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).

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.

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.

Hesitance Will Not Prevail

“H’Shem spoke unto Moshe, saying: Send thou men, that they may spy out the land of Canaan” (Numbers 13:1-2, JPS 1917 Tanach). Yet, this does not give the complete details, as later revealed in Torah. In Deuteronomy, it is written, “Behold, H’Shem thy G-d hath set the land before thee; go up, take possession, as H’Shem, the G-d of thy fathers, hath spoken unto thee; fear not, neither be dismayed (Deuteronomy 1:21, JPS).


These are words of encouragement; however, the people responded with caution, requesting of Moshe, “Let us send men before us, that they may search the land” (Deuteronomy 1:22, JPS). This is the prior conversation between Moshe and the people, before the opening words of the parashas, where H’Shem literally says, if you would like to send men, send men for yourself.” In other words, H’Shem left the actual decision to Moshe, whether or not to grant the request of the people to send out spies into the land of Canaan.

Previously, B’nei Yisrael had been told that they “would inherit their land, a land that flows with milk and honey” (Leviticus 20:24). When the ten spies spoke of the fruit of the land, including a cluster of grapes, carried by four men, on two sets of poles, crossways, and a giant pomegranate, they concurred that the land was truly, a land of milk and honey. Yet, they continued with their words to the people, by interjecting the conjunction, but, proceeding to give a negative bias on the local inhabitants, and the land itself.

The people were demoralized by their report; consequently, they were not intent on entering the land at that point in time. This is the generation that H’Shem decreed, would pass away during the next thirty-mine years of wandering in the desert. Hence, only the young ones at the time would enter the land. For, this decree excepted the women and children; only the men eligible for the legion, who were fit for battle passed away, as if by natural causes, over the next thirty-nine years. With the exception of Joshua and Caleb, who had a “different spirit,” the ten other spies were consumed immediately.

parashas Shelach 5781 – self esteem

parashas Shelach 5781

“Send men, that they may spy the land of Canaan which I give to the people Israel”

  • Numbers 13:1

The actual phrase used, shelach lecha means send out for yourself or send out according to your own understanding; this is a clue to what transpired, before H’Shem gave the commandment to send out the spies. The full account is given later in Torah: “And ye came near unto me every one of you, and said: ‘Let us send men before us, that they may search the land for us, and bring us back word of the way by which we must go up, and the cities unto which we shall come” (Deuteronomy 1:22, JPS 1917 Tanach).

So, the people, had previously been told to take possession of the land, “as the L-RD, the G-d of thy fathers, hath spoken unto thee; fear not, neither be dismayed”(Deuteronomy 1:21, JPS). However, they wanted reassurance on their own terms, that they would be able to take the land; hence, they were more interested in making an assessment of their own, to discern whether or not they could do so: rather than fully trusting in H’Shem, that He would lead the way. What they did not realize is that, H’Shem would fight for them; therefore, they should not have been concerned about forming a military strategy for battle against the local inhabitants.


Moreover, except for Joshua and Caleb, who had “a different spirit,” the other spies –ten of them –gave an ill report of the land; furthermore, they convinced the people that it would be futile to make an attempt to take possession of the land, at that time, inasmuch that there were giants there. The Torah states that the ten spies said, “We saw the Nephilim, the sons of Anak, who came of the Nephilim; and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight” (Numbers 13: 33, JPS).


In other words, in their own estimation of themselves, they saw themselves as grasshoppers, as compared to the giants; and they perceived that the giants also saw them as small and inconsequential. They lost confidence in themselves, and in H’Shem; and the lack of the morale spread to the rest of the people. Consequently, the people refused to make an attempt to conquer the land at that moment in time. Yet, for ourselves, today, if we know that H’Shem supports us in our good endeavors, we should trust in Him, and not in ourselves, so that our efforts may be brought to fruition.