Category Archives: Sefer Bamidbar

Chukat

The Haftarah of Chukat is from Judges, the story of Yiftach – but it ends before the really juicy part.

Linear Annotated Translation of the Haftarah of Chukat

The relevance of this Haftarah to the Parsha is the use that Yiftach makes of one of the stories in this Parsha in his argument against the claim of Amon that Israel stole their land.

Diplomatic Solution

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Chukat – Diplomatic Solution

Parshat Chukat describes a political incident that is referenced in the Haftarah of Chukat, which took place some three hundred years later. As the Jewish People approached the Land of Israel from the south-east, they needed to pass through lands belonging to other nations. Moshe sent his diplomatic envoys to ask for permission to do so. Edom, the nation on the south, refused to let them pass, and, per G-d’s instructions, they respected their wishes and Moshe led them on a long detour around their lands. However, when they approached the land of the Emori, G-d told Moshe:

קוּמוּ סְּעוּ וְעִבְרוּ אֶת נַחַל אַרְנֹן רְאֵה נָתַתִּי בְיָדְךָ אֶת סִיחֹן מֶלֶךְ חֶשְׁבּוֹן הָאֱמֹרִי וְאֶת אַרְצוֹ הָחֵל רָשׁ וְהִתְגָּר בּוֹ מִלְחָמָה: הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה אָחֵל תֵּת פַּחְדְּךָ וְיִרְאָתְךָ עַל פְּנֵי הָעַמִּים תַּחַת כָּל הַשָּׁמָיִם אֲשֶׁר יִשְׁמְעוּן שִׁמְעֲךָ וְרָגְזוּ וְחָלוּ מִפָּנֶיךָ:
Go, travel, cross the river Arnon. See, I have given over to you Sichon king of Cheshbon the Emori, and his land; begin occupying and start a war with him. Today I will begin putting the fear and awe of you upon all the nations under the sky, that will hear your tale, and will fail before you.” (Devarim 2:24)

Part of G-d’s plan for the conquest of the Land of Israel is to have the Jewish People win a decisive war against one of the strongest nations in the area. They would thus earn a reputation for being so strong and powerful that it would utterly destroy the morale of all the nations in the area, and make conquest much easier.

One would expect that, given this insight into G-d’s plan, that Moshe would seek a pretext for attacking the Emori in order to start this war and carry out the plan. However, that is not what he does. Our Parsha tells us:

וַיִּשְׁלַח יִשְׂרָאֵל מַלְאָכִים אֶל סִיחֹן מֶלֶךְ הָאֱמֹרִי לֵאמֹר: אֶעְבְּרָה בְאַרְצֶךָ לֹא נִטֶּה בְּשָׂדֶה וּבְכֶרֶם לֹא נִשְׁתֶּה מֵי בְאֵר בְּדֶרֶךְ הַמֶּלֶךְ נֵלֵךְ עַד אֲשֶׁר נַעֲבֹר גְּבֻלֶךָ:
Israel sent messengers to Sichon king of Emori, saying, let us pass through your land.We will not trespass in fields or vineyards, we will not drink well water. We will walk on the highway, until we cross your territory. (Bamidbar 21:21)

Moshe sent diplomatic envoys to the Emori even though he knew that they would refuse his overtures. Even though he was told by G-d Himself that there will be a war, a war that is necessary for the ultimate success of the Jewish People, he nevertheless first attempted a diplomatic solution.

The diplomatic effort failed – as G-d had predicted – and Moshe fought the Emori and won that decisive victory that they needed.

Similarly, in the Haftarah, Yiftach was appointed to fight a war against the nation of Amon, who had attacked Israel unprovoked. However, instead of immediately gathering his army and planning the campaign, he sends diplomatic envoys to the enemy, not only once, but twice:

וַיּוֹסֶף עוֹד יִפְתָּח וַיִּשְׁלַח מַלְאָכִים אֶל מֶלֶךְ בְּנֵי עַמּוֹן
Yiftach once again sent messengers to the king of B’nei Amon. (Shoftim 11:14)

One might wonder how the Torah views Moshe’s actions. Being that he was told that the war with the Emori is both inevitable and necessary, what was Moshe’s motivation in sending those envoys? Was it a matter of propriety? Was it a lack of faith in G-d’s plan? Was it a waste of time?

Yiftach, too – being that he was appointed to be a military leader and not a negotiator, what was his motivation in sending several sets of envoys? Was it a necessary first step, a waste of time, or even a show of weakness?

The Midrash gives its value judgment of their actions in pursuing a diplomatic solution:

גדול שלום שאפי’ בשעת מלחמה צריכין שלום שנאמר (דברים כ) כי תקרב אל עיר וגו’ ואומר (שם /דברים/ ב) ואשלח מלאכים ממדבר קדמות וגו’ ואומר (שופטים יא) השיבה אתהן בשלום
Great is peace that even at a time of war, we need peace, as it says, “When you approach a city to do war upon it, you should first call to her in peace”, and “I sent messengers from the eastern desert…”, and “Return them for peace”. (Midrash Bamidbar Rabba 11:6)

The Midrash says that diplomacy is necessary even “at a time of war”, even when war is inevitable. The two examples it brings are that of Moshe sending envoys to the Emori, and that of Yiftach sending envoys to the king of Amon.

Thus, according to the Torah, one must always seek a diplomatic solution. One must always seek dialogue and attempt to resolve disputes using logic and reason. This is a value in and of itself, even when its failure is inevitable. The ideal of civilized discourse between nations must not be put aside due to pragmatic considerations and the cynicism of experience.

Therefore both the Parsha and the Haftarah go out of their way to show us that the leaders of the Jewish People sent diplomatic envoys to their enemies.

And yet, when diplomacy fails – as it does in both the Parsha and the Haftarah – and war becomes necessary, we fight to win.


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Copyright © Kira Sirote
In memory of my father, Peter Rozenberg, z”l
לעילוי נשמת אבי מורי פנחס בן נתן נטע ז”ל

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Mas’ei

The second Haftarah of the Three Weeks, which is the second chapter of Yirmiyahu, always falls out on Parshat Mas’ei.

Linear annotated translation of the Haftarah of Mas’ei

While the Parsha is about how the Jewish People followed G-d in the desert for forty years, the Haftarah keeps repeating how the Jewish People stopped following G-d’s ways and compares their path to a drunken camel in heat.

But on a deeper level, there is a connection between one of the commandments in Mas’ei and one of the sins for which Yirmiyahu condemns the Jewish People:

Chazak, Chazak, ve’Nitchazek!

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Mas’ei – Defiling the Land

Regardless of the way the calendar comes out, the second Haftarah of the Three Weeks of mourning the destruction of Jerusalem always falls out on Parshat Mas’ei. In order to understand the message of this Haftarah, we must look at its intersection with the Parsha.

The Haftarah accuses the Jewish People of having defiled the Land of Israel with their actions:

וָאָבִיא אֶתְכֶם אֶל אֶרֶץ הַכַּרְמֶל לֶאֱכֹל פִּרְיָהּ וְטוּבָהּ וַתָּבֹאוּ וַתְּטַמְּאוּ אֶת אַרְצִי וְנַחֲלָתִי שַׂמְתֶּם לְתוֹעֵבָה:
I brought you to the land of plenty to eat her fruit and her goodness; you came and you defiled My land, you have made loathsome. (Yirmiyahu 2:7)

Parshat Mas’ei contains the following verse, which uses the same terms:

וְלֹא תְטַמֵּא אֶת הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם יֹשְׁבִים בָּהּ אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי שֹׁכֵן בְּתוֹכָהּ כִּי אֲנִי ה’ שֹׁכֵן בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל
And you must not defile the land in which you are living, within which I dwell, for I, Hashem, dwell within B’nei Yisrael (Bamidbar 35:34)

We might have thought that what defiles the land is idolatry, or perhaps sexual immorality. That is also true, but the Parsha is talking about a different matter. This verse appears at the conclusion of the laws of the City of Refuge. Those laws mandate that a person who kills someone by accident must run away to a designated city , and the family of the victim may not avenge his death, at least not until he has his day in court. If he is in fact innocent of murder and it was not intentional, he must live in this city until the Cohen Gadol (High Priest) dies. Murder, even accidental murder, must be punished. It is in the context of these laws that the Torah tells us, “Do not defile the land.”
The Midrash makes this explicit:

ולא תטמא את הארץ אשר אתם יושבים בה, מגיד הכתוב ששפיכת דמים מטמא הארץ ומסלקת את השכינה ומפני שפיכות דמים חרב בית המקדש

“And you must not defile the land in which you are living”: the Torah tells us that murder defiles the land, and banished the Divine Presence, and it is because of murder that the Beit HaMikdash, the Temple, was destroyed. (Midrash Sifri Bamidbar Mas’ei 161)

According to this Midrash, the First Temple was destroyed because of murder. This refers to the purges of King Menashe’s reign, when he tried to forcibly institutionalize the worship of the pagan god Ba’al. Those who tried to maintain their loyalty to G-d – such as the elderly prophet Yeshayahu – were executed. When later kings attempted to revive the worship of Hashem, the prophets told them that the sins of Menashe cannot be erased. The impact of Menashe’s reign on the Jewish People affected not only their religious beliefs, but also their perception of the sanctity of life. Once murder is part of society, once it is conceivable that a person can kill another and get away with it, or worse yet, when the state can execute people for political reasons, there is no going back. You can’t make it inconceivable again.

The Midrash tells us that the Divine Presence refuses to be part of that kind of society. Murder “defiled” their land, destroyed their civilization, and the only way to fix it was to tear it down and start over.

Unfortunately, the second time around wasn’t much better. The Midrash continues with a particularly disturbing story that took place at the time of the Second Temple.

מעשה בשני כהנים שהיו שוין ורצין ועולין בכבש וקדם אחד מהם לחבירו בתוך ארבע אמות נטל סכין ותקעה לו בלבו בא רבי צדוק ועמד על מעלות האולם ואמר שמעוני אחינו בית ישראל הרי הוא אומר כי ימצא חלל באדמה וגו’ (שם /דברים כ”א/ א) בואו ונמדוד על מי ראוי להביא את העגלה על ההיכל או על העזרות געו כל ישראל בבכייה ואח”כ בא אביו של תינוק [ומצאו מפרפר] אמר להם אחינו הריני כפרתכם עדיין בני מפרפר וסכין לא נטמאת ללמדך שטומאת סכינים חביבה להם יותר משפיכות דמים

There was the story of two Cohanim who were racing up the ramp of the altar, and one of them passed the other, so he took a knife and stabbed him in the heart.

R’ Tzadok came and stood on the stairs of the hall of the Temple and said,
“Listen to me, my brothers, the House of Israel! It says in the Torah that if a dead body is found, the nearest community must take responsibility. Let us come and measure, who should bring the atonement, the sanctuary or the temple courtyards?” Everyone present burst into tears.

But then the father of the boy came and realized that he was still breathing. He said to them, “Brothers, I swear, my son is still alive, that means that the knife has not been defiled!”

This tells us that the ritual status of the knives was more important to them than murder. (Midrash Sifri Bamidbar Mas’ei 161)

The Parsha tells us that even an accidental murder must be punished, even when the murderer bore no malice toward the victim. R’ Tzadok quoted a related commandment, where a city must take responsibility for an unsolved murder that took place outside its walls. So what is there to say about two Cohanim who stab each other because they lost a race to be the first one up the ramp of the altar? What is there to say about the father of the victim, who cares more about the ritual purity of the knife than about his son’s life?

When people stab each other in anger and the society looks the other way, because it has other priorities, it does not matter what those priorities are, the Divine Presence wants no part of it. G-d will not tolerate a defiled society where murder is an option.


Copyright © Kira Sirote
In memory of my father, Peter Rozenberg, z”l
לעילוי נשמת אבי מורי פנחס בן נתן נטע ז”ל

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First of the Three Weeks (Pinchas or Matot)

The three weeks between the 17th of Tammuz and 9 B’Av are a time of mourning the destruction of Jerusalem and all the calamities that have befallen the Jewish People throughout history. For those three Shabbatot, the custom is to read a specific set of Haftarot that are called “The Calamitous Three”, in Aramaic, “Tlata de’Puranuta”. The first week we read the first chapter of Yirmiyahu which warns of the impending destruction of Jerusalem.

It usually comes out on Parshat Pinchas. Rarely, it comes out on Matot.

Linear annotated translation of the Haftarah of Matot

It is also the Haftarah read for Shemot by the Sefardim, and is listed in the Rambam as such. The comparisons to Moshe are clear and illuminating.

As to what it teaches us about the Three Weeks, we have : Calamity and Consolation

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First of the Three Weeks (Pinchas or Matot) – Calamity and Consolation

The three weeks between the 17th of Tammuz and 9 B’Av are a time of mourning the destruction of Jerusalem and all the calamities that have befallen the Jewish People throughout history. For those three Shabbatot, the custom is to read a specific set of Haftarot that are called in Aramaic, “Tlata de’Puranuta” (“the three of calamity”). The first week, which falls out on either Pinchas or Matot, we read the first chapter of Yirmiyahu.

One might think that the Haftarah would focus on describing the sins of the Jewish People which led to the destruction of Jerusalem, or on describing the destruction itself. However, the first chapter of Yirmiyahu is just not that scary. It only hints at the destruction with allusions and symbolic images, and the sins are mentioned only in passing.

So if the Haftarah is not about the causes of the destruction and not about the destruction itself, why do we read it during the weeks of mourning of the destruction?

The Haftarah ends with the following verses:

הָלֹךְ וְקָרָאתָ בְאָזְנֵי יְרוּשָׁלִַם לֵאמֹר
כֹּה אָמַר ה’
זָכַרְתִּי לָךְ חֶסֶד נְעוּרַיִךְ
אַהֲבַת כְּלוּלֹתָיִךְ
לֶכְתֵּךְ אַחֲרַי בַּמִּדְבָּר בְּאֶרֶץ לֹא זְרוּעָה
קֹדֶשׁ יִשְׂרָאֵל לַה’ רֵאשִׁית תְּבוּאָתֹה
Go and call out to the ears of Jerusalem, saying,
so says Hashem:
I recall the kindness of your youth,
the love of newlyweds,
when you walked after me in the desert, in a land that is not sown.
Israel is holy to Hashem, the first of His crop…(Yirmiyahu 2:2-3)

After telling Yirmiyahu that the enemies are on their way to besiege Jerusalem, G-d reminds us of our earliest memories together, our time in the desert.

The Midrash presents a parable to explain the apparent incongruity:

משל למלך שנטל אשה היה אומר אין נאה הימנה אין משובחת הימנה אין מיושבת הימנה נכנס שושבינה לבית ראה אותה מנוולת הבית אינה מכוונת המטות אינם מוצעות אמר לה שושבינה הלואי את שומעת שהיה בעליך משבחיך לתוך השוק אין אותו השבח מעשי’ הללו אמר השושבין אם כשהיא מנוולת כך הוא משבחה אלו היית מתוקנת עאכ”ו כך דורו של ירמיה חוטאין והוא אומר להם (ירמיה ב) זכרתי לך חסד נעוריך וגו’ אמר להם ירמיה אלואי אתם שומעין מה הוא אומר עליכם הלוך וקראת באזני ירושלים וגו’ זכרתי לך חסד נעוריך וגו’ קדש ישראל וגו’ אמר אם בשעה שהם חוטאים כך הוא מחבבם כשהם עושין רצונו עאכ”ו

A parable of a king that married a woman and was saying about her,
“There is no one more beautiful than she is, there is no one more accomplished than she is, there is no one more cultured than she is.” Meanwhile, her guardian came into the house and saw that she is a mess, her house is a wreck, the beds are not made. He said to her, “If only you were to hear your husband praise you in public! His praises do not match your actions!” The guardian said, “If when she’s such a mess, this is how he praises her, if she were to put herself together, how much more so!”

So, too, the generation of Yirmiyahu were sinners, and G-d says about them, “I recall the kindness of your youth, etc.” Yirmiyahu said to them, “If only you were to hear what He says about you! ‘Go call out to the ears of Jerusalem’, and ‘I recall the kindness of your youth,’ and ‘Israel is holy to Hashem.’ If that is how much He loves you when you sin, when you do His will, how much more so!” (Midrash Bamidbar Rabba 2)

The point of this Haftarah is not to tell us how evil we are . The point is to tell us how important we are to G-d, how much He loves and cherishes His people. Even when we disappoint Him, He reminds Himself of our earlier acts of loyalty and love.

From this we learn that the destruction of Jerusalem and the other calamities that we mourn during these weeks were not a sign of G-d rejecting us. In fact, it is the opposite. G-d’s motivation in all of His interactions with us is to get us to fulfil our commitments to Him, and strengthen our relationship.

This is why, when G-d tells Yirmiyahu about his mission as a prophet earlier in the Haftarah, it is defined as:

לִנְתוֹשׁ וְלִנְתוֹץ וּלְהַאֲבִיד וְלַהֲרוֹס
לִבְנוֹת וְלִנְטוֹעַ
… to abandon, to smash, to ruin, and to destroy;
to build and to plant. (Yirmiyahu 1:10)

Yirmiyahu is tasked with warning us of impending destruction and ruin, and at the same time he is tasked with rebuilding.

The ultimate purpose of the destruction of Jerusalem, and all the destructions that the Jewish People have faced throughout our history, was to build a better nation and to plant the seeds of a better society.

We will spend the seven weeks after Tisha B’Av reading the Haftarot called “the Seven of Consolation” (“Sheva de’Nechemta”), seven selections from Yeshayahu’s words of comfort and hope. Yet even the Tlata de’Puranuta are founded upon G-d’s unconditional love for His people.


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Copyright © Kira Sirote
In memory of my father, Peter Rozenberg, z”l
לעילוי נשמת אבי מורי פנחס בן נתן נטע ז”ל

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Pinchas

The Haftarah of Pinchas is read very rarely. Usually, it is already the first of the Three Weeks, which have special Haftarot of their own. It is from Melachim I, continuing the story told in the Haftarah of Ki Tisa, of Eliyahu at Har HaCarmel.

Linear Annotated Translation of the Haftarah of Pinchas

As to what Pinchas and Eliyahu have in common, to the extent that the Midrash has a tradition that they are the same person: Pinchas – Outrage

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Pinchas – Outrage

The story of Pinchas is actually told at the end of the previous Parsha. In the very first encounter the Jewish People have with a civilized nation after 40 years in the desert, the men are seduced by Midianite women. One in particular, the head of the Tribe of Shimon, takes a Midianite princess, parading her in front of Moshe and the elders, directly into his tent. G-d tells them to get rid of these people, but everybody, Moshe included, is paralyzed with shock. Pinchas grabs a spear, barges into the tent, and skewers the man and the woman together, in flagrante delicto.

Was this act of vigilante aggression, murder? Should Pinchas have been tried and executed?

Our Parsha begins with G-d making a special announcement pardoning Pinchas:

פִּינְחָס בֶּן אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן הֵשִׁיב אֶת חֲמָתִי מֵעַל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּקַנְאוֹ אֶת קִנְאָתִי בְּתוֹכָם וְלֹא כִלִּיתִי אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּקִנְאָתִי:
Pinchas, son of Elazar, son of Aharon the Cohen, turned My anger away from the People of Israel, as he was outraged on My behalf and I did not decimate the People of Israel due to My outrage. (Bamidbar 25:11)

G-d gives his stamp of approval for Pinchas’ violent zeal on His behalf. Is the message of the Torah that outrage on behalf of G-d is legitimate?

The Haftarah tells us another story of outrage, but with a very different reaction from G-d. Eliyahu tries to quit his job as a prophet (and quit his life while he’s at it), and tells G-d the following:

קַנֹּא קִנֵּאתִי לַה’ אֱ-לֹהֵי צְבָא-וֹת כִּי-עָזְבוּ בְרִיתְךָ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת-מִזְבְּחֹתֶיךָ הָרָסוּ וְאֶת-נְבִיאֶיךָ הָרְגוּ בֶחָרֶב וָאִוָּתֵר אֲנִי לְבַדִּי וַיְבַקְשׁוּ אֶת-נַפְשִׁי לְקַחְתָּהּ
“I am outraged on behalf of Hashem, the G-d of Tzva’ot. For the People of Israel abandoned Your covenant; Your altars, they destroyed; Your prophets, they put to the sword. I was left all alone – and they tried to take my life.” (Melachim I 19:10)

Like Pinchas, Eliyahu expresses his outrage on behalf of G-d. Unlike Pinchas, G-d does not offer Eliyahu a big pat on the back. Instead, He tells him to go train a replacement. This is how the Midrash describes G-d’s reaction to Eliyahu’s declaration of outrage:

ויאמר קנא קנאתי לה’ א-להי ישראל כי עזבו בריתך בני ישראל, אמר לו הקדוש ברוך הוא בריתי שמא בריתך, ואת מזבחותיך הרסו, אמר לו מזבחותי שמא מזבחותיך, ואת נביאיך הרגו בחרב, אמר לו נביאי ואת מה איכפת לך …[] ובאותה שעה שאמר אליהו על ישראל לשון הרע אמר לו הקדוש ברוך הוא אליהו עד שאתה מקטרג את אלו בא וקטרג את אלו הה”ד (מלכים א יט) לך שוב לדרכך מדברה דמשק

Eliyahu said, “I am outraged on behalf of Hashem that the People of Israel abandoned your covenant!”
G-d said, “It is My covenant, unless it is your covenant?”
“They destroyed your altars!”
He said, “They are My altars, unless they are your altars?”
“Your prophets, they put to the sword!”
He said, “They are My prophets. What business is it of yours?”
[…]
That time that Eliyahu was saying negative things about the Jewish People, G-d said to him,
“Eliyahu, before you start condemning the Jewish People, go condemn the idol worshippers in Damascus.” (Midrash Shir HaShirim Rabba 1)

G-d essentially tells Eliyahu to mind his own business, and save his outrage and condemnation for Israel’s enemies.

So what does the Torah actually mean? Is this outrage good or bad?

A different Midrash, based on the tradition that identifies Pinchas with Eliyahu , has G-d relating to both events:

ויאמר קנא קנאתי אמר לו לעולם אתה מקנא קנאת בשטים על גלוי עריות וקנאת כאן
Eliyahu said: “I am outraged!”
He said, “You are always outraged. You were outraged in Shittim about the debauchery, you’re outraged now. ” (Midrash Yalkut Shimoni Balak 661)

Shittim was the location of Pinchas’ story. What the Midrash is saying here is that once was enough. At that one unique place and time, in those precise circumstances, it was just exactly the right reaction, and G-d issued Pinchas a pardon. But there will not be any other situation like that, ever.

According to the Haftarah, G-d neither needs nor wants anyone’s outrage against the Jewish People. Not even when the entire Jewish People worships the pagan god Ba’al. Certainly not for anything less.

Copyright © Kira Sirote
In memory of my father, Peter Rozenberg, z”l
לעילוי נשמת אבי מורי פנחס בן נתן נטע ז”ל

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Balak

The Haftarah of Balak is from Micha, a contemporary of Yeshayahu, with an equally poetic style.

Linear annotated translation of the Haftarah of Balak

This Haftarah ends with a very well-known verse, which contains one of only two times the root “צנע”, “modesty”, appears in all of Tanach.

Connections to Parshat Balak include the image of the Jewish People as a lion, the special relationship G-d has with us vs the Nations of the World, and: G-d does not work for us – what Bilaam thought he was doing.

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Balak – G-d does not work for us

When discussing the relationship between G-d and the Jewish People, as prophets often do, the Haftarah mentions Balak and Bilaam:

עַמִּי זְכָר נָא מַה יָּעַץ בָּלָק מֶלֶךְ מוֹאָב וּמֶה עָנָה אֹתוֹ בִּלְעָם בֶּן בְּעוֹר מִן הַשִּׁטִּים עַד הַגִּלְגָּל לְמַעַן דַּעַת צִדְקוֹת ה’:
My nation! Remember what Balak king of Moav conspired, and how Bilaam ben Beor answered him, from the Shitim to the Gilgal – in order to know the righteousness of Hashem. (Micha 6:5)

But then instead of explaining what it is we have to remember about that story, the Haftarah continues with an apparent non-sequitur, questioning the purpose of sacrifices:

בַּמָּה אֲקַדֵּם ה’ אִכַּף לֵא-לֹהֵי מָרוֹם הַאֲקַדְּמֶנּוּ בְעוֹלוֹת בַּעֲגָלִים בְּנֵי שָׁנָה; הֲיִרְצֶה ה’ בְּאַלְפֵי אֵילִים בְּרִבְבוֹת נַחֲלֵי שָׁמֶן הַאֶתֵּן בְּכוֹרִי פִּשְׁעִי פְּרִי בִטְנִי חַטַּאת נַפְשִׁי:
With what gift shall I greet Hashem, submit to G-d Above? Shall I greet Him with offerings, with yearling calves? Will Hashem be pleased by thousands of rams, by myriads of rivers of oil? Should I give my first-born for my crime, my offspring for the sin of my soul? (Micha 6:6-7)

What do these questions about sacrifices have to do with Balak and Bilaam?

Parshat Balak tells us of Balak, king of the nation of Moav which would share a border with the land of Israel. He saw how the Jewish People destroyed Sichon and Og, the powerful kings of the Emori, and did not want the same thing to happen to him. He knew that he was much weaker than the Emori, and that on the military front, he would have no chance against the Jewish People. He also understood that a major component of their success was G-d’s blessing and favor. He thus decided to attack the Jewish People on the religious front, and approached a well-known miracle man, the non-Jewish prophet, Bilaam ben Beor. When Balak asked him to curse the Jewish People, he piously answered, “I can only say what G-d tells me.” And less piously, “but I’ll give it my best shot.”

Bilaam’s mission was to drive a wedge between G-d and the Jewish People. To that end, he asked Balak to build him seven altars and to sacrifice three animals on each. These sacrifices did not yield the desired effect: the words G-d put into his mouth were words of blessing. He tried again, from a different angle, with seven new altars, and yet again a third time. Despite the multitude of sacrifices, G-d continued to bless the Jewish People. Finally, Balak and Bilaam gave up in frustration.

What did Balak and Bilaam think they were going to accomplish with these sacrifices? Why would they turn G-d against the Jewish People? The Midrash connects Bilaam’s seven altars with the verses in the Haftarah, turning them into a conversation between Bilaam and G-d:

בלעם הרשע הוא היה סנגורן של אומות העולם ועל ידי האומות הוא מדבר הדבר הירצה ה’ באלפי אילים ברבבות נחלי שמן רוצה הוא מה שאתם מקריבין לו לא לוג שמן אתם מקריבין לו אנו מקריבין לו רבי רבבות נחלי שמן מה הקריב אברהם לפניו לא איל אחד … אם רוצה אנו מקריבין לו אלפי אלפים ומה הקריב אברהם לא בנו אני אקריב לו בני ובתי …ראה בלעם הרשע כמה היה ערום התחיל אומר את שבעת המזבחות ערכתי לא אמר שבע מזבחות אלא המזבחות אלו הן משנברא אדם הראשון עד עכשיו שבע מזבחות בנו ואני מקריב שבע כנגד שבעתן … אמר ליה הקב”ה רשע מה אתה עושה בכאן אמר ליה את שבעת המזבחות ערכתי ואעל פר ואיל במזבח אמר ליה הקב”ה הירצה ה’ באלפי אילים…א”ל הקב”ה רשע אלו הייתי מבקש קרבן הייתי אומר למיכאל ולגבריאל והיו מקריבין
Bilaam the Villain was arguing for the nations of the world. He said, “Will Hashem be pleased by thousands of rams, by myriads of rivers of oil? (Micha 6:6) Does He want what you, the Jewish People, bring to Him? Barely a pint of oil? We, the Nations of the World, bring Him millions of rivers of oil! What did Avraham bring, barely a ram? We bring thousands of rams! What did Avraham bring, not even a son? I’ll bring my son and my daughter!”

Look at this villain Bilaam, how devious he was! He said, “I have arranged these seven altars” (Bamidbar 23:4), not just “seven altars”, but very specific seven altars. He said, “Since Adam was created until now, the Jewish People have built seven altars, and I am going to bring seven altars to counteract them.” G-d said to him, “You villain! What are you doing here?” He said, “I have arranged these seven altars and brought cows and rams on the altar”. G-d said to him, “Will Hashem be pleased by thousands of rams?” (Micha 6:5) “Villain! If I had wanted a sacrifice, I would have told [the angels] Michael and Gavriel, and they would have brought them for Me!” (Midrash Tanchuma Tzav 1)

Bilaam attempts to discredit the Jewish People by pointing out to G-d that the nation He has chosen is not sufficiently dedicated to Him. The sacrifices that they bring are pitifully small. The Nations of the World are willing to do much more. They are willing to bring thousands of rams, rivers of oil, their sons and daughters; without limit.

Bilaam does a simple calculation: if G-d favors the Jewish People due to seven altars that were brought by their ancestors, then by offering triple the number of sacrifices, he is guaranteed to earn G-d’s favor.

G-d responds by pointing out that He does not actually need any of these “gifts” in the first place. G-d does not auction off His favor to the highest bidder. As Rachelle Fraenkel phrased it, G-d does not work for us. He is not an employee who will do whatever project his employer requests as long as he gets paid. We do not get to make demands on Him, He makes demands on us.

The prophet Micha says it explicitly, in the last verse of the Haftarah:

הִגִּיד לְךָ אָדָם מַה טּוֹב וּמָה ה’ דּוֹרֵשׁ מִמְּךָ כִּי אִם עֲשׂוֹת מִשְׁפָּט וְאַהֲבַת חֶסֶד וְהַצְנֵעַ לֶכֶת עִם אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ
He has told you, mankind, what is good, what Hashem demands of you: simply doing justice, and loving kindness, and walking modestly with your G-d. (Micha 6:8)

The demand that G-d makes – not only of the Jewish People, but also of the Nations of the World – is to do justice and kindness. It is the Jewish People’s commitment to His values of justice and kindness that is the reason why G-d continues to bless us, regardless of what the Bilaams of the world demand.

Copyright © Kira Sirote
In memory of my father, Peter Rozenberg, z”l
לעילוי נשמת אבי מורי פנחס בן נתן נטע ז”ל

ולעילוי נשמות יעקב נפתלי בן רחל דבורה, גיל-עד מיכאל בן בת-גלים, ואייל בן איריס תשורה, הי”ד

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