Rabbi Finkelstein


FIRST ALIYAH- The opening words of this Aliyah speak of the Chukat HaTorah, a law that defies human comprehension. It is a major commandment enabling those who had been defiled having coming in contact with a dead body or in a building with one, to resume a state of purity allowing them entry onto Temple grounds. We are referring to the mitzvah of Para Aduma- the red heifer, the ashes of which are used to purify these individuals. The paradox is that the one in charge of preparing the ashes of the slaughtered heifer for the purposes of purification himself becomes impure in the process. King Solomon is known to have remarked that he, the wisest of all, could not begin to understand how to resolve this paradox.

Rashi, in his commentary on this section of the Torah reading, at first concentrates on the halachic rulings connected to this mitzvah, based on the mishnayot in Tractate Para. However, in the second part of his commentary, he cites the midrashic interpretations as presented by Rabbi Moshe HaDarsha in reference to the Para Adumah as an atonement for the sins of the daughter of the red heifer, the golden calf, based on the account in Exodus,32. “Let the mother, (the heifer), clean up after the mess made by the daughter, (the golden calf).

This same Aliyah also introduces us to the second generation of Israelites in the desert, who in similar fashion to the preceding generation, complain about the lack of water. Their complaints arise in the aftermath of the death of Miriam, which also results in the cessation of their water supply from the well of Miriam.

SECOND ALIYAH- The second Aliyah continue with the account of Hashem’s command to Moshe and to Aaron to speak to a rock which shall bring forth water. This miraculous response would strengthen the religious commitment of the people of Israel and sanctify the name of G-d. However, Moshe hits the rock with his staff, prompting Hashem to declare to Moshe and to Aaron that in failing to fulfill Hashem’s word, they are hereby condemned to die in the desert and do not merit entering into the land of Israel.

Different commentaries enlighten us to the actual sin that Moshe commits in failing to speak to the rock. Rashi writes that one understands the text literally, in that by hitting the rock, Moshe acts contrary to that which he is commanded. The Ramban cites those who say that Moshe hits the rock in anger and states that the text castigates Moshe for declaring the people of Israel to be rebels. The Chizkuni writes that by hitting the rock as opposed to speaking to it, would somehow give the impression to the people of Israel that Moshe is aware there is a water source underneath that rock. As a result, therefore, the hitting of the rock would simply be a maneuver to uncover that water source. The Ohr Hachaim indicates that Aaron bears responsibility for not having prevented Moshe from hitting the rock.

The Aliyah continues with an account of Edom’s refusal to allow the people of Israel to go through their territory to reach Canaan. The Israelites offer to buy food and water as a matter of respecting their prospective ‘hosts’, but are rebuffed by the Edomites.(Rashi)

THIRD ALIYAH- We read of the death of Aaron who is mourned by all because he was a pursuer and lover of peace who worked to reconcile disputing spouses. Prior to his death, Aaron removes his priestly clothes, giving them to Elazar, his son and successor as Kohen Gadol. Aaron dies, by what the rabbis of the Talmud, call the ‘kiss of death.’

In the aftermath of the death of Aaron, the Amalekites dressed as Canaanites attack the people of Israel, and are defeated by the Israelites. Following that victory, the people of Israel once again complain about their lack of food and drink, prompting Hashem to send poisonous snakes to attack them. Rashi indicates the poisonous snakes are sent in response to the Lashon Hara (evil speech) spread by the Israelites about G-d and Moshe. Moshe then makes an image of a copper snake, for the people to note. The copper snake is not intended to act as some type of magical prop to effectuate a cure for snakebite. However, if the people look at the copper snake, and recognize that their negative speech about G-d and Moshe resulted in the attack of poisonous snakes, then they shall be healed.

Toward the end of the Aliyah, we read about a vaguely described miracle concerning the saving of the people of Israel from being ambushed by the Amorites, when the Israelites are crossing a canyon. When the people of Israel note the remains of Amorite soldiers, they sing a song of praise to Hashem.

FOURTH ALIYAH- The fourth Aliyah begins with the detailed account of the defeat of the two powerful Amorite kings, Sihon and Og, and the consequent conquering of their territory in the Golan Heights and on the eastern side of the Jordan River. As a result of these victories, the king of Moab, Balak, seeks to hire Bilaam, a sorcerer, to curse the people of Israel with the intention of driving them away from his borders which are next to the recently captured Amorite territory.

Bilaam, who is eager to carry out this task, is hampered by an angel of G-d who tells him that he cannot curse or bless the people of Israel. The expression Rashi uses to describe this rejection is, ‘not from your sting and not from your honey.’ Bilaam’s desire is to expunge the people of Israel not only from the king’s borders, but from the face of the earth. The Talmud in Sanhedrin describes Bilaam as having an old score to settle with the Israelites, as he had advised the Pharaoh in Egypt to enslave them.

FIFTH ALIYAH- This Aliyah describes in great detail Bilaam’s conflict with his talking female donkey on which he is riding in order to reach Balak’s palace to carry out his plan to curse the people of Israel. The Torah states that three times the donkey sees an angel standing in the road preventing it and its master from proceeding further. Rashi indicates that these three times are reflective of Bilaam’s attempt to curse a people that observes the three holidays of pilgrimage, of Pesach, Shavuot and Succot.

However, the Ohr Hachaim finds a deeper meaning in the three visions the donkey has in regard to the angel. The Ohr Hachaim writes that the three visions are reflective of three stages of development the donkey undergoes in order to verbally communicate with its master.

The first is called ‘the power of growth’, the second, ‘the power of movement’ and the third, ‘the power of speech’. The donkey has to undergo a complete transformation biologically to be able to converse with Bilaah. In the first instance, the power of growth establishes the groundwork with which the donkey shall be able to communicate. It is as if to say the donkey is reborn. The second is the power of growth that translates itself into movement, creating the mechanisms by which the donkey will be able to communicate, and finally the power of speech where the donkey does indeed communicate with Bilaam. This entire episode is designed to humiliate Bilaam, who thinks he can manipulate G-d into allowing him to curse the people of Israel. What is even more amazing than the ability of the donkey to talk, is the fact that Bilaam shows no reaction to this biological transformation, and converses with it as if it were human. Finally, Bilaam reaches Balak.

SIXTH ALIYAH- While it is Bilaam’s intention to curse the people of Israel, his words, in front of Balak who takes him to see the masses of Israelites on the Moabite borders, transform into blessings. Obviously, Balak is angry at this turn of a phrase, so to speak, and takes Bilaam to a different location to see only part of the population of Israel in order to curse them. Again, the intended imprecations turn out to be benedictions.

One of the statements Bilaam makes which has been misinterpreted over the years is that he sees a nation that stands alone and is not counted among the nations. While there have been many who bemoan the fact that the Jewish people are throughout the course of history isolated and abandoned, others look at this statement as a blessing. We are not like other nations, and we should not be. We are the recipients of the Torah, a gift not bestowed on other people.

SEVENTH ALIYAH- At this juncture, Bilaam sees that it is G-d’s intention that the people of Israel be blessed and not cursed, speaks of the wonderful tents and dwelling places of the families of Jacob, the famous Ma Tovu. According to the rabbis, this statement is a reference to the excellent qualities of modesty exhibited by the Hebrews in ensuring that their dwelling places retain their privacy. There is a Halacha brought down in Bava Batra on its opening page about the dangers of visual invasion of someone’s private quarters, and Bilaam’s statement in a sense reflects that. In addition, the dwelling places are actually references to the houses of study in which the Jew studies Torah. We are a people with a divine mission to live, reflect and inspire others with the word of G-d.

Unfortunately, the words of praise are not enough to offset a plot by Bilaam to entice the males of Israel with Moabite prostitutes whose ulterior motive is to not only ensnare Jews but to have these individuals to accept the Moabite idol of Pe’or.  G-d sends a plague to destroy those involved in this combined mix of idolatry and promiscuity. It remains for Pinchas, the grandson of Aaron, to stop the plague by stabbing to death the main leaders and participants in this sacrilegious orgy, the Midianite princess and the leader of the tribe of Simeon. Pinchas follows the rabbinic dictum that extremism is justified in eradicating promiscuity that threatens to destroy  Judaism.


FAST OF THE 17TH OF TAMMUZ- JULY 9  Fast begins at 3:09 AM and ends at 9:29 PM.

The Mishna in Tractate Taanit 4:6 relates that five events occurred on this fast day.1) Moshe smashed the tablets when he saw the people of Israel worshipping the Golden Calf. 2) The daily sacrifice was suspended. The Tiferet Yisrael indicates that this event may be connected to the First Temple or during the civil war between the forces of  two brothers Hyrcanus and Aristobulus, sons of the queen, Shlomit Alexandra in the year 67 BCE. 3) The walls of the city of Jerusalem were penetrated by the Babylonians during the First Temple period (actually occurring on the ninth of Tammuz. The walls of Jerusalem during the Second Temple were breached by the Romans on the 17th of Tammuz. 4) Apostomos, a Greek officer during the Second Temple period, burned the Sefer Torah 5) An idol was placed in the sanctuary of the Second Temple either by Apostomos, or earlier in the First Temple period, by Menashe, king of Judea.

This fast begins the period of the Three Weeks leading to Tisha B’Av.During the Three Weeks, the following laws apply:  Prohibitions on haircutting and shaving. Followers of Rabbi Soloveitchik observe these restriction only during the Nine Days from Rosh Chodesh Av to the 9th of Av. 2) Weddings are prohibited during this period of time. Sepharadim do not have this restriction, and only observe that ban during the week of Tisha B’Av. 3) One does not listen to music during this time.