spiritual plane. We meditate on the unity of G-d, and awaken a passionate love for G-d in our hearts. But just as the offering placed into the fire on the altar must be followed by the wine flowing downward, so too the fire of the Shema needs to be channeled into the Tefillin, which represent tangible, action based, commandments; thus fulfilling the  purpose of creation, making a home for G-d, not in heaven but right here on earth. 

(Based on Likutei Torah 40:1)  

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