Curses into Blessings

“How shall I curse, whom G-d hath not cursed?” 

– Numbers 23:8, JPS 1917 Tanach

Before entering the Promised Land, B’nei Yisrael defeated the famous kings, Og and Sichog. Psalms attributes the victory to H’Shem, “to him that smote great kings; for His mercy endureth forever” (Psalm 136:17). The news of their defeat was heard by Balak, King of Moab, who grew disconcerted. “Moab was overcome with dread because of the children of Israel” (Numbers 22:3).

So, Balak sent for Balaam, who was the prophet of the nations; he sent for Balaam to curse the nation of Israel, knowing they were too strong for him to go against in battle. Yet, truth be told, B’nei Yisrael was not a threat to them, since H’Shem had told them not to against Moab. It was only the fear that spread among Moab that lead them to think a preemptive attack was possible.

Balaam saddled his donkey, and on the way to Moab, G-d sent an angel to impede his path. Three times, Balaam’s donkey stopped at the sight of the angel. Each time, Balaam, who could not see the angel, struck the donkey. The third time, the donkey verbally rebuked Balaam; and, G-d opened the eyes of Balaam, so that he could see the angel with a sword, standing in the middle of the road. 

Yet, G-d let Balaam continue on his way, strongly warning him to only speak the words that G-d would put in his mouth. Three times, Balak took Balaam to a mountain top to curse Israel; yet, each time he was compelled to bless Israel instead. So, every time Balaam attempted to pint his finger, figuratively speaking, towards Israel, as if there was some immoral conduct or character trait amongst them, H’Shem compelled Balaam to say the opposite, in all truth, because Balaam’s initial critiques did not measure up to the truth of the moral integrity and character of Israel.

This is evidenced by the blessings themselves. “None hath beheld iniquity in Jacob, neither hath one seen perverseness in Israel; H’Shem his G-d is with him” (Numbers 23:21, JPS 1917 Tanach). “There is no enchantment with Jacob, neither is there any divination with Israel” (Numbers 23:23, JPS). “How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob, thy dwellings, O Israel” (Numbers 24:5, JPS). “Blessed be every one that blesseth thee, and cursed be every one that curseth thee” (Numbers 24:9, JPS).

The Persistence of Balaam

In parashas Balak, the “prophet of the nations,” Balaam is hired by Balaak, King of Moab to curse B’nei Yisrael. The Moabites had heard of how B’nei Yisrael defeated Sichon and Og, two Ammonite kings, and they feared for themselves. Specifically, Torah records that when they saw the multitude of B’nei Yisrael, they were overwhelmed with dread. The Hebrew word translated in this pasuk (verse) is koots. This is the same word used to describe how the Egyptians felt about the Children of Israel, generations ago, when they saw that “the more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied and the more they spread abroad” (Exodus 1:12, JPS).

The three attempts of the prophet, Balaam to curse Israel are thwarted by H’Shem. Each time, Balaam and Balaak bring seven offerings to H’Shem, hoping to appease Him; yet, H’Shem is adamantly opposed to Balaam’s intent to curse Israel. Balaam was told by G-d, even before he set out on his journey to Moab, with the princes sent by Balak, “‘Thou shalt not go with them; thou shalt not curse the people; for they are blessed’” (Numbers 22:12, JPS).

Yet, eventually, in response to the persistence of Balak’s emmisaries, G-d said to Balaam, “‘rise up, go with them; but only the word which I speak unto thee, that shalt thou do’” (Numbers 22:20, JPS). Later, on the journey to Moab, Balaam was reminded by the angel of H’Shem, “only speak the word that I shall speak unto thee, that thou shalt speak” (Numbers 22:35, JPS). Not only did H’Shem prevent Balaam from cursing Israel, He also caused Balaam to bless Israel instead. An example to be remembered, of how a blessing may be transformed into a curse through H’Shem’s Providence.

The Malevolence of Balaam

Within the overall narrative of the parashas, Balaam’s attempt to curse Israel in which he failed, is followed by an alternative plan to cause malevolence amongst the fledging nation of Israel. A curse would typically bring upon a people some sort of malaise, at the behest of spiritual powers having the ability to wreak havoc. Yet, being compelled by H’Shem to bless Israel, instead of cursing the Children Israel, Balaam was thwarted. Out of his frustration, he encouraged Balaak to send Midianite women to entice the Jewish men into idolatry and licentious behavior (Numbers 25:1-3).

Having undermined the kedushah (holiness) of Israel, through his devious advice to Balak, Balaam caused Israel to sin, therefore leaving them open to judgment from H’Shem (Nesivos Shalom). A “shield of protection” is guaranteed to the nation, when a strong connection to H’Shem is maintained through emunah (faith) and moral integrity. Both of these essentials were diminished when the people bowed down to the gods of the Moabites, and the men fell prey to licentiousness with “the daughters of Moab” (Numbers 25:1-2, JPS). As a result, H’Shem, who is both just and merciful, acted upon His Attribute of Justice, by causing a plague, when “the anger of the L-RD was kindled against Israel” ((Numbers 25:3, JPS).

Rafael Fire: Day 7

the Rafael fire: one of the many fires, currently in Arizona
(click photo for video coverage)

The Rafael fire has burned over 36,000 acres, and is now sixteen miles southwest of Flagstaff. Two highways that cross each other serve as fire buffer zones for the city; areas southwest of these highways are on pre-evacuation notice. To put this into perspective, there are over a thousand residents in the pre-evacuation area. Update: While one community in this area has been given evacuation orders, most communities in this area have now been downgraded to ready status; so, these communities are no longer on pre-evacuation notice.

Additionally, the Red Cross set up a shelter at one of the local high schools; now, that an evacuation notice has been given to at least one community, the shelter will be open to absorb anyone who has been evacuated . A Type 1 Incident management team arrived early Thursday morning, in order to take over operations. This is a national team, trained to coordinate complex fires, and other natural disasters. After the Type 1 team further assessed the situation, those communities mentioned above were downgraded to ready status.

The Rafael Fire is only ten miles from Sedona; flames from the fire are visible behind the Red Rocks, in particular, behind the red rock structure called Thunder Mountain. Areas in both West Sedona and Uptown Sedona, north of HWY 89-A were put on ready status Thursday afternoon. The Rafael fire is currently the number one fire priority in the nation, in all likelihood, because of its proximity to both Sedona and Flagstaff, AZ.

“And Elijah went up to the top of Carmel; and he bowed himself down upon the earth, and put his face between his knees. “And he said to his servant: ‘Go up now, look toward the sea.’ And he went up, and looked, and said: ‘There is nothing.’ And he said: ‘Go again seven times.’ And it came to pass at the seventh time, that he said: ‘Behold, there ariseth a cloud out of the sea, as small as a man’s hand.'” “And it came to pass in a little while, that the heaven grew black with clouds and wind, and there was a great rain” (1 Kings 18:42-45, JPS 1917 Tanach).

May the L-RD send rain, and grant shelter to all who might be compelled to seek safety and refuge from the Rafael fire, as well as the other fires in Arizona. Amein.

drash parashas Chukat 5781

A chukat is a particular type of commandment that defies rational explanation. The parashas refers to the chukat (decree) of the parumah adumah (red heifer). The entire premise of the chukat of the red heifer points towards having emunah (faith) in the effectiveness of this remedy for contamination. In other words, it is only through a chukat that is not objectively clear to the intellect, through which a means of purification occurs. It is as if the goal of the chukat is to inspire our faith in the One who gave the decree.


The parumah adumah (red heifer) offering is slaughtered outside of the camp; it is completely burned in fire. Hyssop, cedar wood, and crimson thread are thrown into the fire with the red heifer. The ashes are used in a specific manner – only sparingly mixed with mayim chayim (living water; i.e. from a water source like a river). The purpose of this water with the mixture of ashes is to purify people who have come into contact with a dead body, and, therefore tamei (unclean). The water is sprinkled upon them on the third and the seventh day of their purification.

Paradoxically, the kohein who is tahor (clean) becomes tamei (unclean) when he performs the offering of the parumah adumah. This is the paradox: the very ashes of the red cow that cause an unclean person to become clean, cause the pure person, who prepares the ashes, to become impure. “Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean?” (Job 14:4, JPS 1917 Tanach). Only G-d.


Additionally, the account of the passing of Miriam occurs right after the description of the chukat of the parumah adumah. The Sages infer that this exemplifies, how like an offering brings atonement, so does the death of a tzaddik (righteous person). Moreover, the passing of Aaron occurs in juxtaposition to a description of the garments of the Kohein Gadol. As the garments of the Kohein Gadol atone for sin, so does the death of a righteous person (Moed Katan 29a). The deaths of Aaron and Miriam brought atonement to the generation in the desert.

shiur parashas Chukat 5781

“And the soul of the people became impatient because of the way.”

  • Numbers 21:4, JPS, 1917 Tanach

B’nei Yisrael, as a result of circumstances that seemed beyond their control, grew impatient along the journey. By taking a roundabout way around the country of Edom, they felt they were moving further away from their destination . Their frustration manifested in the form of complaining; yet, the question may be asked, did they really have anything to complain about? What was the nature of their complaint. The Torah records that “the people spoke against G-d, and against Moses: ‘Wherefore have ye brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? for there is no bread, and there is no water; and our soul loatheth this light bread.’” (Numbers 21:5, JPS 1917 Tanach).

Commentary explains that they were dissatisfied with the the mode of their existence. In other words, they were discontent not only with the bread and water that H’Shem provided for them, rather, also with the means that they received this provision. In particular, R. Bachya explains, that their complaint disparaged the manna, and the water from the “well of Miriam” that H’Shem had provided for them on their travels, because they were dependent each and every day on H’Shem to give what was necessary for their daily existence. This is in comparison to other nations, who were able to store up a supply of bread and water that was always available.

It was as if they were really saying that the bread and water they received was not in the manner that they would have preferred. Moreover, the manna did not seem substantial enough for the rigours of the wilderness that they had to endure. Yet, H’Shem provided for them on a daily basis, in order to test their faith in him; for they would have to trust that on the morrow, they would be able to collect the manna in the morning, during the weekdays. Of course, on the sixth day, they received a double portion for that day and Shabbat. They were tired of this type of day to day existence, and seemingly yearned for more security in their material needs.

Because of their complaints against Him, and the heavenly provision of manna, G-d sent fiery serpents that bit the people. Yet, when they acknowledged their wrong perspective, H’Shem told Moshe to make a copper serpent, and place it on a pole. “And it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he seeth it, shall live” (Numbers 21:8). Thus, as Rashi comments, when they looked up towards the serpent, they turned their hearts to their Father in Shomayim (Heaven).

dvar parashas Chukat 5781

“And there was no water for the congregation.” – Numbers 20:2

The well that provided water for the B’nei Yisrael in the desert, and “followed” them throughout their journeys, did so upon the merit of Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron. She was a prophetess, and a coleader with Moses and Aaron. “For I brought you out of the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery; and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam” (Micah 6:4). However, when Miriam passed away, “there was no water for the congregation” (Numbers 20:2). Miriam was a righteous person; so, in her merit the water had been provided to the Children of Israel for thirty-nine years. When she passed away, the well dried up.

The Sages ask why the mentioning of Miriam’s death occurs right after the description of the chukat (decree) of the parumah adumah (red heifer). The answer given is to exemplify that just as an offering brings atonement, so does the death of a righteous person bring atonement for the people (Mo’ed Katan 28a). Additionally, concerning the death of Aaron, who was not permitted to enter the land of Canaan: “Aaron shall be gathered to his people” (Numbers 20:4), his death also brought atonement.

As commentary futher explains, “Wherefore is [the account of] Aaron’s death closely followed by [the account of the disposal of] the priestly garments? [to inform you] that just as the priest’s vestments were [means to effect] atonement, so is the death of the righteous [conducive to procuring] atonement” (Talmud: Moed Katan 28a, Soncino edition, www.halakhah.com). Therefore, both the deaths of Miriam and Aaron, because they were righteous persons, atoned for that generation.

shabbos reflection: Return to Your Soul

Today is Rosh Chodesh Tammuz, the first day of the new month of Tammuz on the Hebrew calendar.

Aside from entering the auspicious month of Tammuz, wherein the 17th of Tammuz commemorates the breach of the walls of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 C.E., the three weeks leading up to Tish b’Av begins on that day. On the ninth of Av, both the first Temple in 586 B.C.E., and the second Temple in 70 C.E. were destroyed. Yet, we look forward to the building of the Third Temple, in like manner that light always follows darkness at dawn. According to the natural cycle of seasonal changes, renewal also follows decay, like Spring follows Winter.

Tammuz is a month of reckoning, whereof we may focus on ourselves, in terms of our own progress and lack thereof, taking stock of our weaknesses, as well as our strengths. Our spiritual reserve, may only be dependent upon a dwindling sense of righteousness; perhaps, akin to the sins that lead to the destruction of the Temples amongst those two generations, especially sinas chinam, baseless enmity. Yet, I take hope, for our generation is the generation of return, both in the sense of teshuvah (repentance), and an actual return to Israel:

“And it shall come to pass, when all these things are come upon thee, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before thee, and thou shalt bethink thyself among all the nations, whither the L-RD thy G-d hath driven thee, and shalt return unto the L-RD thy G-d, and hearken to His voice according to all that I command thee this day, thou and thy children, with all thy heart, and with all thy soul; that then the L-RD thy G-d will turn thy captivity, and have compassion upon thee, and will return and gather thee from all the peoples, whither the L-RD thy G-d hath scattered thee.”

  • Deuteronomy 30:1-3, JPS 1917 Tanach

dvar Korach 5781

B”H

dvar for parashas Korach 5781

“O G-d, the G-d of the spirits of all flesh, shall one man sin, and wilt Thou be wroth with all the congregation?” – Numbers 16:22, JPS 1917 Tanach

It is written in Pirkei Avos that every controversy that is for the sake of heaven will endure, while every argument that is not “in the name of Heaven” will not endure. The discussions between Shammai and Hillel are an example of those that endure. The dispute of Korach was a rebellious argument that was not destined to endure (Pirkei Avos 5:20). Rather, Korach was destined to be punished from the beginning of human history, inasmuch that the mouth of the earth that swallowed Korach and his followers is said to have been created on twilight of Shabbat Eve (Pirkei Avos 5:9).


Korach separated himself from the assembly of H’Shem. He purported to champion the people, inasmuch that he claimed that everyone was holy, saying that Moses and Aaron should not lift themselves “above the assembly of H’Shem” (Numbers 16:3, JPS 1917 Tanach); commentary explains that Korach wanted Aaron’s position of Kohein Gadol (High Priest) for himself. He did not recognize that both Moshe and Aaron were G-d appointed; rather, he felt that they unfairly took the positions of leadership for themselves. His accusation revealed his own intent.


With the rebellion looming over Moses and Aaron, poised to overthrow them, H’Shem told Moses and Aaron to separate themselves from the congregation, so that He might destroy the entire congregation. Yet, Moses interceded on behalf of the people; in doing so, he addressed G-d as “the G-d of the spirits of all flesh.” In other words, Moses appealed to G-d, Who knows the hearts of all men, including their thoughts, inasmuch that in this specific case, He knew who was loyal to Him, and who was disloyal. So, Moses pleaded on behalf of the people that G-d would distinguish between the conspirators, and those of the people who still trusted in Him. As a result of Moshe’s heartfelt prayer, G-d decided to limit the extent of the punishment only to the guilty. This connotes G-d’s sense of justice, as well as His attribute of mercy.

“Behold, the eye of the L-RD is toward them that fear Him, toward them that wait for His mercy.”

  • Psalm 33:18, JPS 1917 Tanach

drash Korach 5781

parashas Korach 5781

“And he spoke unto Korah and unto all his company, saying: ‘In the morning the L-RD will show who are His, and who is holy, and will cause him to come near unto Him; even him whom He may choose will He cause to come near unto Him.”

  • Numbers 16:5, JPS 1917 Tanach

Korach separated himself from the assembly of H’Shem. He purported to champion the people, inasmuch that he claimed that everyone was holy, saying that Moses and Aaron should not lift themselves above the assembly of H’Shem (Numbers 16:3, JPS 1917 Tanach); yet, commentary explains that Korach wanted Aaron’s position of Kohein Gadol for himself. Therefore, his mass appeal was a ruse, made only to aggrandize himself, and his followers.


In response to the challenge of Korach and his followers, Moshe spoke of a test, whereby H’Shem will show who are His, and who is kadosh [holy] (see above). He said, take ye everyman his fire-pan, and put incense upon them, and bring ye before H’Shem every man his fire-pan, two hundred and fifty fire pans; thou also, and Aaron, each his fire-pan (Numbers 16:17).


H’Shem told Moshe, Speak unto the congregation, saying: Get you up from about the dwelling of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram (Numbers 16:24). The earth opened up its mouth, and swallowed Korach, his family, and his followers; they went down alive into the pit; and the earth closed upon them, and they perished from among the assembly (24:33). Fire came forth from H’Shem, and devoured the two hundred and fifty men that offered incense (24:35).

The fire pans were gathered up, “and they beat them out for a covering of the altar,” as a reminder that only those who are “of the seed of Aaron, [may] draw near to burn incense before the L-RD” (Numbers 17:4-5, JPS). Yet, inasmuch that on a symbolic level, prayer is likened to the incense service, today we may always offer up our prayers to the L-RD, whether in a communal setting, or through hisbodedus (personal prayer). Our avodas (service) is the prayer of the heart.