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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland

Parshas Chukas - Balak

Make for yourself a fiery serpent and set it upon a pole; and it shall be that everyone that is bitten when he sees it, shall live. (21:8)

The narrative stimulates a number of questions: Why did Moshe Rabbeinu fashion the serpent of copper? Why not of another substance, such as clay or wood? Is there a relationship between the word nachash, serpent, and the word nechoshes, copper? Why was this serpent placed upon a pole? How is one who is bitten by a serpent cured simply by gazing at the serpent? Horav Avigdor Miller, Shlita, addresses these questions in his commentary on this parsha. The serpent is a symbol of the yetzer hora, evil inclination. The yetzer hora's strength lies in its ability to be elusive, to conceal itself from its victims. Thus, the first serpent, the nachash that played a leading role in the sin of Adam Ha'rishon, presented itself as a friendly advisor. Hashem chose the nachash as the symbol for all forms of persuasion, using its guile to manipulate man into succumbing to temptation. Every serpent should serve as a reminder of this concealed force. The ability to ensnare defines the essentially character of the nachash.

The serpent travels on its stomach, hiding in the grass, so that it can strike without warning, when it is least expected. Because of its unique nature, the serpent is copper-colored, a color that easily blends in with most environments. This allows the snake a greater opportunity to remain concealed, especially upon the earth or in the grass.

Moshe understood the hidden peril of the serpent. He, therefore, chose to fashion a serpent of copper. Even the name nachash alluded to the serpent's resemblance to nechoshes, copper, pointing to the difficulty man has in recognizing the danger of the nachash. Thus, Hashem commanded Moshe to place this copper serpent upon a pole, so that everyone would see it and be reminded of its existence. This way, people would be warned to avoid the fatal temptation of its misleading advice.

The complainers were punished in order to provide a lesson to be cognizant of the effects of the subtle persuasion of the serpent. When the people looked at the copper serpent, they were reminded of the existence of the evil inclination. They would avoid the tragic consequences that its bite could catalyze. The way to be healed of the snake bite/yetzer hora, is to be aware of its existence at all times. The serpent seeks to remain incognito, to hide from its victims. It enters the minds and hearts of men, poisoning their concepts and philosophies. They think they are thinking straight, but, alas, they are only succumbing to the effects of the serpent's guile. The healing is through awareness. Whoever notices the serpent survives. It is as true today as it was then. When we open our eyes to the efforts of the serpents, we will realize that it subtlety leads us astray: to follow the trends of the times; to defer to every challenge to the Torah way of life; to view modernity as a savior and reject the past. When we recognize the tempting nature of the snake, we are able to avoid the entrapping, deception of the yetzer hora.

And Moshe sent (spies) to spy out Yaazer and they conquered its towns. (21:32)

One city remained in the land of the Emorites that had not yet been conquered - Yaazer. Moshe Rabbeinu sent spies, Pinchas and Calev, to scout the land. Targum Yonasan relates that while their mission was simply to spy, they decided to upgrade their assignment to wage war with Yaazer. They succeeded, and conquered the city. They were compelled to act differently from their ill-fated predecessors, the original spies sent by Moshe to scout Eretz Yisrael. They conjectured that their faith and trust in the Almighty would protect them and led them to success. They were not willing to risk that Klal Yisrael's fear of failure would engender yet another tragedy. Their belief in Hashem reinforced the self-confidence they needed to take that crucial step forward. Their reasoning was accurate. Thus, they emerged triumphant in their objective.

Horav A. Henach Leibowitz, Shlita, makes a note of the commitment, devotion and conviction these spies must have manifested in order to undertake battling an entire city without having been commanded by Hashem. To have so much confidence in the presence of such grave danger must have truly taken a remarkable amount of emunah, faith, and bitachon, trust, in Hashem. They felt they must complete their mission in its totality, to conquer the city, lest there be another unfortunate reaction -- as their predecessors had experienced. The previous mission had been tainted. The spies had possessed a minute blemish, a character flaw that would normally have gone unnoticed. This time it did not. It infected a nation and brought Klal Yisrael down.

These spies were prepared. They were armed with the strength of their conviction: ready to go to war - voluntarily. Why? If they possessed such a degree of emunah and bitachon, could they not imbue the people with the courage necessary to vanquish Yaazer? How could they have felt sufficiently confident in themselves to risk their lives in battle, yet be be so anxious that they might not impress the people enough. How did they feel self-confident of success on the one hand, and fearful of failure on the other? Horav Leibowitz feels that this incident presents us with an insight into the flexibility and breadth of perspective of which our minds and souls are capable of and expected to achieve.

At times, opposite emotions necessarily exist within us. Even when we are confident and have complete trust in Heavenly assistance, we must still feel unsure of the outcome. We undertake an endeavor, feeling secure and inspired that we are doing the right thing, yet we must reinforce ourselves with added measures, with supplication and good deeds, just in case our motivation is not one-hundred percent pure -- or simply to ensure that we do not deviate from our prescribed goals. At other times, we perceive a lack of confidence in ourselves. A hesitancy and uncertainty permeates our hearts and minds. Yet, we must forge ahead in our plans with resolution and conviction. We maintain a balance when we have both extremes working in harmony with one another. This may be compared to a concert pianist who simultaneously strikes notes at opposite sides of the scales. These notes, although at opposing sides of the scales, blend together harmoniously, complementing each other, producing a sound more beautiful than had they each been struck individually. The human spirit and intellect can, and must, likewise, play simultaneous "notes" at both ends of the scale: using confidence and caution, courage and anxiety to produce a ben Torah, strong and resolute in his commitment. The symphony of sound that emanates from this person is the sound of Torah.


1. What is derived from the juxtaposition of Miriam Ha'Neviah's death upon the laws of Parah Adumah?
2. A. In whose merit did Klal Yisrael have water from a special well?
B. How do we know this?
3. What caused Moshe to assume that he should strike the stone?
4. What occurred prior to Aharon's death that made his passing somewhat easier to accept?


1. We learn that the death of a tzaddik atones for the community, just as korbanos atone.
2. A. Miriam
B. The Torah writes that immediately after Miriam's passing, the people did not have water to drink.
3. Thirty-nine years earlier, in a similar situation, Hashem told him to "strike the stone" in order to produce water for the people.
4. He saw his son Elazar don the priestly vestments of the Kohen Gadol in order to assume his position.


And an angel of Hashem stood on the road to impede him.

In a few seemingly simple words, Rashi conveys a profound message. He says that this angel was a malach shel rachamim, an angel of mercy, who was sent to divert Bilaam from sinning. Horav Avraham Pam, Shlita, derives from here that a number of times in our life we imagine that the Satan is bent on destroying everything for which we have worked. The specific situation in question is the area of shidduchim, marriage. One sees a young woman a number of times (depending upon his orientation). He feels she is the one that is right for him; she is his G-d- sent zivug, match. Alas, something happens: either she is not interested, her parents are not interested, or simply "things" are just not turning out to his satisfaction. The Satan stands in his way at every step. Nothing seems to go right. While this may sound familiar to some, the reaction is not always the same. Some young men and women become depressed when the shidduch does not work out, while others become angry. How many feel that Hashem is doing them a favor, averting a later disaster?

Bilaam cursed the angel that stood in his way. He thought that the Satan was attempting to prevent him from achieving success. Little did this arrogant, self-centered pagan realize that it was actually Hashem, who in His compassion for this miscreant, sent an angel of mercy to save him from sin. So, too, should we see Hashem's compassionate Hand throughout our every endeavor, so that ultimately we will benefit.

From Aram, Balak, King of Moav, led me, from the mountains of the east, "Come curse Yaakov for me, come bring anger upon Yisrael." (23:7)

Bilaam begins his curse/blessing. His opening remarks convey a profound message. Bilaam lived in Aram, which was northeast of Eretz Yisrael. He says that Balak led him from the mountains of the east, which, according to the Midrash Tanchuma, is an allusion to the Patriarchs who were the spiritual "mountains" of the eastern world. He claims that Balak distanced him from the feelings of gratitude they both should have felt towards our ancestors. Balak's kingdom of Moav descended from Lot, Avraham Avinu's nephew, who lived to father children only as a result of Avraham's intervention. Bilaam's ancestor, Lavan, was blessed with sons only after Yaakov Avinu's arrival at his home. In other words, Bilaam was criticizing Balak, asserting that his people had no animus toward Klal Yisrael. In fact, they owed their very existence to this nation's ancestors. How could they curse this People?

Horav Baruch Mordechai Ezrachi, Shlita, takes note of Chazal's words. These base people feared nothing and no one. They had no compunction whatsoever about cursing an innocent, harmless nation who had done nothing to harm them. They were prepared to villify Klal Yisrael, wishing upon them disaster and annihilation. What prevented them from achieving their goals? What was there that evoked their conscience for what they were about to do? Ha'koras ha'tov, appreciation/gratitude, compelled them to refrain from following through on their malevolent intentions.

Let us momentarily focus on the reason for their gratitude. One would think that it was a saint who was making these remarks. They felt that they were indebted to the Jews, because indirectly their ancestors had been responsible for their existence. This is an incredible statement. Yet, this is what Bilaam said. He was not a saint, but a rasha merusha, evil and wicked individual, who was bent on destroying the innocent Jews. Nothing prevented him from seeing his evil objective reach fruition, other than ha'koras ha'tov. The lesson that applies to each of us is overwhelming. A pagan prophet, who represented consummate evil, felt he should refrain from cursing the Jews because of a sense of appreciation he should have to their anscestors. Need we say more regarding our responsibilty towards ha'koras ha'tov?

From the top of rocks I see him and from the hills I behold him. (23:9)

Horav S.R. Hirsch, zl, interprets this pasuk as a perspective on history. Just as distances draw together in a panoramic view from a height, so it is with time. From a comprehensive survey of world history over centuries taken from above, events seem close together. When one views these events from the closer perspective of the present, they seem farther from one another. To quote Horav Mordechai Gifter, Shlita, "If one wishes to comprehend an event in history, one cannot look at it in the limited scope of the finite, here and now; rather, one must understand the event as having a place in the historical continuum. A historical occurrence extends itself beyond the isolation of time and space and reaches forth towards the future and back to the past in order to acquire true significance." In other words, a certain event might not be comprehensible to one looking at an occurence in the present. When he views it from afar, through the distance of time, however, it will seem to fit in and make sense.

Rashi cites the Midrash which offers an alternative interpretation. Bilaam proclaimed that he was helpless; he could do nothing to frustrate Klal Yisrael, to sway them from the proper path. Bilaam said, "I see them not only as they are now, but I see them from the tops of the rocks, I behold them from the hills. They are anchored; they are firmly pinned down like rocks to their fathers and mothers." Bilaam understood Klal Yisrael's secret weapon, their shield against the challenge of assimilation. As Horav Moshe Swift, zl, aptly puts it, " Klal Yisrael is so firmly entrenched, the foundation of their relationship is so deep, that there is no dynamite in the world that can blow such rocks apart."

Bilaam did advise Balak. He related to him a method to effect Klal Yisrael's destruction. They cannot be destroyed by physical means, by conventional warfare. Too many people have attempted to crush us, to destroy us as a nation, to wipe us out as a people. They have failed. They might prevail in one country, only to observe us flourishing anew in another country. We are unlike any other nation. The only way to destroy Klal Yisrael is from within, by making us break with the past.

Klal Yisrael settled in Shittim. Bilaam knew that luring the men away from their families, husbands from their wives, fathers from their children, and children from their parents, would break the link, snap the chain, detach them from their secure anchorage. Yes indeed, whenever the past has been something of which we were ashamed, something we sought to conceal, a lifestyle and culture from which we sought severance, Bilaam has triumphed. Let us remember to build the future upon the foundation of the past.


1. Had Bilaam previously succeeded in cursing a nation?
2. How did Bilaam humiliate himself in his response to his donkey?
3. Where do we see the axiom, "In the path that one chooses to go, he is led" in effect?
4. In his prophecy, Bilaam alluded to the churban Bais Hamikdash. How is the destruction to be included in his "blessings"?


1. Yes. He helped Sichon in his war against Moav, by cursing Moav. Sichon subsequently triumphed in battle against them.
2. When he told the donkey, "If I would have a sword I would kill you," he humilated himself. Here, he was about to curse an entire nation. Yet, he had no power over his own donkey.
3. Although the angel had come to dissuade Bilaam from continuing along the path to curse Klal Yisrael, he let him go when he saw that Bilaam was bent upon going.
4. It indicates that Hashem pours out His wrath on wood and stones, rather than on people.

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