Balak 5783


Hashem’s curious questioning[1]

ויבא אלקים אל-בלעם ויאמר מי האנשים האלה עמך‏
G-d “came” to Bilaam and said: “Who are these men with you?”[2]

Bilaam, the non-Jewish prophet, was sought after by the Moabite King Balak. Balak intended to hire Bilaam to curse the Jews. Bilaam foolishly thought that he could get Hashem to curse His own people. When Balak’s men first came to Bilaam, Hashem asked Bilaam a simple question: “Who are these people with you?” Bilaam responded that they were Balak’s men, etc. Rashi explains that obviously Hashem knew who these men were. Why then did He ask this to Bilaam? The intent was to trick Bilaam into thinking that Hashem isn’t completely omnipotent, Heaven forbid. Bilaam thought that Hashem only sometimes knows what’s going on, but doesn’t know everything[3]. Bilaam thus felt empowered to try to “trick” Hashem into cursing the Jews, which ended up backfiring, as the story shows.

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Chukas 5783


Cheshbono shel Olam[1]

על-כן יאמרו המשלים באו חשבון תבנה ותכונן עיר סיחון

Therefore, the conquerors say: “Let’s go to the city of Cheshbon; the city of Sichon should be built and established”[2]

After the Jews successfully captured the city of Cheshbon, the city of King Sichon, the Torah tells us a vague verse. It describes what “the conquerors”[3] said after the Jews’ victory. Perhaps since it is unclear why we need to know this information, our Sages interpreted[4] the verse in a homiletic way: “The conquerors”, this is referring to those who have conquered their yetzer hara, their evil inclination. They say, “let’s go to Cheshbon”, this refers to calculating the accounting of the world: the loss incurred when fulfilling a mitzvah versus its gains, and the gains of transgressing a prohibition versus its losses[5].

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Korach 5783


Beautiful exposition prohibition[1]

ויקח קרח בן-יצהר בן-קהת בן-לוי וגו’‏
Korach, the son of Yitzhar, the son of Kehas, the son of Levi, took something[2]

This week’s parsha describes the rebellion of Korach. It starts off by recounting that Korach took, but it doesn’t specify what he took. To this, Rashi comments that: “This parsha is expounded beautifully in Midrash Tanchuma.” While this statement sounds innocuous[3], it bothers many commentators[4]. Why? We are taught by our Sages[5] that it is forbidden to say, “this teaching is good, this teaching is no good”. If so, how could Rashi say that this parsha is expounded beautifully by our Sages? Shouldn’t this be a forbidden thing to record?

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Shelach 5783


Avoiding theft[1]

דבר אל-בני ישראל ואמרת אלהם ועשו להם ציצת על-כנפי בגדיהם לדרתם ונתנו על-ציצת הכנף פתיל תכלת
Speak to the Children of Israel and tell them: Make for yourselves tzitzis on the corners of your garments, for all generations, and place on the tzitzis of the corners a blue thread[2]

An interesting episode in the Torah is known as the war between the four kings and the five kings. During this battle, Avraham’s cousin Lot is kidnapped. When Avraham rescues him and the king of Amalek, the king offered Avraham all the spoils of war. Avraham strongly refused, not even taking a thread or a shoelace for himself[3]. Rashi explains[4] that his reasoning was he didn’t want to benefit in any way from theft. Our Sages tell us[5] that in reward for this value system, Avraham’s descendants were rewarded with the blue thread of tzitzis and the leather straps of tefillin. At first glance, this is hard to understand. What does a desire to avoid theft have to do with tzitzis and tefillin? Why are these the two mitzvos Avraham was rewarded with?

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