This week’s action-packed portion begins with the paradox of the Red Heifer, a mitzvah we are asked to perform though unable to understand its purpose and reason. The narrative jumps to the death of the prophetess Miriam. The Jewish people are then left without water, since the miraculous well which had accompanied them in the desert existed only in her merit. G-d commands Moses and Aaron to speak to a particular rock so it will miraculously produce water; Moses strikes it with his staff instead, and G-d tells the two leaders they will not enter the Promised Land.
What did Moses do wrong? One classic approach suggests that Moses’ sin was that he became angry (he said to the Jewish people, ‘Listen now, you rebels’). Although the best among us can occasionally lose our temper, teachers and parents carry a special responsibility to be good role models for their students and children. Little pitchers have big ears! Later in the portion, the king of Edom refuses to let the Jewish people pass through his borders, causing them to take a longer route. Aaron dies and is buried on Mount Hor. The Children of Israel sing a song of praise about the well of Miriam. The portion concludes with the battles and victories over Sichon, the king of Emori, and Og, the king of Bashan.
This week’s portion shifts from the Jewish people’s travels in the desert to the story of Bilam, the anti-Semitic prophet who attempted to curse the Children of Israel. Hired by Balak, the king of Moav, Bilam embarks upon a journey to the Israelite encampment. An angel brandishing a sword blocks Bilam’s path, causing his donkey to repeatedly swerve off the road. Unable to see the angel, Bilam responds by striking the donkey three times. Miraculously, G-d causes the donkey to speak to Bilam – – shades of Mr. Ed, the talking horse in the 1960’s TV show! Bilam’s eyes are uncovered, and the humiliated prophet sees the angel standing in the path. The angel reminds Bilam that he may only speak the words that G-d places in his mouth. Upon arrival near the Jewish camp, Bilam repeatedly attempts to curse the people; each time G-d prevents him from doing so, but instead he ends up uttering several sets of praises, much to Balak’s dismay. The Torah portion concludes with the Jewish men’s debauchery with the promiscuous daughters of Moav and Midian, and the public immoral act of Zimri (a prince of the tribe of Simeon) with a Midianite princess. Pinchas, Aaron’s grandson, zealously responds by piercing them to death with a spear, halting a plague from G-d which had broken out in the camp.
The Three Weeks
The Three Weeks is an annual mourning period that falls out in the summer. We mourn the destruction of the Holy Temple and our launch into a still-ongoing exile. The period begins on the 17th of the Hebrew month of Tammuz, a fast day that marks the day when the walls of Jerusalem were breached by the Romans in 69 CE. The Fast of the 17th of Tammuz is observed this Thursday, July 9th.
The Three Weeks reaches its climax and concludes with the fast of the 9th of Av, the date when both Holy Temples were set aflame. This is the saddest day of the Jewish calendar, and it is also the date that many other tragedies befell our people.