Balak

“Parsha and Purpose” – Balak 5781 
Rabbi Kenneth Brander’s weekly insights into the parsha 

The Never-Ending Goal of Unity Without Uniformity”

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Parshat Balak (Numbers 22:2-25:9)

“The Never-Ending Goal of Unity Without Uniformity”

It was the summer of 1935.

Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the young Lithuanian-born-and-raised heir apparent to a legendary rabbinical dynasty was making his first – and as it turned out, his only – trip to Eretz Yisrael.

Rav Shlomo Aronson, the widely beloved Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, had passed away in March, and Rav Soloveitchik, who had earned a PhD from the University of Berlin and who was then a community rabbi in the city of Boston, was hoping to succeed him in that position.

During that visit, the 32-year old Rav Soloveitchik was invited to deliver a shiur at Yeshivat Mercaz HaRav, the spiritual home to the vision and teachings of the legendary Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook.

This provided an opportunity for Rav Soloveitchik to meet with Rav Kook, the ailing Chief Rabbi of Eretz Yisrael who would pass away a few months later.

After the visit and the shiur, Rav Kook recalled his own experience as a student attending the shiurim of Rav Chaim Brisker, Rav Soloveitchik’s grandfather, at the Volozhin Yeshiva, and commented that “The power of the genius of the grandfather now resides with the grandson.” 

As a candidate for Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, that Shabbat Rav Soloveitchik presented a drasha on the parsha, which was the same as this week’s portion: Parshat Balak.

In retrospect, we know that Rav Soloveitchik – the man who Rav Kook described as a genius and who went on to become a seminal figure in Modern Orthodoxy – did not receive the position of Tel Aviv Chief Rabbi.

As a curious student, I once asked Rav Soloveitchik why he thought they didn’t choose him.

He explained that he believed it was due to the drasha that he delivered.

With a bit of further prodding, the Rav  shared that the drasha he delivered focused on the verse:

מה טובו אוהלך יעקב משכנותך ישראל

How beautiful are the tents of Jacob, the dwellings of Israel (Numbers 24:5)

And he cited these words to express his hope that the various tents of Israel should soon be able to dwell together: Ashkenazim and Sephardim, the religious and secular.

To try to achieve unity even without uniformity.

In the aftermath of his not receiving the position, Rav Soloveitchik realized that the community was not ready to hear and internalize such a message.

With the 20/20 hindsight of history, perhaps it was fortunate that Rav Soloveitchik never became the Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv and instead remained in the United States in order to help shape world Jewry using both the community of Boston and Yeshiva University as an incubator for his creative thoughts and to become “the Rav”, the greatest teacher of his generation.

Yet, as we revisit this parsha, some 86 years later, we see clearly and sadly that Rabbi Soloveitchik’s message remains unrealized.

We are responsible to continue to strive toward actualizing the dream of מה טובו אוהלך יעקב משכנותך ישראל

We must all extend ourselves to ensure that there is more achdut, more unity amongst the Jewish people.

We must be respectful in how we talk to each other and about each other.

To accept and respect Jews who observe Judaism differently from us. 

Jews who have different customs and traditions, who hail from different descents.

To accept and respect one other – even when we don’t agree with the practices or beliefs of the other.

The capacity for us to show God that we are a people that even though we may not be uniform, we are nevertheless committed to unity, so that we can merit the blessing of מה טובו אוהלך יעקב משכנותך ישראל

Shabbat Shalom.

Max Davis

Parshat Balak: Bilaam’s Blessings Max Davis (Hamivtar 5760) serves as Rabbi of Congregation Darchei Noam in St. Louis Park, Minnesota.  He has previously served communities in Springfield, MA and Berkeley, CA.  He remains deeply grateful to Ohr Torah Stone, the Rebbes and talmidim of Hamivtar, and the residents of Efrat for a lifechanging year of …

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Parshat Balak (Numbers 22:2 – 25:9) By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin Efrat, Israel –  “My nation, remember what Balak the king of Moab advised and what Bil’am the son of Be’or…answered him in order that you may know the compassionate righteousness of the Lord” [Micha. 6:5]. Who, or what, defines Israel, and why does it matter? If …

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“Parsha and Purpose” – Balak 5780
Rabbi Kenneth Brander’s weekly insights into the parsha 

“When the Tents of Jacob Aren’t Beautiful: Fighting Domestic Abuse”

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“When the Tents of Jacob Aren’t Beautiful: Fighting Domestic Abuse”

What can we do to help a loved one, a friend, or a neighbor for whom venturing outside during this pandemic can mean risking their life, but for whom being at home presents an even more imminent danger?

Tragically, over the past few months of COVID-19, even those homes which were not infected with the coronavirus have become threatened by a different kind of pandemic: domestic abuse.

How heartbreakingly sad. What can WE do about this?

In our Torah portion, Balak, we find the famous blessing from the prophet Bil’am to the Jewish people :

“Mah Tovu Ohalecha Yaakov, Mishkenotecha Yisrael” – How beautiful are the tents of Jacob, the dwellings of Israel Numbers 24:5

And the Midrash, cited by Rashi in his commentary on the Torah, explains that Bil’am is referring to the beautiful atmosphere of the Jewish home. Midrash Aggadah, Numbers 24:5

But what about when that reality is far from the ideal, and the atmosphere in the home is toxic and dangerous?

It’s true that the Midrash states that the Israelites’ tents in the desert encampment were arranged in such a way that one could not see into the entrance of one’s neighbor.

This may lead us to think that what happens behind closed doors is none of our business.

And maybe that’s true. 

However, in an instance when you know that domestic violence is taking place in that discrete tent, it is our halachic obligation to speak up for those inside who cannot.

First, let’s find a way to meet with the person who we suspect is being abused and let them know that there are professional organizations that can help them.

Share with them the best ways to get help, and make sure to follow up.

There are websites, on the screen, that can be used to help those. 

Don’t suggest that “It’ll all be OK”, or, “Perhaps the person had a bad day”.

Instead, be their friend and help them connect with qualified professionals and organizations that do work on behalf of abused spouses and children.

I would like to also address the person feeling rage.

If you are feeling rage during this very trying time that could lead to actions inconsistent with the ideal of “Mah Tovu Ohalecha Yaakov”, please, for your sake, for the sake of your loved ones, seek the help that you and your family deserve!

Even if it is on Shabbat and you are feeling uncontrollable rage, Jewish Law demands that you immediately seek whatever help you can – including calling a hotline, or seeking help online.

Again, on the screen are two organizations that can be helpful.

Mark Twain once wrote about the Jew comparing him to all other peoples of the world, and I quote:

“The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?”

We have always known the answer to Twain’s question – it is the Jewish home.

We pray that the atmosphere in our homes is safe and healthy for everyone inside.

But prayer is not enough – when it is unhealthy and dangerous, we must work to make it right.

With God’s help, we will summon the strength and the courage to actualize the blessing of

“Mah Tovu Ohalecha Yaakov, Mishkenotecha Yisrael”

Shabbat Shalom, and have a wonderful and healthy Shabbat. 

Shabbat Shalom: Chukat-Balak (Numbers 19:1-25:9) By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin  Efrat, Israel –  “The entire House of Israel wept over Aaron” (Numbers 20:29) Why was Moses, the greatest prophet who ever lived and who sacrificed a princedom in Egypt to take the Hebrews out of Egypt, denied entry into the land of Israel?  Was it because he …

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Shabbat Shalom: Balak (Numbers 22:2-25:9) By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin Efrat, Israel – “There is no sorcery for Jacob, there is no magic for Israel.” (Numbers 23:23) What is the true message of an entire Torah portion dedicated to the hiring of a gentile soothsayer to curse the Israelite nation – but who instead becomes inspired to …

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