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Rabbi Doniel Staum - Parshas Chukas-Balak 5773 "A Vision Beyond"
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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L’zecher nishmas Leah ben R’ Avrohom a’h

It wasn’t much of an island, but at least it was dry land, and he was alive. He shuddered as he recounted the violent tempest that had decimated his ship midway through its voyage across the ocean. He knew he had to find food and shelter or he wouldn’t be alive much longer. He gathered all the sticks and twigs he could find and built himself a makeshift hut; at least he had a place to sleep and shelter himself from the blazing sun. He placed his only remaining possessions - his drenched wallet with a picture of his wife and children - inside the hut.

Weeks passed and he began to acclimate to life on the isolated and forsaken island. He accustomed himself to subsisting on the berries that grew nearby and drinking from the brook that flowed through the island. But the loneliness gnawed at him.

Then one day, as he was returning from picking berries, he smelled smoke. To his utter horror he found his hut ablaze. He watched as his only remaining possessions in the world and his only remaining connection to this family, burn to the ground. He could no longer contain himself.


He cried endless tears until he lapsed into a pitiful and disturbed sleep. Suddenly, he was startled by the unmistakable sound of an approaching helicopter. Remarkably, a few minutes later he was en route back to civilization. As the helicopter took off, the pilot screamed over the hum of the engine to his stunned passenger, “That was brilliant. We would never have seen you without your smoke signal.”

The Torah describes in detail the vicissitudes the young nation encountered throughout their forty year sojourns in the desert, including both internal challenges and external threats and wars. However, there is one particular event that is hardly mentioned in the Torah. In fact, without the Medrash we would not even be aware that the event occurred.

As the nation neared the border of Moav, they had to pass through a gorge between two mountains. The Amorites, a Canaanite nation, were hiding above in mountainous caves waiting for Klal Yisroel to traverse the gorge so they could hurl huge boulders down on the unsuspecting travelers. Miraculously, the cliffs that formed the walls of the gorge merged together, with stones from one side protruding into the caves on the other side crushing the Amorites. Klal Yisroel was oblivious to the miracle that transpired until they saw blood flowing down from the mountains above them.

Not long after the miracle of the Amorites, the nation approached the territory of Moav. It was at that point that Balak, the king of Moav, hired Bila’am, the nefarious prophet, to curse the Jews. All of Balak’s efforts proved futile when Bila’am discovered that whenever he opened his mouth to curse the Jews, beautiful poetic blessings spewed forth.

At that point, Bila’am related to Balak that the secret to overcoming the Jews was not in cursing them, but through luring them to succumb to promiscuity. “Their G-d abhors immorality,” Bila’am declared. The nations of Moav and Midyan wasted no time sending even their princesses to lure the Jews into sin. Bila’am’s advice proved correct and many Jews succumbed. G-d’s wrath was ignited and a plague broke out killing thousands until Pinchas avenged G-d’s honor and quelled the plague.

In regards to the debacle of Bila’am and Balak too, the nation was completely unaware of how G-d protected them. They were only aware of the disastrous sin and plague that occurred, but knew nothing of the miracle of Bila’am stunted speech in his efforts to curse them.

The hidden idea expressed here is extremely profound. Klal Yisroel was to suffer terribly at the hands of the Moavites and Midyanites so Hashem ensured that preceding the plague they would be blessed and protected.

The P’nei Menachem[1] notes that in Parshas Balak the Torah states about three different personalities, “Vaya’ar - and he saw”. The parsha commences with, “Vaya’ar Balak”. Balak saw that the armies of the Amorites - who relied on the protection of the mighty giants Sichon and Og - had been vanquished by the Jews. Later in the parsha, it says[2] “Bila’am lifted his eyes and he saw”. Bila’am lifted his eyes to see the degradation of Klal Yisroel but was compelled to bless them. At the conclusion of the parsha it says[3] that Pinchas saw what Midyan and Moav had wrought and he avenged the honor of G-d, as it were.

Three people “see” but each in his own distinct manner. Each saw what his heart wanted him to see and each reacted based on what he saw.

One of the most extraordinary mitzvos in the entire Torah, is that of the Parah Adumah, the Red Heifer. When someone came into contact with a corpse he was rendered impure. He could only become pure when the ashes of the Red Heifer were sprinkled on him in the manner detailed in the verses.

It is well known that Shlomo Hamelech, the wisest of men, understood the intricacies and esoteric meanings behind all mitzvos and laws, even those which the Torah does not reveal the reasons for. Yet, in regard to the laws of Parah Adumah he declared[4], “I said I would be wise, yet it is far from me.” Specifically, he could not comprehend why those who were impure become purified when the ashes of the Parah Adumah were sprinkled upon them. Yet, the pure Kohain sprinkling the ashes is rendered impure by doing so.

Be’er Yosef[5] explains that the very concept of Parah Adumah is an exercise in faith. It reminds us that we too have little comprehension of the inner workings of this world. Parah Adumah tells us that we cannot understand why bad things happen to good people, and vice versa. Just as we accept the laws of Parah Adumah though we don’t understand them so we must accept that the travails of life are often beyond us.[6]

The Parshios of Chukas and Balak contain many verses written in prose.[7] Perhaps the unusual amount of poetic prose that appear in these parshios connect with this same idea. Prose can not be understood at face value. When one reads a poem he must contemplate the message and meaning that the author is trying to convey. If one misses the poet’s point the whole poem seems like an unintelligible jumble of verbosity. However, when one understands what the poet is trying to convey, the message is far more potent and dynamic than it would have been if not written in poetic form.

If the parshios of Chukas and Balak are indeed emphasizing the message that life is often beyond our comprehension, then the overabundant usage of prose is extremely apropos. Life too, can not be taken at face value and one must understand that he will not always comprehend the message of the “Divine Poet”.

Could there be a better time to review this vital lesson than just prior to the onset of the three weeks of mourning for the destruction of the Bais Hamikdash? When we mourn all of our national losses of our nation throughout two thousand years of exile, and recall the torrents of tears and blood that has flowed freely throughout, we cannot forget the Divine Hand behind every event.

For every attack of Sichon and Og, there are numerous Amorites who fail from the onset. For every attempted curse by the Bila’am’s of the world, numerous blessings take effect instead.

The Ramban had a nineteen year old disciple who was terminally ill. When the Ramban went to visit him, the dying student cried to his Rebbe that he could not comprehend why this was happening to him. The Ramban sadly replied that he had no answer. But, he requested that his student return to him in a dream and explain it to him when he reached the World of Truth. Shortly after the student died, and indeed returned to the Ramban in a dream. He told his Rebbe that he was not permitted to reveal why it happened to him. In heaven they do not want such secrets revealed in this world of tests and challenges. He added that the only thing he could reveal was that when he arrived in the World of Truth he simply had no more questions. The truth was just so clear.[8]

The parshios of Chukas and Balak[9] remind us how much we don’t realize! We are completely unaware of how much G-d protects us – how many machinations and plots of our enemies He foils. At the same time we must remember that we also cannot understand the meaning and purpose behind the unbearable suffering that abounds all around us. But we must remember that nothing is haphazard or random. For all that we see there is much more that we don’t see.

“And he saw”

“I said I would be wise, yet it is far from me”

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[1] Rabbi Pinchas Menachem Altar zt’l, the previous Gerrer Rebbe

[2] 24:2

[3] 25:7

[4] Koheles 7:23

[5] Rabbi Yosef Tzvi Salant zt’l

[6] The mitzvah of Parah Adumah is inextricably bound to impurity rendered by a dead body because it is in regards to death that we struggle most to comprehend and grasp why things occur as they do.

Be’er Yosef adds that this is why many hold that reading the portion of Parah Adumah shortly prior to the onset of the month of Nissan, is a Biblical requirement. (See Shulchan Aruch Oh’c 685:7 & 146:2). In exile when we lack the Bais Hamikdash and the ability to offer the Parah Adumah we lose the potent message it carries. The only way for us to keep its vital message fresh on our minds is to at least read the portion and remind ourselves of it.

[7] The conclusion of Chukas describes the previously mentioned miracle that transpired with the Amorites and the song that the Jews sang when they realized what had occurred. It also alludes to the battle waged against the Amalkites who sought to dupe the Jews by dressing in foreign garb. Both of these miraculous events, as well as the recollections of the landmark battles against Sichon and Og, are written in cryptic prose that can not be understood without explanation from the commentators.

Parshas Balak quotes the four sets of blessings that Bila’am inadvertently bestowed upon Klal Yisroel. They too are written in poetic prose that cannot be understand without the commentaries.

[8] The following is the conclusion of the Stam Torah as I wrote it in July 2006: Last week, we were informed of a terrible tragedy that occurred in Monsey. One of my wife’s dear students, Leah Ausband, an eleven year old girl, was fatally struck by a car as she was leaving Day Camp. My wife described Leah as an exceptional girl, a ba’alas middos, and class leader. She had been a student in my wife’s fifth and sixth grade classes, two years ago and this past year. Such events leave us reeling in shock and without comment. There is simply nothing to say. The message of Chukas-Balak is that there is so much blessing and goodness in life that we are not aware of. There is also tremendous pain and anguish that befuddles us. The Parah Adumah reminds us that we must learn to live with doubts. One day, we will understand and we will no longer have any questions. But until then we must wait and believe that despite what we see there is a vision beyond.

[9] which are often read together on the same Shabbos

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