Commentary on Balak

21 Jun

The Jewish calendar and the cycle of the Torah readings are often connected.  Some weeks, the connection is easy to find, such as the story of Noah, which shows us the danger of having too much rain, which is almost always read on the Shabbat directly proceeding the 7th of Cheshvan, when the prayer for rain is added into the weekday Amidah.  Other weeks, such as this week, we need to look a little bit deeper.

This week’s parshah, Balak, is always read on the Shabbat preceding the minor fast day of the 17th of Tammuz (this Tuesday from sunrise until sunset), which marks the beginning of the three-week period between the 17th of Tammuz and the major fast of Tisha B’Av.  This time (and these two days, in particular) are considered to be days of historical misfortune for the Jewish people, and many Jews commemorate this by doing things traditionally associated with mourning, such as not shaving or cutting their hair, not going on long trips, and not scheduling weddings or Bnei Mitzvah during the Three Weeks.

Tradition tells us that this, and many of the other tragedies of the days were, were divine punishments from God for the misdeeds of the Israelites, both physical and spiritual.  Two of the five events listed in the Gemarah as having occurred on the 17th of Tammuz are the cessation of the daily tamid offering, and the placing of an idol in the Holy Temple.  This forsaking of God and the worshiping of a false god is also found in the end of this week’s parshah, when the Israelites, many of whom have started to have illicit relationships with foreign women, start to forsake God in favor of the Canaanite god Baal-peor.  Incensed, God strikes the Israelites with a terrible plague, but still the Israelites do not turn back to God.  One Israelite, Zimri, is so brazen that he and his Midianite paramour go out into in front of the assembled congregation and into the Tent of Meeting in order to excrete (an act which was both disrespectful to God and was the way people worshiped Baal-peor).  Unable, to stand this affront to God, Aaron’s grandson Pinchas takes a stand against this illicit behavior by stabbing them both with a spear.  Scared and awed by this display of zeal, the people cease worshiping Baal-peor and having illicit relationships with Canaanites, and the plague, which had killed 24,000 people, ceases.

While these upcoming three weeks are a time of sadness, the seven after them, between Tisha B’Av and the High Holidays, are a time of consolation. As we head into this part of the year which is so marked by sadness it is important to remember that there is always a light at the end of the tunnel. Despite the sadness of the many tragedies that have befallen our people during this time, tradition teaches us that Tisha B’Av, the culmination of these three weeks and the saddest day of the Jewish calendar, will eventually become a day of happiness on which construction of the new Holy Temple in Jerusalem will begin.  No matter how dark things look, if we turn to God, we are never truly alone.

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