Shabbat Balak

Candles - June 29th @ 8:11pm
Havdalah - June 30th @ 9:05pm
Fast of the 17th Tammuz - Sunday, July 1st
Starting @ 4:20am, Ending @ 9:05pm

This week’s reading is named after Balak king of Moab in alliance with Midian. He invited Bilaam the renowned magician to come and curse the Israelites because Balak did not think he could defeat them using conventional means.

The whole of reading focuses on the character of the magician and how instead of cursing he ends up praising the Children of Israel and forecasting a great if difficult future. The narrative shows how although Bilaam thinks he is in control, infact it is God who pulls the strings of human life. Magic is just a human tool, unreliable and unpredictable.

Did Bilaam really exist or was he a myth? In 1967, archaeologists in Jordan found an inscription describing the visions of a prophet of Baal and Ashtoreth called Bilaam, the son of Be'or, who may be the same Bilaam mentioned here and in other passages of the Bible. They dated the inscription to around 840–760 BCE which is some four hundred years after the biblical narrative.

Clearly, Bilaam was an important character throughout the ancient Middle East. But was he really a magician or just a symbol of magic? Like Satan, a word also used in his context this week. The Torah diminishes him. Shows how his ass sees things he can’t and is wiser than him. The whole narrative is a polemic against magic and an assertion that Divine directions are the only ones that can be relied upon.

This Sunday we have the fast of the 17th of Tammuz in memory of the destruction of Jerusalem that led to the loss of two Temples and our national freedom. God may give us directions, even tell us that we will survive long term. But if we screw up, we face the consequences. It is not magic that gives us victories or defeats. It is our capacity to make the wrong decisions.


Shabbat Korah

Candles - June 15th @ 8:09pm
Havdalah - June 16th @ 9:04pm

The rebellion, led by Korah, was the most serious challenge to his authority throughout the forty year period in the wilderness. It was not just a complaint against Moses personally, as others had, including Miriam and Aaron. It was an attempt at regime change. Which in fact was a challenge to God.

The punishment was that Korah and his family were swallowed up by an earthquake. “And the earth swallowed them up and their households and all the people that belonged to/were with Korah. And they went down, them and everything that was theirs.” (Bamidbar 16:32 & 33)

That seems pretty specific. It included his family and his children. And indeed, that was the assumption of the rabbis who wrote the Midrash. And yet a few chapters later the Torah says, “And the sons of Korah did not die.” (Bamidbar 21:11)

The Midrash gets around this problem by saying that down in the earth when it opened up, there was a sort of plateau, a promontory that the sons of Korah found to survive on and they managed to climb back out and preserve the family position as priests. It does sound rather fantastic. But there is another explanation.

The sons did not agree with their father. They were guiltless. The Torah says that sons are not punished for what their fathers do. But sons do not have to follow or repeat their parents’ mistakes. So that the sons of Korah were proof that it is possible to have a mind of one’s own.

According to Jewish Law, one must respect one’s parents even if they are sinners. But respect does not necessarily require you to follow them when their choices are wrong.