Rabbi Yosil Rosenzweig
e-mail yosilr@juno.com

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Parshat Balak

TIn this week's portion we again examine the Ko'ach HaDibur (the power of speech). On the Israelite's final journeys toward Eretz Yisrael (the land of Israel), and after the defeat of the armies of Og, king of Bashan and Sichon, king of Emor, Balak (king of Midian and Moav), realizes that Am Yisrael (the nation of Israel) cannot be militarily defeated in the conventional manner. He sends for Bilam, a Mesopotamian prophet who has the ability to place powerful curses on people and nations, so that Bilam's power of speech might be the impetus for Israel's downfall. Hashem does not give Bilam permission to curse Israel but after some cajoling He does allow Bilam to journey with king Balak's emissaries to Moav.

Bilam saddles his donkey and sets out. Hashem sends an angel to block the way and three times Bilam beats his donkey for he cannot see the vision of the angel. Suddenly a miracle occurred, "Vayiftach Hashem Et Pi Ha'Aton (And Hashem opened the mouth of the donkey)" (Bamidbar 22:28-35).

Over the past four weeks, each Parsha has had a focus on the gift of speech, which to many commentators is the meaning of humans being created "in the image of Hashem."

At the end of Parshat Ba'ha'alotcha (Bamidbar 12:1-14), Miriam and Aharon speak against Moshe's relations with his wife and Miriam is punished with Tzora'at (leprosy); In Parshat Shelach Lecha (Bamidbar 13:1-14:44), ten spies bring back an evil report of Eretz Yisrael and Am Yisrael's negative reaction caused their forty year sojourn in the desert; In Parshat Korach (Bamidbar 16:1-35), Korach attempts to instigate a rebellion against Moshe's authority and he and his assembly are swallowed up by the earth; and finally, in last week's Parsha, Moshe struck the water-bearing rock rather than speaking to it, and lost his privilege to enter Eretz Yisrael.

There is a very interesting Mishna in Pirke Avot (The Ethics of our Fathers - an ethical treatise). Chapter 5, Mishna 8 reads:

"Ten things were created on the eve of Shabbat, at twilight. They are: The mouth of the earth; the mouth of the well; the mouth of the donkey; the rainbow; the Manna; the staff; the Shamir; the alphabet; the inscription; and the Tablets."

The universe' creation ended with the Shabbat, which began at sundown on Friday. But Bayn Hashmashot ([literally, between the illuminating orbs - or - twilight] a time between the setting of the sun and the light of the moon) is a difficult time period to define. Does this time period belong to Friday, or does it belong to Shabbat? The mystical quality of Bayn Hashmashot is the reason we Jews begin Shabbat at sunset on Friday evening and end it after the stars appear in the heavens, on Saturday night. It is during this time that Hashem created the last necessary items needed to make the world perfect. He knew that there would be times when seemingly miraculous events had to take place, but He wanted them included in the natural order of creation. Therefore, theses special creations were formed Bayn Hashmashot, at the very end of the sixth day, between dusk and darkness in that mystical time that is so hard to define. Let us review these ten manifestations.

1. Pi Ha'Aretz (the mouth of the earth) - "With this you shall know that Hashem has sent me to do all these acts, that it has not been out of my own heart. If these men die as all men [would normally]do, and that the destiny of all men is theirs, then you shall know that Hashem has not sent me." (Bamidbar 16:28-29) When the earth opened its mouth (Bamidbar 16:28-33) and swallowed Korach and his assembly, it was not an earthquake or fissure in the conventional sense of the word, this mouth or chasm, had been prepared at the time of creation. Normally prior to an earthquake the ground experiences tremors and any fissures caused do not close up. This opening left absolutely no suggestion of its existence before or after the occurrence. The death of Korach and his assembly was not natural. Throughout history, many humans have died by earthquakes, but in this case, the earth opened and then closed its mouth.

2. Pi Ha'Be'er (the mouth of the well) - Can you imagine 600,000 men between 20 and 50 years of age, plus younger and older men, women and children, a multitude of approximately 3,000,000 people finding water during their 40 year sojourn in the desert? In last week's Parsha, after the death of Miriam, the B'nai Yisrael (the children of Israel) found themselves without water. Our Rabbi's teach us that in the merit of Miriam a fountain of water moved with the B'nai Yisrael during their travels.

Again, this fountain was not a normal well, yet, its character was part of the natural order,prepared and ready with all of nature prior to the first Shabbat.

3. Pi Ha'Aton (the mouth of the donkey) - Pay attention to the dialogue between Bilam and his donkey:

"Hashem opened the mouth of the donkey and it said to Bilam, ‘What have I done to you that you struck me these three times?' Bilam said to the donkey, ‘Because you mocked me! If only there were a sword in my hand, I would kill you!' The donkey said to Bilam, ‘Am I not your [she] donkey that you have ridden all of your life until today? Have I been accustomed to doing such a thing to you?' He said, ‘No.' Then Hashem uncovered Bilam's eyes and he saw the angel of Hashem standing in the road with his sword drawn in his hand. He [Bilam] bowed his head and prostrated himself on his face."

According to Irving M. Bumin (Ethics from Sinai, vol. 3 page 85) Bilam learned two things from this exchange:
a. If heaven wills it, even a donkey can see what a prophet cannot. Prophetic vision is under the control of Hashem.
b. Speech is a G-d given gift and Bilam should reserve his speech for words directed to him from above.

The ability of the donkey to speak to Bilam was not miraculous in the common sense of the word, it was arranged even before creation was complete.

4. The Rainbow - prior to the flood, a mist hovered over the earth and watered all plants. After the flood, the sun was able to shine forth through the clouds and the phenomenon of a rainbow was able to be seen. This change in reality that affects us even to this day, is the result of the atmospheric conditions set forth when the first rainbow appeared.

5. The Manna - One of the greatest wonders of creation was Manna, a heavenly food that was pure nourishment. The Midrash Tanchuma (Parshat B'Shalach 22) defines the miraculous quality of this food.

"Manna could assume almost any taste, depending of the consumer. It was completely digested leaving no waste to be evacuated. The amount taken would last all day and rot if left over for the next day. On Fridays a double portion would fall, enough for Friday and Shabbat. The distance it fell from the home depended on the righteousness of the consumer; the more righteous the consumer, the closer it fell to the doorway of the family's tent. For the righteous it was as fine bread; for the virtuous, as course cakes; and the wicked had to grind it between millstones, or beat it with a mortar and pestle. Also, for the young it was as bread; for the old, as wafers made with honey; for infants, as mother's milk; and for the sick, like fine meal with honey."

6. The staff [of Moshe] - We read in Shemot (Exodus) 4:17,20: "And you shall take in your hand this staff, with which you will work wonders...and he took the staff of Hashem in his hand."
This is the staff that turned into a snake/alligator; that set off the Ten Plagues; that divided the Reed (Red) Sea; and that brought forth water from rocks. Made of sapphire with Hashem's infallible Name written upon it, this staff was no ordinary staff, its origin was part of the creation process.

Where did it come from? Pirke D'Rebbe Eliezer 40 (a Midrashic work composed by the school of Rebbe Eliezer ben Hyrcanus [c.100]) gives the history of the staff.

"Created at twilight, before the Sabbath, it was given to Adam in the Garden of Eden. Adam gave it to Chanoch (Enoch), who gave it to Metushelach (Methuselah); he in turn passed it on to Noach (Noah). Noach bequeathed it to his son Shem, who transmitted it to Avraham (Abraham). From Avraham to Yitzchak (Isaac), and then to Ya'akov (Jacob), who took it with him to Egypt. Ya'akov gave it to Yosef (Joseph); upon Yosef's death all his possessions were removed to Pharaoh's place. Yitro (Jethro) one of Pharaoh's advisors desired it, whereupon he took it and stuck it in the ground in his garden in Midian. From then on no one could pull out the staff until Moshe came. He read the Hebrew letters on the staff, and pulled it out readily. Knowing then that Moshe was the redeemer of Israel, Yitro gave him his daughter Tziporra (Zepporah) in marriage."
Then, as a shepherd to Yitro, it was while investigating the phenomenon of the Burning Bush, that Hashem said to Moshe: "What is in your hand? And he (Moshe) said, ‘a staff'." (Shemot 4:2)

7. The Shamir - The Torah (Shemot 20:22) banned the use of metal in building the altar. When King Shlomo (Solomon) built the Temple, he understood that this ban was also applied to the stones of the Temple itself. How could he build a large stone edifice without the use of a blade, or a hammer?

The Talmud in Gitten (68a,b) tells an amazing story of the capture of a miraculous worm that vibrated at a very high frequency (I believe that it gave off sonic waves) and could split wood and stone.

"Placed on the hardest wood or stone it would split them open as into two writing tablets. No iron or metal could stay its way. It would simply split them open. It could be carried only wrapped in a cloth or tufts of wool, or in a lead container filled with barley bran." (Tosefta: Sotah 15:1)

8. The alphabet - Our tradition teaches us the even before Hashem began creation, He wrote the Torah. This could best be understood as an architect drawing up the plans prior to beginning construction. However, mankind needed a tool to be able to discern this monumental work, hence, the alphabet.

Prior to the nation of Israel appearing on the scene, other written scripts did appear, but these scripts were hieroglyphs and pictographs. The Hebrew alphabet has a miraculous and unique quality to Jewish and world history. As Professor David Porush writes (INTERNET - http//www.rpi.edu/~porusd)

"I would rate the "invention" of the alphabet as one of the single most amazing discoveries in human history, far above electricity and the atom bomb and exploration of space and the printing press or any other technology."

Here are a few of his reasons:
a. The Hebrew alphabet was the first alphabet ever invented. This means that it was the first system of symbols to represent the pure atoms of "sounds" that formed words rather than using pictures to represent words and ideas (like hieroglyphs and pictographs do).

b. The Hebrew alphabet is the mother of all alphabets. No other alphabet was ever invented independently of Hebrew and all alphabets can trace their origins to it.

c. Since all previous alphabets were pictographs or ideograms (pictures that stand for words), the Hebrew alphabet further enforces the abandonment of idolatry.

d. The most concise script before the invention of the Hebrew alphabet contained over 600 signs. Most pictographic and hieroglyphic scripts contain thousands of signs.

e. Because the 22 Hebrew letters stand for sounds, not pictures, it requires a higher level of abstraction in decoding them.

f. Hebrew is also different from all alphabets that followed because it lacks vowels. The Phoenicians and Greeks added vowels, and so, are often accredited with inventing the alphabet even though the earliest Phoenician alphabet is circa 1200 B.C.E. and the earliest Greek alphabet is circa 850 B.C.E..

g. Because the Hebrew alphabet lacks vowels (and was originally written without spaces or punctuation, too) it is more ambiguous. The same set of consonants can indicate, very often, many different words. Hebrew, therefore, invites an extraordinary gift of interpretation and tolerance for multiple meanings on the part of its readers. (E.g. "read not "Banim.." but "Bonim" - not "sons" but "builders"; read aleph-tav and are you reading "eht." (the accusative particle); "oht" (letter or sign) aht (feminine you) or the number 401?). In other words, contained within the Hebrew alphabet are the seeds of the interpretive practices of Midrash and Gematria."

These designs of Hashem are not only a concise key to communication, but (as we began this "VORT") they contain the "images of Hashem" that enable us as "images of Hashem" to communicate information that enlightens us to His creation.

9. The inscription - As we will see, the first set of the Ten Commandments were written at twilight of the sixth day. The inscriptions on the Tablets also had a miraculous nature to them.

"Moshe descended the mountain with the two Tablets of the Testimony in his hand, Tablets inscribed on both their sides; they were inscribed on one side and on the other. The Tablets were Hashem's handiwork, and the inscription was the inscription of Hashem, engraved on the Tablets." (Shemot 32 15-16)
The words on the Tablets were engraved so that they completely bore through the stone. But rather than the second side being a mirror image of the first, miraculously, both sides could be read with the same clarity and format.

10. The Tablets - Made of sapphire, the Tablets were shaped like cubes and measured six Tefachim (about two feet) on each side. Though the letters Samach and Mem Sofit (shaped similar to the letter "O") have mid sections that should have fallen out of the Tablets, they did not. Also, it is believed that the Tablets weighed a enormous amount (each Tablet was 8 cubic feet of sapphire) yet, Moshe was able to carry them. It is believe that they in fact, carried Moshe and not other wise. Therefore our tradition states that when confronted by the Golden Calf, it was not Moshe who broke the Tablets, but rather the holy letters and holy inscription withdrew from the Tablets causing them to be too heavy for Moshe to carry and thus they shattered.

This simple Mishna contains worlds of information, too massive to be contained in this Parsha summery. But we see how a detail in our Parsha can lead us to a Mishna, to various tractates of Talmud, Midrash and other ancient and modern works. A teacher of mine once said that the center of infinity, by definition, is every point. The Torah is truly infinite, and any one point in the Torah can lead you to every other point.

Our duty in life is to remember that we were created in the image of Hashem, with the power of speech and the power of communication. May our use of these powers bring forth all the great lights that were created for the enlightenment of Man and for the glory of Hashem.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Yosil Rosenzweig

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