3 So Balak told the Moabites: Balak had nothing to gain by making the Moabites afraid of the Israelites; he did not ask them to do anything to counter the Israelites’ threat. But inasmuch as “the wicked are ruled by their hearts,

1 he could not contain himself, and needlessly spread fear amongst the masses of his people.

In contrast, when Moses was afraid of Og,2 he did not share his fear with the people or even betray it by his demeanor at all. He refrained from doing anything that would weaken the people’s spirit, and instead bolstered his own spirit within. Because of his positive attitude and steadfast trust in God, the people’s self-image and their pride in their Divine mission was preserved. This was critical, for as Moses saw when he was afraid that Pharaoh would discover that he slew an Egyptian taskmaster,3 we earn God’s helpful intervention in our lives by trusting that He will provide it.

Moses demonstrated here that he learned his lesson from his encounter with Pharaoh long ago, and at the same time set the standard of fearless behavior for all Jewish leaders in the future.4


[21] He also hoped: When a person sins, he augments the power of evil in the world. This can happen in two ways:

When a person indulges in some material or sensual pleasure that is permitted by the Torah but partakes in it for selfish motivations, he augments the power of “neutral evil” (kelipat nogah). He makes the world a coarser, less Divinely_oriented place, but does not increase the spirit of antagonism against Divinity in it. To redeem the power he invested in this form of evil and re-root it in holiness, it is enough for the person to regret and repent of having selfishly indulged in God’s gifts.

When a person transgresses one of the Torah’s explicit prohibitions, he augments the power of the three varieties of “pure evil” (the kelipot temei’ot). In this case, the person increases the world’s enmity toward Divinity, increasing the world’s conscious and unconscious hostility to God’s intents and purposes. To redeem the power he diverted into this form of evil, the person must motivate his return to God with ardent, overpowering love.5

Balaam’s exceeding hatred and antagonism toward God may be seen as an allegory for the evil produced by deliberate transgressions of the Torah’s prohibitions. Abraham’s exceeding love of God and enthusiasm in performing His will is then an allegory for the antidote to this poison: repentance and reorientation (teshuvah) toward God motivated by love.

Here, at the beginning of Balaam’s journey to curse the Israelites, God tells him that he is doomed to fail, for the people have inherited the power to transform the results of his hatred for God into holiness. This transformation of pure evil into good is the theme of the whole episode of Balaam and his curses.6

Chapter 23

9 As sturdy as mountain peaks…as sturdy as hills: The “sturdiness” referred to here is the Jewish people’s abiding and unwavering selfless devotion to God, including their willingness to lay down their lives, if necessary, rather than betray this devotion. We inherit this quality from the patriarchs and matriarchs, who internalized this devotion so intensely that it became part of their very being, which was in turn passed on to their progeny.

This intensity of devotion is an expression of the Divine soul, for the natural soul is not capable of sacrificing its own existence for a higher purpose that contradicts its own, material interests.

Furthermore, the persistence of this trait in the Jewish people is also an expression of their Divine soul, for the natural order dictates that cultural ideals get weaker as the generations progress.

Since this devotion distinguishes the Jewish people from the rest of humanity, the verse continues, “See, they are a nation that dwells alone….”7

10 Has anyone counted the dirt of Jacob: The Jewish people are here compared to the dirt. Just as there are hidden treasures buried in the earth, so are there treasures of pure faith in God and deep love and fear of Him hidden in every Jew. These treasures may at times be hard to uncover, just as the treasures buried in the earth are often buried deep below the surface. But they are there, nonetheless, and with sufficient effort they can be revealed.8

16 God again communicated: In both Balaam’s first and second visions, he mentions God’s love for the Jews as well as their own merit. The point communicated in the first vision, however, is that it is impossible to curse the Jews, so Balaam therefore emphasizes God’s protective love. In the second vision, he points out that the Jews in fact deserve to be blessed, and therefore emphasizes their own merits.9

21 He does not look at evil in Jacob: The reason God does not look at the evil in Jacob is because He looks at the Jew as having already fulfilled his potential to reorient the animal concerns of his consciousness (his animal “soul”) toward Divinity. He thus transforms the animal soul into a positive force in his Jewish life, harnessing its raw power to pursue its interests in the service of his higher, Divine consciousness (his “Divine soul”). This is certainly not easy; what enables the Jew to effect this transformation is his Divine soul. Since God is omnipotent, the Jew, possessing a spark of Divine consciousness within him, possesses the power to overcome the down-sliding entropy of the animal soul.

This is the inner meaning of this verse:

He does not look at evil in Jacob: i.e., God sees that the Jew can conquer his animal soul, because—

God is with him, i.e., within him, referring to the Divine soul, which enables the Jew to transform his animal soul.10

He does not look at evil in Jacob, and sees no perversity in Israel; God, their God, is with them: “Jacob” refers to the Jew as he is involved in the mundane reality of the workweek, while “Israel” refers to the Jew in his transcendent state on the Sabbath. When we attempt to pray during the week, we must strive to overcome the many confusing and distracting thoughts that intrude from our involvement in worldly affairs. We are only able to succeed in this struggle because “God, their God is with them.” On Shabbat, however, we do not have to expend any effort to rise above the distractions of the mundane world;11 all we need to do is cultivate sensitivity to the special illumination of our soul that is revealed on Shabbat. This is the meaning of the phrase “God, their God is with them” that applies to Shabbat.12

Chapter 24

5 How good are your tents: The fact that the Jews camped such that no one would accidentally look into another family’s tent would seem to be much less significant than the fact that they actually preserved the integrity of their family lineages by confining their carnal activity within its prescribed limits. Yet Balaam mentioned the seemingly incidental fact first, indicating that it was chiefly the people’s attention to detail in their modest conduct that impressed him.

The lesson for us here is that we must never think that it is important to be strict only about the “larger” issues of modesty and that we can be lax about the “smaller” details. Rather, we must recall that even the smaller details of modesty are important, and important enough to be able to transform a curse (or an accursed situation) into a blessing (or a blessed one).

And lest we think that this alertness to the details of modesty is only required in our day-to-day behavior but not in temporary situations (such as when we are on vacation), we see here that the tremendous power of even the minor details of modest conduct was demonstrated when our forefathers lived in tents, their temporary homes in the desert.13

O Jacob…O Israel: Both names of the patriarch Jacob—Jacob and Israel—refer to the Jewish people as a nation. “Jacob” refers to them in their role as God’s servant (as in the verse, “fear not, My servant Jacob”14), while “Israel” refers to them in their role as God’s children (as in the verse, “Israel is My firstborn son”15). We all play both roles, sometimes one at a time, sometimes simultaneously while emphasizing one or the other.

The servant serves his master because he fears him, while the child we are speaking of here is devoted to his parents out of love for them. Thus, the relationship between a servant and a master is superficial; the servant would rather not perform his service, but he does so because he has no choice. A child, in contrast, has internalized his parents’ values; they have successfully inculcated their child with an appreciation of what they are working for and the child therefore helps them willfully.

Thus, “tents” are mentioned in connection with Jacob and “sanctuaries” with Israel. A tent is an external, protective covering, while a sanctuary is the actual home-structure that the tent protects. When we serve God as “Jacob,” as disciplined, faithful servants, even though at that moment our animal side is ascendant and we would rather be doing other things, we make “tents,” protective “force-fields” that shield the Divine life we have so far built for ourselves from the intrusion of evil, negative, or animalistic consciousness. When we serve God as “Israel,” as loving, devoted children, we make our lives into a “sanctuary” for God, enhancing our Divine consciousness and identifying with God’s values and dreams for His world.16

How good are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel: The names “Jacob” and “Israel” also refer to the ways different kinds of Jews fulfill the commandment to study the Torah. “Jacob” refers to those of us who are principally involved in worldly matters; for these people, learning is a part-time venture, just as a tent is a part-time structure. “Israel,” in contrast, refers to those of us for whom study is a full-time occupation, their full-time dwelling place.

The Torah informs us here that both the “tents of Jacob” and the “dwelling places of Israel” are “good” and beloved by God. But this is only true when our learning is imbued with selfless devotion.17

7 Your king shall be raised over Agag: All the kings of Amalek are called Agag, just as the kings of Egypt are called Pharaoh and the kings of Philistia are called Avimelech.18 The reason why the kings of Amalek are known by the generic name “Agag” is because this word is related to the word for “roof” (gag), the part of the house that shields the people in it from the atmosphere above them. The nation of Amalek embodied the evil of haughtiness and egocentricity, rebelling against God above out of simple effrontery. In effect, they wished to ignore God and shield themselves from the bothersome presence of heaven in their lives. As such, the name for their kings was derived from the word for “roof.”19

19 A ruler shall come out of Jacob and destroy the remnant of the city: One of the defining characteristics of the messianic era is described by the prophet Isaiah: “Kings will tutor your children and their princesses will be your wet nurses.”20 The members of a royal family are normally the national figures who are the most steeped in the cultural values of their society—and who most proudly and loyally identify with it, as well. As such, it would seem that these would be the last people to whom we should entrust the care and education of our tiny, impressionable children! But in the messianic era, the nations of the world will be purified of their dross and, awakened to the value of the Jewish people, transformed from adversaries into supporters.

This emphasizes once more the connection between Balaam’s prophecies and the messianic era. Balaam himself symbolizes this transformation as his attempted curses were transformed into great blessings of praise.21

20 When he saw Amalek: The Jews were commanded to displace seven Canaanite nations in the Land of Israel: the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizites, the Canaanites, the Hivites, the Jebusites, and the Girgashites.22 These seven nations embodied the seven emotions (love, fear, mercy, trust, sincerity, fidelity, and lowliness) when they become misdirected and therefore evil. The commandment to conquer the seven nations is thus spiritually a commandment to control and reorient the emotions toward their intended, Divine focus.

Amalek was not one of these nations, but was in the spiritual sense their progenitor. As we said, the evil he embodied was that of haughtiness and egocentricity. Egocentricity is the root of all the evil emotions. When a person is focused on himself, he loves the wrong things, fears the wrong things, is merciful to the wrong things, and so on. By meditating on Divinity properly, a person can neutralize his ego and thereafter his emotions will fall into place.23

Egocentricity is simple brazenness and effrontery. Since there is no such thing as “good egocentricity,” there is nothing that can be done with it other than eliminating it. Therefore, Amalek’s end is utter destruction. In contrast, the seven misdirected emotions personified by the seven Canaanite nations can be rehabilitated.24

Chapter 25

1 Israel settled in Shitim: This area was at the edge of the Jews’ last encampment before entering the Land of Israel.25 They were at the end of both their physical and spiritual journey from the decadence of Egypt; they were thus on a very high spiritual level at that time.26

The obvious question, then, is how did they fall into the sins of illicit carnal practices and idolatry, then of all times? This is especially difficult to fathom when we consider that the Peor cult was the most debased form of idolatry ever practiced.27

All other forms of idolatry derive from the same basic intellectual misjudgment: ascribing autonomy to the various forces God uses to run the world and distribute His benevolence to it.28 The cult of Peor, however, centers on human excrement, which is what remains of God’s beneficence after all the elements that can directly benefit man have been removed. Thus, there is no way one can err with regard to this and try to elicit benefit from something from which no direct benefit can be derived! So how did the Jews nonetheless become ensnared in this repulsive cult?

As we know, throughout their trek through the desert, the Jews did not have to be involved in the normal necessities of physical existence. Their food, drink, and clothing were tended to by the manna, the well of Miriam, and the clouds of glory.29 Inasmuch as all these provisions were furnished from heaven, they contained no impurities, and in fact, during the entire forty-year period of wandering, the Jews did not need to excrete any bodily waste products.

These provisions were pure spiritually as well as physically, meaning that they contained no element that could serve as a focus for sensual lust. True, one could taste in the manna practically any taste one desired, but its deliciousness did not impart any sense of self-orientation independent of the Divinity that created it; one never developed a lust for manna.

Normal food, drink, clothing, and all other aspects of material life, while capable of being sublimated into holiness, may also become the focus of self-serving sensual desire. According to Chasidic teachings, this aspect of normal physicality is just the rejected impurities eliminated from the higher, spiritual levels of creation from which the physical object derives.

This was the essential meaning of the Peor cult: by relieving oneself before this idol, the worshipper was expressing his focus on and devotion to the ideal of hedonism.

On one level, this is why the spies were afraid to leave the idyllic spiritual setting of the desert and enter the Land of Israel. The Talmud tells us,30 in fact, that excessive indulgence in hedonistic pleasures is what corrupted the ten tribes and led to their exile.

The challenge of life is not to succumb to this self-focused sensuality that inheres in every aspect of physicality, but rather to “know Him in all your ways.”31 In this way, the person elevates the physical entity he is dealing with instead of only receiving from it.32 If his usage of the physical entity is solely for satisfying his lusts, however, he only receives from the entity. Not only does he fail to elevate it, but he causes it to descend with him into the realm of evil.

This is what happened to the Jews at Shitim. They were on the threshold of a new type of life, which involved direct and intense involvement with the physical world. It was perhaps unavoidable that at their first encounter with true physicality, which contained within it the allure of unadulterated sensual delight, they became curious about this novel aspect of reality.

The first sin, that of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, also came about because “the woman saw that the tree was good to eat,” i.e., she felt that she was missing something that the tree could offer her. All lusts and sins begin from this illusory sense of lacking something.33

Thus, “the people began to commit harlotry,” first only in the allegorical sense of going “after your eyes and after your heart, by which you go astray.”34 But eventually, one thing lead to another, until they reached the apex of self-focused pursuit (at least in the context of carnality) and “began to commit harlotry” in the literal sense as well. This is why the place where this happened was called “Shitim,” since this word is cognate to the word for “deviation” (listot). All sin begins as a slight deviation from the proper path, just as getting lost in the dark forest begins as a slight departure from the main road.

This is why the one who successfully challenged and combated the Jews’ descent into the Peor cult was Pinchas. The Talmud tells us that “the hatchet is made from the trees of the very forest it is used to cut.”35 Pinchas was descended from Jethro,36 who was a priest of an idolatrous cult.

On the other hand, it is Moses whose merit protects us from falling into this sin again, as it says, “And He buried him [Moses] in the glen in Moab opposite the site of [the cult of] Peor,”37 “in order to atone for the incident of Peor.”38 This is because Moses personifies the trait of humility and selflessness. One who possesses these traits is immune to the egocentric feeling of having to lack nothing, which is the beginning of sin, and in addition will retain the consciousness of God’s presence that prevents him from becoming enticed by the sensual lures of physicality.39

7 Pinchas the son of Eleazar: Why was Pinchas the one to stand up to Zimri and put an end to the plague that was decimating the Jewish people and not Moses or Eleazar (Aaron’s son and Pinchas’ father), who was then the high priest?

The most reasonable explanation seems to be as follows: When he brought Kozbi before Moses, Zimri’s argument for permitting relations with her was, “If you say that she is forbidden, who permitted Zipporah to you?”40 Moses was thus personally involved in this case, and as such, he was by that very fact disqualified from adjudicating it. We know that legally, a judge may not judge a case if he has a stake in its outcome being one way or the other.41

Eleazar could also not be legally impartial here, since as we know, “Eleazar the son of Aaron took for himself one of the daughters of Putiel for a wife.”42 Inasmuch as Putiel was in fact the idolatrous priest Jethro, Eleazar was in the same position as Moses, having taken a gentile wife.

Understanding that his great-uncle Moses and his father Eleazar were disqualified from judging this case, Pinchas realized that it was up to him to take the initiative.

Still, one could argue that Pinchas was also disqualified from judging this case, since whether or not his father was allowed to marry Jethro’s daughter was determinative with regard to his status as well. The law states that the son of a priest and a gentile woman may not serve as a priest.43 Pinchas, it would seem then, had quite a stake in the outcome of this trial.

There are two answers to this: First, the priesthood did not become hereditary until Aaron and his sons were anointed at the inauguration of the Tabernacle.44 At that time, Pinchas was already born, and since he was not anointed (since he was Aaron’s grandson, not his son), he did not become a priest. Thus, it is stated explicitly in the Talmud:45 “Pinchas did not attain priesthood until he slew Zimri.” Thus, before he killed Zimri, Pinchas was not a priest and the purity of his lineage was not a concern for him.

Secondly, both Zipporah and Eleazar’s wife certainly converted, and therefore Pinchas was born of a Jewish mother.

On the other hand, if these women converted, it seems we are faced with another difficulty, since a priest is forbidden to marry a convert!46 This problem applies not only to Eleazar, Aaron’s son, but to Moses as well. True, his sons were Levites47 and not priests. But he himself, having served as a priest during the inauguration rites of the Tabernacle, retained his status as priest for the rest of his life.48 How then, could either Moses or Eleazar have married proselytes?

The answer is that both their marriages occurred before the Torah was given on Mt. Sinai, and until that time the priesthood was held not by Aaron and his descendants, but by the firstborn.49 Since neither Moses nor Eleazar were firstborn,50 they were permitted to marry converts.51

Now that we have stated that Moses and Eleazar were priests when the incident with Zimri occurred and Pinchas was not, we can offer another, supplementary explanation why it was only he who could oppose Zimri. Zimri was committing a crime for which he was allowed to be killed by the one who pronounced the sentence against him. Since Moses and Eleazar were priests, they could not sentence Zimri and thus be obligated to kill him, since they would thereby be likely to become defiled by his corpse, which it is forbidden for priests to do.52