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The Priest shall take a stick made of cedar, hyssop, and a scarlet thread, and throw them into the burning of the cow… A ritually pure man shall gather the ash of the cow… and is defiled until evening. Whoever touches the corpse of any human being shall be defiled for seven days… he shall purify himself with [the ashes of the red cow] on the third day, and on the seventh day he will be pure. (19:6,9,11,12)
Chukat and Balak are always read on separate Shabbatot in Israel. Outside Israel, they are combined during the years where Shavuot falls on Friday. Due to Shavuot lasting two days in those locations, the second day's falling on Shabbat means reading the special portion- Aser Te-aser for that day, whereas in Israel the reading is the next regular Parasha. Therefore Israel is one Parasha ahead - until Balak, when communities outside Israel catch up by reading Chukat-Balak together.
Why, in such circumstances, are Chukat and Balak joined up, instead of any other combination - for example Shelach-Lecha and Korach. What is the connection between the two Parshiot?
One possibility is that the stick appears in both Parshiot. In Chukat, Moses struck the rock with his stick, and was forbidden to enter the Promised Land by Higher Authority in consequence. And in Balak, Balaam struck his ass with a stick when she strayed from the highway, whereupon G-d 'opened the ass' mouth' (22:28).
When Moses struck the rock instead of speaking to it as G-d commanded, he failed to 'make G-d holy' (20:12) in the eyes of Israelites. As Rashi puts it, had he spoken to the rock, the Israelites would have learnt the following lesson. If the rock, which neither speaks nor hears obeys the Word of G-d, then how much more should we do likewise! Therefore, decreed G-d on Moses: 'You shall not bring (the Israelites)… into the land I [promised to] give them' (20:12). So the stick brought Moses one spiritual level downwards…
In contrast, Balaam striking the ass led to something positive - a communication from G-d. In response, he showed a degree of humility when he was prepared to 'return' if it would be 'bad' in G-d's 'eyes' (22:34). And when G-d told him to 'go with the men and say what ever I will tell you to say', (22:34) he did precisely that. Even though it was to cost formidable reputation, personal prestige, and high salary. So the stick brought Balaam one spiritual level upwards…
The connection may be made with the opening section of this week's Parasha: 'The Priest shall take a stick made of cedar, hyssop, and a scarlet thread, and throw them into the burning of the cow…' The stick of cedar used in the purification from the defilement from contact with a human corpse is an integral part of that process. As the text shows, it paradoxically 'defiles' the pure (a ritually pure man shall gather the ash of the cow… and is defiled until evening) and 'purifies the defiled' (he shall purify himself with [the ashes of the red cow] on the third day, and on the seventh day he will be pure)...
Homiletically the stick reappears twice in Chukat-Balak. In Chukat, it 'defiles the pure' - Moses striking the rock, and in Balak it 'purifies the defiled'- Balaam striking the ass…
Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
Parashiot from the First, Second, and Third Series may be viewed on the Shema Yisrael web-site: http://www.shemayisrael.co.il/parsha/solomon/archives/archives.htm
Also by Jacob Solomon:
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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