"זאת חקת התורה...ויקחו אליך פרה אדמה"
“This is the statute of Torah...and they shall take to you a red heifer.” (19:2)

QUESTION: Why does it say “Zot chukat haTorah” — “This is the statute of the Torah” — instead of “Zot chukat parah adumah — “This is the statute of the red heifer”?

ANSWER: The laws concerning the parah adumah are paradoxical. On the one hand, when the mixture is sprinkled on the defiled person he becomes cleansed. On the other hand, those who are involved in the preparation of the parah adumah become defiled.

The people appointed to prepare the parah adumah may rationally argue, “Why should we become defiled for the sake of those who were not careful to avoid contact with a corpse?”

Through the statute of parah adumah the Torah is teaching that a Jew must help another Jew even if it requires sacrifice. This is “chukat haTorah” — “a basic principle of Torah” — and though we may not easily comprehend it, we must practice it in our daily lives.

(כ"ק אדמו"ר)

* * *

There is a popular adage, “Give till it hurts.” Unfortunately, many people give when it hurts, but very few give till it hurts. The statute of parah adumah, which is described as “the statute of Torah,” teaches us to help another Jew even if it hurts.

"זאת חקת התורה"
“This is the decree of the Torah...” (19:2)

QUESTION: The Ba’al Haturim writes, “The pasuk, ‘Zot chukat haTorah’ — ‘this is the decree of the Torah’ — follows the final pasuk of Parshat Korach, which states, ‘Beharimchem et chelbo mimenu’ —‘When you raise up its best from it’ — to hint that Torah was given to those that ate the manna.”

How is this derived from these two pesukim?

ANSWER: The word “mimenu” (ממנו) — “from it” — has the numerical value of 136, and the word “chelbo” (חלבו) — “its best” — adds up to 46. When one “raises up” ,(בהרימכם) i.e. subtracts “chelbo” (46) from “mimenu” (136), the remainder is 90, the numerical value of the word “mann” (מן) — “manna.”

The pesukim are alluding that one who lives off manna — i.e. one whose income is provided (such as a Kohen who receives Terumah) or one who has no worries of parnasah, must make full-time Torah study a “decree,” i.e. something imperative, and dedicate himself to uninterrupted, diligent Torah study.

(פון אונזער אלטען אוצר)

"הנגע במת לכל נפש אדם...כל הנגע במת בנפש האדם...זאת התורה אדם כי ימות באהל"
“Whoever touches the corpse of any human being...Whoever touches the dead body of a human being...This is the teaching regarding a man who would die in a tent.” (19:11, 13-14)

QUESTION: Why isn’t the term adam or “ha’adam” used consistently?

ANSWER: According to halachah, if a person comes into a tent containing a Jewish corpse, he becomes defiled, even if he does not touch it. However, if one touches a corpse (even outside a tent) he becomes defiled even if it is of a non-Jew (Tumat Meit, 1:12-13).

The Gemara (Yevamot 61a) says that the term “adam” (אדם) is reserved for the Jewish people and ha’adam” (האדם) also includes non-Jews. Therefore, the first pasuk, which talks of physical contact and uses the term “adam,” is teaching that one becomes defiled when he touches a Jewish corpse. The second pasuk also discusses defilement through contact and uses the word “ha’adam” to indicate that this law applies to a non-Jewish corpse as well. The third pasuk discusses “tumat ohel — entering a tent where there is a corpse — and it uses the term “adam” to emphasize that, as in the first pasuk, this applies only to a Jewish corpse.

(ימין יוסף)

* * *

The term “adam” is reserved for the Jewish people because the word has two contrasting meanings:

1) Stemming from the word “adamah” — “earth” — “And G‑d formed the man of dust from the ground” (Bereishit 2:7, Midrash Rabbah 17:4).

2) As in “Adameh le’Elyon” — “I [man] resemble the One above” (see Shelah, Toldot Adam 3a).

These contrasting meanings of the title “adam” impart that Jewish people have the unique ability that even when, G‑d forbid, they stoop to the lowest level, through teshuvah they can rise to the loftiest heights.

There was once a chaplain who visited a jail to deliver a sermon to the inmates. While ascending the podium to speak, he tripped and fell flat on his face. The room erupted in laughter. He picked himself up and went over to the podium and said, “I have just concluded my sermon; the moral is that even when a person falls flat on his face, he can rise up again.”

"זאת התורה אדם כי ימות באהל"
“This is the teaching regarding a man who would die in a tent.” (19:14)

QUESTION: The introductory words “zot haTorah” are superfluous; it would have been sufficient to start with “adam”?

ANSWER: A corpse in a tent defiles the entire tent, and one who enters becomes defiled even without touching the corpse itself. In the Gemara (Niddah 70b) there is a question whether Lot’s wife, who turned into a pillar of salt and who was thus not a normal corpse, would similarly defile a tent. The Gemara concludes that only a normal corpse can defile and not a pillar of salt.

Tosafot asks, “We have a rule that when the Torah uses the expression ‘adam’ it refers only to a member of the Jewish people (see Yevamot 61a). Consequently, Lot’s wife could not defile a tent even if she died a normal death because she was not a Jewess?”

Tosafot answers that the term “adam” is a title of distinction which the Jewish people acquired upon receiving the Torah. However, before the Torah was given, the laws of transmitting defilement were universal and even a non-Jew’s corpse could defile everything in a tent.

A source for the theory expounded in Tosafot may be our pasuk. The Torah conveys the laws of defilement of a tent with the term “adam,” which leads to the conclusion that these laws only apply to the Jewish people. Preceding it with the words “zot haTorah” emphasizes that this law applies only to — “adam” — a member of the Jewish people — because of “zot haTorah” — “this Torah” — which the Jewish people had received.

(תולדות יעקב, איילינבערג)

"זאת התורה אדם כי ימות באהל"
“This is the teaching regarding a man who would die in a tent.” (19:14)

QUESTION: Regarding this pasuk the Gemara (Berachot 63b) says: “Ein divrei Torah mitkaymin ela bemi shemeimit atzmo aleihah” — “Torah has a lasting effect only with one who kills himself for it.”

Suicide is forbidden! How can a dead man study Torah?

ANSWER: Often when people sit down to study, they permit various factors to interrupt them, such as a telephone call or the arrival of visitors. There is no way, however, of disturbing a dead person with a telephone call or the like. The Gemara is teaching that a person who wants to succeed in his learning must consider himself “dead”: He cannot permit anything whatsoever to interrupt him.

(ר' אפרים זלמן ז"ל מרגלית)

"ולקחו לטמא מעפר שרפת החטאת"
“They shall take for the contaminated person some of the ashes of the burning of the purification animal.” (19:17)

QUESTION: Since the parshah is discussing one who has become defiled and has already said that the heifer should be burned to ash, the word “latamei” — “for the contaminated person” — is superfluous, it should simply have said “velakechu mei’afar” — “they shall take from the ashes [and put upon it spring water]”?

ANSWER: The Torah refers to the purification process through the red heifer as a chok — a “statute” — meaning that it is incomprehensible to man. Even King Shlomo the wisest of all men exclaimed, “I said I would be wise, but it is far from me” (Ecclesiastes 7:23). Our sages (Midrash Rabbah 19:3,6) explain that with his wisdom he thought he would be able to comprehend the reason for the red heifer, but he did not succeed; Moshe was the only one to whom Hashem explained it.

The Gemara (Rosh Hashanah 21b) explains the pasukKohelet (Shlomo) sought to find words of delight” (Ecclesiastes 12:10) to mean that Kohelet wanted to be equal in wisdom to Moshe. However, a Heavenly voice responded, “Vekatub yosher divrei emet,” what is written in the Book of Devarim (which is known as “Sefer Hayasher” — “Book of Fairness” — see Avodah Zarah 25a), are words of truth, and it states that “Never again has there arisen in Israel a prophet like Moshe” (Devarim 34:10).

What gave Shlomo the idea that he could duplicate Moshe’s achievement and understand the concept of the red heifer?

The first letters of the words "לטמא מעפר שריפת החטאת" can be arranged to spell "שלמה" (Shlomo), and since he found an allusion to his name in the portion that discusses the red heifer, he assumed that with proper diligence and assiduous study he could understand its meaning and significance.

The Heavenly message can be explained to mean “Vekatub yashar” — “That which is written in the “proper order” — is definitely “divrei emet” — “words of truth.” Thus, while there is indeed a hint to Shlomo’s name in the parshah, the letters in sequence do not spell “Shlomo” but rather "למשה" — “to Moshe” — meaning that the understanding of the red heifer is revealed only to Moshe and no one else.

(חיד"א - פני דוד)

Throughout the history of the Jewish people the ashes of nine red heifers were prepared, and the tenth one will be prepared when Mashiach comes. (See Yalkut Re’uveini and Parah 3:5.) When Hashem conveyed to Moshe the statute of the red heifer, He said to him, “veyikchu eilecha parah adumah” — “they shall take to you a completely red heifer” — which our sages explain to mean, “It will always be accredited to ‘you’ (Moshe) because even in the ashes of all future red heifers there shall be mixed in some of the ash from the original one which you prepared.”

The acrostic of "למשה" which is spelled by the words "לטמא מעפר שריפת החטאת" — “[and they shall take] for the contaminated person some of the ashes from the burning of the purification animal” indicates that throughout all generations the Jewish people shall take for the contaminated, ashes which are mixed together with some of the ashes prepared by Moshe.

(שפתי כהן)

"ותמת שם מרים ותקבר שם"
“And Miriam died there and she was buried there.” (20:1)

QUESTION: If she died, obviously she was buried. Why does the pasuk mention it?

ANSWER: When the spies returned from their journey to Eretz Yisrael and incited the people against it, Hashem was very angry. As a punishment, all the people who had left Egypt between the ages of twenty and sixty perished during the forty years they sojourned in the wilderness. Every year, on Erev Tisha B’Av, the people dug graves for themselves and slept in them throughout the night. Those who were supposed to die that year passed away, and those that survived returned to their tents (Bava Batra 121a, Rashbam).

Accordingly, throughout the forty years, the people were first buried and then died. Miriam was the first person to die and be buried after her death.

(שני המאורות)

"ולמה העליתנו ממצרים להביא אתנו אל המקום הרע הזה לא | מקום זרע ותאנה וגפן ורמון ומים אין לשתות"
“And why did You have us ascend from Egypt to bring us to this evil place? Not a place of seed, or fig, or grape, or pomegranate; and there is no water to drink!” (20:5)

QUESTION: If a poor man were to come begging and say, “Help me, I don’t have any gourmet food,” people would laugh at him. The Jewish people should have only complained that they had no water to drink. What sympathy did they hope to evoke with their complaint about “figs, grapes, or pomegranates”?

ANSWER: In printed chumashim there is a vertical line (indicating a pause) between the word “lo” — “no” — and the words “mekom zera” — “place of seed.” This vertical line serves as an explanation as to what the people complained about.

When Hashem took them out ofEgypt, He never promised them that He would provide them with luscious fruit during their travels. However, it is self-understood that He was required to give them at least the bare necessities and not let them perish from thirst.

Consequently, when they arrived in the Wilderness of Tzin and there was no water, the people became upset and quarreled with Moshe. When they bemoaned their situation they proclaimed, “Why did you take us out of Egyptto bring us to this place? ‘Lo’ (pause) — our complaint is not — ‘mekom zera ute’einah vegefen verimon’ — that this is not a place of seed, fig, or grape or pomegranate — because we can get along without these. However, our complaint is ‘mayim ayin lishtot’ — there is no water to drink. Water is a bare necessity for human existence!”

(קהלת יצחק)

"לא מקום זרע ותאנה וגפן ורמון ומים אין לשתות"
“It is not a place of seed, or figs, or vines or pomegranates; and there is no water to drink.” (20:5)

QUESTION: Throughout the sojourn of the Jewish people in the wilderness, a well of water accompanied them in the merit of Miriam. When she died, the well ceased. Why did they now complain about the lack of tasty fruit in addition to the lack of water?

ANSWER: Some have a custom to fetch water from a well or a spring after Shabbat ends. This is because on Saturday night Miriam’s well, which is in the sea of Tiberias, travels throughout all wells and springs. Whoever is fortunate to drink of its water is immediately healed from all sicknesses (Orach Chaim 299:10).

The Gemara (Sanhedrin 17b) lists the prerequisites a city must have in order for a talmid chacham to dwell there. According to Rabbi Akiva, one of them is a variety of different fruits, because through them, the eyesight of a person is improved.

Consequently, before Miriam’s passing they did not complain about the lack of fruit because the drinking water healed them of all their ailments. Now that they had neither water nor fruit, they quarreled with Moshe and argued that their health was in jeopardy and that it was no longer permissible to remain in the wilderness.

(פני ארי' זוטא)

"קח את המטה...ודברתם אל הסלע לעיניהם ונתן מימיו"
“Take the staff...and speak to the rock before their eyes that it shall give its waters.” (20:8)

QUESTION: Which staff was Moshe instructed to take? What purpose was the staff to serve, and what was Moshe to say to the rock?

ANSWER: Aharon and Moshe each had his own staff. When Hashem wanted Moshe or Aharon to take his own staff, He would say “matecha”“your staff” (see Shemot 7:9). Since in this pasuk it says “hamateh”“the staff” — obviously it was a special one with unique qualities.

In Parshat Korach, Moshe told the leaders of each tribe to bring a staff to be put in the Tabernacle. On each would be written the name of the tribal leader, with Aharon’s name written on the staff of the tribe of Levi. The staff belonging to the one who was Divinely-chosen would blossom. The staff of Aharon blossomed and produced almonds and eventually was put next to the holy Ark for posterity. It was this staff that Moshe was to take. This corresponds to the verse, “Moshe took the staff from before G‑d” (20:9).

The purpose of taking the staff was to show it to the rock as if to say, “Learn this lesson; just as this dry piece of wood suddenly became moist and alive in order to sanctify Hashem’s name, so should you sanctify Hashem’s name by giving water, even though it is not your nature.”

(כלי יקר)

"ודברתם אל הסלע לעיניהם ונתן מימיו"
“And speak to the rock before their eyes that it shall give its waters.” (20:8)

QUESTION: Why now did Hashem instruct Moshe to speak to the rock whereas in Rephidim (Shemot 17:6), when they thirsted for water and complained, Hashem told him, “You shall strike the rock and water will come forth”?

ANSWER: Hashem said to Moshe, “When the child is young his teacher hits him and teaches him. Once he becomes older, he reprimands him with words. Similarly, when the rock was small you hit it, but now you shall speak to it. Teach it and it will bring forth water” (Yalkut Shimoni).

This may be further expounded: The rock is analogous to people who at times seem to be “hard as rock” and obstinately refuse to direct their lives morally and ethically as a Jew should.

The incident in Rephidim occurred before the Torah was given. The only method available then to guide a Jew in the right path was to strike him harshly. The episode in our parshah however, took place after the Torah was given. The way to reach a Jew now, is not through striking him, but through talking to him with sincerity and warmth and introducing him to the beauty of Torah.

The Torah assures that with such an approach one will successfully penetrate and “venatan meimav” — “he shall give his waters.” One will eventually bring to surface the beautiful “pintele Yid — the spark of Judaism hidden within him.

(שמעתי מאחי הרב שמואל פסח שי' באגאמילסקי)

"ויך את הסלע במטהו פעמים"
“And he struck the rock with his staff twice.” (20:11)

QUESTION: Why did he strike the rock twice?

ANSWER: The letters of the word “sela” (סלע) — “rock” — spelled out in full are סמ"ך-למ"ד-עי"ן. The middle letters of the name of each letter spell the word “mayim” (מים) — “water.” Thus, in a rock — “sela” — there is hidden water — “mayim.

Moshe, by striking the rock twice, knocked off the first letters as well as the last letters, leaving the middle letters (מים), and water flowed forth abundantly.

(באר מים חיים)

"ויאמר ה' אל משה ואל אהרן יען לא האמנתם בי להקדישני לעיני בני ישראל לכן לא תביאו את הקהל הזה אל הארץ אשר נתתי להם"
“G‑d said to Moshe and to Aharon, ‘Because you did not believe in Me to sanctify Me in the eyes of the Children of Israel, therefore you will not bring this congregation to the land that I have given them.’ ” (20:12)

QUESTION: Why didn’t Moshe speak to the rock?

ANSWER: Had Moshe spoken to the rock, Hashem would have indeed been sanctified. Every Jew would have come to the conclusion: “If a rock, which does not speak and does not hear, performs Hashem’s will, how much more so are we required to listen to Him!”

However, Moshe thought to himself that this logic could also be used by Satan against the Jewish people when they sinned. He would come before the heavenly tribunal as a prosecutor and say to Hashem, “Your children, the Jewish people, are even worse than an inert rock. The rock does what You want, and Your people for whom You do so much do not perform Your will.”

Not wanting to give Satan any ammunition against the Jewish people, Moshe jeopardized his life and future, and decided not to speak to the rock.

(עיטורי תורה - ילקוט יהושע)

* * *

On Shemini Atzeret during the repetition of the Mussaf Amidah a special prayer for Geshem — rain — is recited. We beseech Hashem to remember the Patriarchs, Moshe, Aaron, and the twelve tribes who were so dedicated to Him, and we ask that abundant water should fall in their righteous merit.

Regarding Moshe, we declare that he should be remembered because “al hasela hach vayeitzu mayim” — “[at the time Your treasured people thirsted for water,] he struck the rock and out came water.”

QUESTION: This obviously refers to the incident in our parshah and not Shemot 17:6 because there it talks of a rock referred to as a “tzur” and here it talks of a rock referred to as a sela. “If so, why is this listed as one of Moshe’s great deeds when he was punished for it most severely?

ANSWER: According to the above, Moshe intentionally did not speak to the rock due to the ramifications it would have for Klal Yisrael. Thus, he literally sacrificed himself due to his infinite love for Klal Yisrael. Such a leader is indeed meritorious; and therefore, we pray “for the sake of his righteousness, grant abundant water.”

(ר' מאיר ז"ל שפירא מלובלין)

"ויאמר ה' אל משה ואל אהרן יען לא האמנתם בי להקדישני...לכן לא תביאו את הקהל הזה אל הארץ אשר נתתי להם"
“G‑d said to Moshe and to Aharon, ‘Because you did not believe in Me to sanctify Me... therefore you will not bring this congregation to the land that I have given them.’ ” (20:12)

QUESTION: It was Moshe who disobeyed and struck the rock; why was Aharon also punished?

ANSWER: Aharon was punished because the act was repeated. Possibly, at first he did not know what Moshe was about to do and could justifiably claim innocence. However, after Moshe struck the rock the first time, he should have protested saying, “We were told to speak, not smite.” Now Aharon was also liable and equally punished.

(שער בת רבים)

"וישלח משה מלאכים מקדש אל מלך אדום כה אמר אחיך ישראל אתה ידעת את כל התלאה אשר מצאתנו"
“Moshe sent emissaries from Kadesh to the king of Edom: ‘So said your brother Israel: You know all the hardship that has befallen us.’” (20:14)

QUESTION: The Jews were only seeking permission to travel through the land of Edom; why was it necessary to tell them that, “Our forefathers descended to Egypt, and the Egyptians mistreated us, and we cried out to Hashem, and He sent an emissary who took us out of Egypt”?

ANSWER: If the Jewish people were actually not law-abiding citizens and left Egypt after being victorious in a rebellion, it would have been logical for Edom to deny them permission to pass through his land. Therefore, they declared to them that “We dwelled in Egypt for many years. We were not rebellious or disruptive; on the contrary, it was the Egyptians who were evil to us and our forefathers. Nevertheless, instead of rebelling, we cried to Hashem, and He heard our voices and sent an emissary, who took us out of Egypt. Thus, there is no reason at all for you to fear our passage through your land.”

Despite this reassurance, the inherent hatred of Edom for the Jews manifested itself, and they went out against them with a massive throng and strong hand.

(משך חכמה)

"ויאמר אליו אדום לא תעבר בי פן בחרב אצא לקראתך"
“The king of Edom said to him, ‘You shall not pass through; maybe I will come against you with the sword.’” (20:18)

QUESTION: 1) Instead of saying “pen” — “maybe” — why doesn’t he simply say, “If you pass through, I will come against you....”? 2) Why was he so unsympathetic to the plea of the Jewish people to pass through the land?

ANSWER: In reality, Edom would not have minded the Jews passing through the territory, particularly when they were offered a handsome profit on all the food to be consumed. However, the nations of the world are anti-Semitic, and one nation will always rally to the support of the other when they are at war with the Jews. Thus, his concern was that perhaps in the future, the Jews would be at war with another nation who would call upon Edom for assistance.

Consequently, their response to the Jews was, “You shall not pass through because, pen bacherev eitzei likeratecha — maybe in the future our allies will solicit our assistance against you in battle. If we permit you entry, you may explore our country and learn all our strategic installations. Hence, it will help you retaliate against us, and we will be at a military disadvantage.”

(מעינה של תורה)

"וישמע הכנעני...וילחם בישראל"
“And the Canaanite heard...And he fought against Israel.” (21:1)

QUESTION: The “Canaanite” was Amalek. Upon hearing that Aharon had died and that the Clouds of Glory had departed, he thought that permission was granted to battle with Israel (Rashi, ibid. and 33:40).

When Miriam died, the well ceased and the Jewish people quarreled with Moshe. Why was there no uproar from the people when the clouds departed? Moreover, how and when the well returned is clearly detailed in the Scriptural text (see 20:8-11); why isn’t there an indication concerning how the clouds returned?

ANSWER: Careful analysis of the pesukim shows that there were two types of clouds:

1) ananei hakavod — Clouds of Glory —

2) ordinary clouds (see Rashi 20:29, 26:13 and Rashi Vayikra 23:43).

The Clouds of Glory hovered over the camp of Israel, and their presence proclaimed the glory of K’lal Yisrael. The others surrounded them from all four sides and also from above and beneath. They served as protection against alien attacks and shielded them from heat and sun (see 10:35, 20:22, Rashi).

In accordance with peshuto shel mikra — the simple explanation of the text — it was not the ordinary clouds that departed but the Clouds of Glory, which in actuality never returned afterwards. Though Amalek knew very well the purpose of the Clouds of Glory, upon witnessing their departure, his audacity led him foolishly to think that Hashem had now granted permission to attack the Jewish people.

The Jews did not raise a protest when they departed because the Clouds of Glory were a special gift to the Jewish people in merit of Aharon and did not serve the personal needs of the people (unlike the well which provided their drinking water), so they had no basis for murmuring and demanding their return.

Moshe, as a sincere and dedicated shepherd of K’lal Yisrael, considered it his obligation to do everything in his power to ensure that their needs were provided for. Therefore, he made sure that the water supply (well) returned after the demise of Miriam but did not request from Hashem the return of the Clouds of Glory.

(לקוטי שיחות חי"ח) [ומה דאיתא בתענית ט' ע"א דחזרו בזכות משה אינו לפי פשוטו של מקרא, ועי' שפתי חכמים כ"ה:ד' אות ב']

"וישמע הכנעני מלך ערד ישב הנגב כי בא ישראל דרך האתרים וילחם בישראל"
“And the Canaanite king of Arad, who dwelled in the south, heard that Israel had come by the route of the spies, and he warred against Israel.” (21:1)

QUESTION: Of what significance to the war with the Canaanites is the fact that the Jews had come “derech ha’atarim” — “by the route of the spies”?

ANSWER: The spies who went to the land of Canaan (Eretz Yisrael) outwardly presented themselves as righteous people, but inwardly they were wicked and corrupt.

In reality, the nation that launched the attack mentioned in our pasuk was Amalek, not Canaan. They merely altered their dialect to speak like the Canaanites so that the Jewish would erroneously pray to Hashem for protection from the Canaanites, and thus their prayers would be of no avail.

Hashem conducts Himself with the Jewish people middah keneged middah — measure for measure. If he punishes them, G‑d forbid, he does so in a way that echoes the offense. With the words “derech ha’atarim” — “the route of the spies” — the Torah is telling us that this occurrence was Hashem’s way of punishing measure for measure. Since the Jews “followed the route” — i.e. succumbed to the influence — of the spies, who endeavored to disguise themselves, Hashem now sent upon them the Amalekites, disguised as Canaanites.

(לוח ארז)

"אם נתן תתן את העם הזה בידי והחרמתי את עריהם. וישמע ה' בקול ישראל ויתן את הכנעני ויחרם אתהם ואת עריהם"
“If You will deliver this people into my hand, I will utterly destroy their cities. G‑d heard the voice of Israel and He delivered the Canaanite and they utterly destroyed them and their cities.” (21: 2-3)

QUESTION: The Jews only vowed to utterly destroy their cities, why afterwards did they utterly destroy them, too?

ANSWER: The Canaanites who attacked the Jewish people were actually Amalekites. Although they dressed like Amalekites, to mislead the Jewish people they spoke the language of Canaan. Thus, when the Jews would pray to Hashem to deliver them from the Canaanites, their prayers would be of no avail.

Thinking that they were being attacked by Canaanites, the Jewish people vowed to destroy only their cities. However upon realizing their true identity, and cognizant of the mitzvah “You shall wipe out the memory of Amalek from under the heaven” (Devarim 25:19), they utterly destroyed them, too.

(חתם סופר)

"ויאמר ה' אל משה עשה לך שרף ושים אתו על נס...ויעש משה נחש נחשת וישמהו על הנס"
“G‑d said to Moshe, ‘Make yourself a fiery serpent and place it on a pole’...Moshe made a serpent of copper and placed it on the pole.” (21:8-9)

QUESTION: Why didn’t Moshe follow Hashem’s instructions to make a fiery serpent?

ANSWER: The Jewish people complained about the heavenly food Hashem provided to sustain them, and also about Moshe’s taking them out of Egypt and their having to be in the wilderness. Thus, their sin was twofold: they spoke evil against both Hashem and Moshe (21:5).

The serpent was for the sin of speaking evil about Hashem, as Rashi (21:6) states, “Let the serpent who was punished for slandering G‑d to Chavah (Bereishit 3:1-15) come and punish the ungrateful slanderers.” For slandering Moshe, our great teacher, the appropriate punishment was a fiery serpent, as stated in Pirkei Avot (2:11), “Warm yourself by the fire of the sages, but beware of their glowing embers lest you be burnt...for their hiss is the hiss of a fiery serpent.”

Hashem is more concerned about the honor of the righteous than His own. Therefore He said to Moshe, “While I may pardon them for sinning against me, they must be punished for slandering you. Hence, make yourself — i.e. for the sin against you — a fiery serpent. Place it on a pole so that they may see it and confront their offense against you.”

Moshe had exceptional love for the Jewish people, and like a loving father who forgives his children, he always magnanimously forgave their insurrections against him. However, he wanted them to repent and beg forgiveness for speaking evil about Hashem. Consequently, he did not make a fiery serpent, but a copper ordinary one, so that instead of thinking of the significance of the serpent being fiery (the sin against Moshe), they would focus on the significance of the sin against Hashem.

The purpose of placing it on a pole was as the Gemara (Rosh Hashanah 29a) says, “When the people looked ‘upward’ and subjected their hearts to their Father in Heaven, they were healed — forgiven.”

(זכרון ישראל בשם אלשיך)

"והיה אם נשך הנחש את איש והביט אל נחש הנחשת וחי"
“So it was that if the serpent bit a man, he would stare at the copper serpent and live.” (21:9)

QUESTION: The word “vehayah” denotes simchah — “joy.” It is definitely no pleasure to be bitten. Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to say “vayehi” which denotes pain and sorrow? (See Midrash Rabbah Bereishit 42:3.)

ANSWER: Regarding the serpent, the Torah says, “vehayah kol hanashuch” — “anyone who was bitten [will look at it and live].” The word “kol” — “anyone” — which is superfluous, is written to emphasize that “anyone” (including a person terminally ill from another sickness) who was bitten and then looked at the copper serpent would be healed from all his illnesses and remain alive. To him, being bitten was indeed an occurrence which brought joy.

(משך חכמה)

Dvar Torah Questions and Answers on Balak

"וירא בלק"
“And Balak saw.” (22:2)

QUESTION: The names of the three parshiot, Korach, Chukat and Balak each contain the letter "ק". Of what significance is the fact that in Korah the ק is at the beginning (קרח), in Chukat it is in the middle (חקת), and in Balak it is at the end (בלק)?

ANSWER: The letter "ק" is the first letter of the word kedushah — holiness. The kufs at the beginning, middle and end represent past, present and future.

Korach’s attachment to holiness was a thing of the past. His geneology is traced to Yaakov. When one is defiled he is detached from holiness. Through being sprinkled with the ashes of the red heifer he now becomes cleansed of his defilement and thus regains his sanctity. Balak’s attachment to holiness was a matter of the future. Among his future would be his granddaughter Ruth, who was the ancestor to King David and Mashiach.

(שמן הטוב בשם ר' שמעלקא ז"ל טויבענפעלד)

"וירא בלק בן צפור את כל אשר עשה ישראל לאמרי...ובלק בן צפור מלך למואב בעת ההוא"
“And Balak saw all that Israel had done to the Amorite...And Balak was king of Moav at that time.” (22:2,4)

QUESTION: Why isn’t he referred to as “king” in the first pasuk?

ANSWER: Balak was not actually the king of Moav, but rather an exceptional Jew-hater who only “saw” what the Jews did to the Amorites. He refused to understand that the Jews only acted in self-defense against the Amorites, who, for no reason, declared war against the Jews.

Balak began to agitate among the people of Moav and make them afraid of the “Jewish peril.” Because of his intense anti-Semitism, the people of Moav then decided to make him king.

(ר' חיים ז"ל סאלאווייטשיק)

"ויגר מואב מפני העם מאד כי רב הוא ויקץ מואב מפני בני ישראל"
Moab became very frightened of the people, because it was numerous and Moab was disgusted because of the Children of Israel.” (22:3)

QUESTION: Why does it first say “am” — “people” — and then “B’nei Yisrael” — “Children of Israel”?

ANSWER: When the Jewish people left Egypt, a large contingent of Egyptians went along with them. They were known as the “Eirev-rav” — “mixed multitude” (Shemot 12:38).

Moab was well aware that Hashem forbade the Jewish people to attack them (Devarim 2:9). However, their fear was that the Eirev-rav would not consider themselves bound by this prohibition and attack anyway.

Inherent in the gentile world is hatred for Jews. Regardless of what situation the Jews may be in, be it good or bad, the world hates them simply because they are an independent people who do not assimilate.

Therefore, to describe the feelings of Moab, the pasuk says that they feared ha’am — the people — i.e. the Eirev-rav and in addition, “vayakutzu mipenei B’nei Yisrael” — “they were disgusted with the Children of Israel.” Though they were confident the Jews would not harm them, being gentiles, they hated them simply because they were Jews.


"וישלח מלאכים אל בלעם בן בעור פתורה"
“He sent messengers to Bilaam son of Be’or to Pethor.” (22:5)

QUESTION: What is the significance of the name “Bilaam”?

ANSWER: According to Targum Yonatan ben Uziel (31:8) Bilaam was notorious for four attempts to destroy the Jewish people. 1) He was Lavan the Aramean, who wanted to destroy our forefather Yaakov. 2) He advised Pharaoh to torture the Jews in Egypt. 3) He incited the wicked Amalek to declare war against the Jews. 4) Upon Balak’s invitation, he came to curse the Jews, and he advised Balak to encourage harlotry among the Jews.

The word Bilaam (בלעם) is an acronym for בלק, לבן, עמלק, מצרים.

(פאר אהרן בהגש"פ בית אהרן)

"הנה עם יצא ממצרים הנה כסה את עין הארץ"
“Behold! A people has come out of Egypt, behold it has covered the surface of the earth.” (22:5)

QUESTION: The entire world knew that the Jews had left Egypt. Why did Balak need to mention it now to Bilaam?

ANSWER: When Yaakov and his family came to Egypt, they miraculously grew in number. Pharaoh, fearing that ultimately the Jews would take control of the land, consulted his three advisors: Bilaam, Iyov, and Yitro. Bilaam advised him to stop the growth of the Jewish people by casting the newborn babies into the Nile River and torturing the people with excruciating labor (Sotah 11a).

Balak now complained to Bilaam, “Obviously your idea failed: Not only did they multiply and survive, but they even managed to leave Egypt valiantly. Since they pose a threat to me, it is incumbent upon you to do something to stop these people. I implore you to curse them!”

(נחל קדומים, ועי' אור החיים)

* * *

Balak sent messengers to convey his request that Bilaam come to curse the Jewish people, saying, “ulai uchal nakeh bo”“perhaps I will be able to strike them” (22:6). Instead of expressing doubt, he should have spoken with confidence, telling Bilaam that with his curses he would definitely be able to defeat the people?

In view of the above, that he was disappointed with Bilaam’s performance, it is clear that although he wanted Bilaam to try again to harm the Jewish people, inwardly he doubted that Bilaam could really accomplish anything.

(נחל קדומים)

"ועתה לך נא ארה לי את העם הזה כי עצום הוא ממני"
“So now, I beseech you, come and curse this people for me, for it is too powerful for me.” (22:6)

QUESTION: The word “li” — “for me” — seems superfluous; would it not have been sufficient to say, “Come and curse this people”?

ANSWER: Moshe was commanded by Hashem not to be at enmity with Moav and not to contend with them in battle (Devarim 2:9). They merited this because a Moabite woman, the pure and righteous Ruth, would be the ancestor of King David and Mashiach (Bava Kamma 38b). According to the Gemara (Sotah 47a) Ruth was the daughter of King Eglon, who was a descendant of Balak, king of Moav.

Balak, the king of Moav hated the Jewish people and wanted to hurt them in any way possible. Consequently, he called upon Bilaam and beseeched him “arah li” — “curse me” — “pray that something catastrophic happen to me, and thus there will be no Ruth, no David and no Mashiach. The lack of King David and Mashiach, G‑d forbid, would be the greatest curse against the Jewish people.

(חומת אנך)

* * *

When Balak sent his request to Bilaam he said “ki atzum hu mimeni” — “for he is too powerful for me.” Since he was talking about the Jewish community he should have spoken in plural: “ki atzumim heim mimenu” — “for they are too powerful for us.”

In accordance with the above, that Balak’s concern was to prevent the existence of King David, he asked for a curse against himself because he feared King David’s future power. Moav was destined to be destroyed by him (see 24:17 and II Samuel 8:2), but with Balak wiped out, King David would never be born.

He intentionally used the singular “Atzum hu mimeni” because he meant that David’s strength is inherited — “mimeni” — from me — since he is my descendent.”

(בית יעקב ר' יעקב הכהן ז"ל טראב – מסלתון ראב"ד ביירות)

"ועתה לכה נא ארה לי את העם הזה.... אולי אוכל נכה בו ואגרשנו מן הארץ"
“So now, I beseech you, come and curse this people for me... perhaps I will be able to strike them and drive them away from the land.” (22:6)

QUESTION: The words “ve’agareshenu min ha’aretz” — “and drive them away from the land” — are superfluous. Don’t the words “nakeh bo” — strike him — imply that the Jewish presence would be permanently removed?

ANSWER: The Midrash Rabbah (20:7) says that Balak told Bilaam that just as when one buys produce he expects one twenty-fourth of every se’ah (1 se’ah = approx. 2.2 gallons) to be spoiled (Bava Batra 93b), likewise, he sought to reduce the number of Jews by one twenty-fourth of every thousand people. Why did Balak seek to reduce them specifically by this amount?

The count of the Jewish people recorded in the beginning of Bamidbar (2:32) was 603,550. In addition to this, the tribe of Levi was counted separately and totaled 22,300 (3:39, Rashi). Thus, the census of the Jewish people totaled 625,850. One twenty-fourth of the total count of the Jewish people amounts to 26,077. If Balak had realized his wish, the remaining total of the Jewish people would have been only 599,773.

According to a Midrash, in order for the Jewish people to be worthy of entering Eretz Yisrael, their number had to be at least 600,000. Consequently, if their number had been reduced by one twenty-fourth, they would not have been able to enter Eretz Yisrael and would have remained wandering in the desert.

Balak vehemently hated and feared the people of Israel, and intended two types of harm against them: 1) “Nakeh bo” — physical defeat, and 2) “ve’agareshenu min ha’aretz” — expulsion from the land. By reducing the people by one twenty-fourth, they would not be worthy to enter “the land” — Eretz Yisrael — and would remain wandering in the wilderness.

(ברוך טעם)

"אולי אוכל נכה בו ואגרשנו מן הארץ כי ידעתי את אשר תברך מברך ואשר תאר יואר"
“Perhaps I will be able to strike them and drive them away from the land, for I know that whomever you bless is blessed and whomever you curse is cursed.” (22:6)

QUESTION: 1) Since Balak hated and feared the Jewish people, why did he only ask for the ability to chase them away, not to annihilate them?

2) Balak wanted Bilaam to curse the Jewish people; why did he mention his power of blessing?

3) Grammatically it should read “yevurach” (יבורך) — “will be blessed” in future tense, the same as “yuar” (יואר) — “will be cursed”?

ANSWER: According to the Gemara (Sanhedrin 105a) Bilaam was originally Lavan, the brother of Rivkah. Before she left home to marry Yitzchak, he blessed her, “Our sister, may you come to be thousands of myriads, and may your offspring inherit the gate of its foes” (Bereishit 24:60).

Consequently, Balak said to Bilaam, “Seeing the great nation that has emerged from your sister, I know you are a great prophet, and whoever you bless is definitely mevorach — blessed. Thus, there is no question that I will not be able to wipe them out because you have already blessed them to destroy their foes. Hence, all I am asking of you is to place a curse upon them so that I may at least drive them from the land.”

(חתם סופר)

"ועתה לך ארה לי את העם הזה...כי ידעתי את אשר תברך מברך ואשר תאר יואר"
“So now, I beseech you, come and curse this people for me... for I know whomever you bless is blessed and whomever you curse is cursed.” (22:6)

QUESTION: 1) Since Balak knew Bilaam’s blessing power, why didn’t he simply ask that he bless him to be victorious over the Jews? 2) Why regarding cursing did he say “yuar” — in the future tense — “will be cursed” — while regarding blessing he said “mevorach” — “is [already] blessed” and not “yevurach” — “will be blessed”?

ANSWER: For a blessing to be meaningful, it must be given with good intentions and a kind heart. To give a blessing one must be devoid of jealousy and ill will. Therefore, the Kohanim were selected to bless the Jewish people since they are the descendants of Aharon, who was the quintessential lover of his fellow man.

Balak said to Bilaam, “I have known you for quite some time as a vicious person without one iota of kindness, one who always looks upon other people with an evil eye. Consequently, your blessings are of absolutely no value because when you bless you do not mean it. When you bless someone and the blessing later seems to be fulfilled, it is definitely not thanks to you, but because mevorach — the person happens to be already blessed.

“Knowing your viciousness and animosity towards people, I am confident that your curses are sincere and come from the bottom of your heart. Therefore, I will not waste my time asking you to bless me, but curse the Jews since those who you curse, undoubtedly, ‘yuar’ — ‘will be cursed.’ ”

(מצאתי בכתבי אבי הרב שמואל פסח ז"ל באגאמילסקי)

"לא אוכל לעבר את פי ה' אלקי לעשות קטנה או גדולה."
“I cannot transgress the word of G‑d, my G‑d, to do anything small or great.” (22:18)

QUESTION: If he could not do a small thing, obviously he could not do a great one. He should have said the reverse, “I cannot do a great or even a small thing against G‑d”?

ANSWER: The various Names of Hashem represent attributes that He reveals to the Jewish people. The four-lettered Tetragramatton expresses His mercy, and the NameElokim (אלקים) indicates severity and judgment (see Bereishit 1:1, Rashi). The Name “Keil” (א-ל) is a sign of kindness, as it is stated Chessed Keil kol hayom” — “The kindness of G‑d is all day long” (Psalms 52:3). The two letters, י-ה of the four-lettered Name, as a separate Name, are a sign of gevurah — severity (see Shemot 17:16).

Thus, in order to curse the Jewish people, Bilaam endeavored to evoke the wrath of Hashem by pronouncing the Name Elokim and the Name “Kah,” the first two letters of Hashem’s four-lettered Name.

The Gemara (Sanhedrin 105b) explains the pasuk, “G‑d put davar — a thing — in Bilaam’s mouth” (23:5) to mean either that He stationed an angel who controlled his mouth, or that He fastened a hook, as it were, to Bilaam’s jaw, so that he was prevented from cursing the Jews. Thus, when Bilaam attempted to pronounce the Name “Elokim,” the hook permitted him only to say the first two letters, “Keil.” Further, when he wanted to say only the first two letters (י-ה) of the four lettered Name, his mouth was forced to complete the Tetragrammaton.

When Balak’s messengers invited Bilaam to come to curse the Jewish people, he told them that he was not in control of his powers and it would be impossible for him to do “anything small” — i.e. to say only two letters of the four-lettered Name — or to do “anything great” — i.e. to pronounce the Name “Elokim” in its entirety.

(בית יעקב ר' יעקב הכהן ז"ל טראב – מסלתון ראב"ד ביירות בשם ברכת טוב)

"אם יתן לי בלק מלא ביתו כסף וזהב."
“If Balak would give me his house full of silver and gold.” (22:18)

QUESTION: Rashi comments that from his words it is obvious that he was very greedy.

Pirkei Avot (6:9) relates that Rabbi Yosei ben Kisma was offered a position as Rabbi of a city. He responded, “Even if you were to give me all the silver and gold, precious stones and pearls in the world, I would dwell nowhere but in a place of Torah.” Why isn’t the same conclusion drawn — that Rabbi Yosei ben Kisma was greedy?

ANSWER: Balak never offered to pay Bilaam for his services. He only said to him, “I shall honor you greatly” (22:17). Even though there had been no talk of money, Bilaam referred to a large and specific quantity, so it is obvious that he was very greedy.

On the other hand, Rabbi Yosei ben Kisma was offered a million gold pieces. His response that “all the money in the world will not sway my opinion” demonstrates his exceptional character.

(תורה תמימה)

"ויקם בלעם בבקר ויחבש את אתנו"
“Bilaam arose in the morning and saddled his she-donkey.” (22:21)

QUESTION: Rashi writes that when Bilaam personally saddled his she-donkey, Hashem said to him, “Wicked one, Avraham already preceded you, as it is stated, ‘Avraham woke up early in the morning and saddled his donkey’ ” (Bereishit 22:3). How does Avraham’s saddling his donkey affect Bilaam’s?

ANSWER: Avraham interpreted Hashem’s request to bring up his son as an offering to mean that he should literally slaughter him. Consequently, he woke up early in the morning and saddled his donkey in order to speedily fulfill Hashem’s will, although simultaneously the continuity of the Jewish people would cease. After binding Yitzchak on the altar, he stretched out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son, but suddenly an angel from heaven stopped him and explained that Hashem never told him to slaughter his son, but only to bring him up and prepare him for a burnt-offering (see Rashi, Bereishit 22:2).

Bilaam on the other hand, permeated with evil intentions, wanted to curse the Jewish people, and thus end their existence. Upon noticing the alacrity with which Bilaam approached to destroy the Jewish people, Hashem said to him, “You wicked fool! Had I wanted to destroy the Jewish people I could have done it years ago through my faithful servant Avraham. If I did not do it then through him, I will surely not permit a wicked person like you to destroy them.”

(ר' מנחם מענדל זצ"ל מקוצק)

"ויחר אף אלקים כי הולך הוא ויתיצב מלאך ה' בדרך לשטן לו והוא רכב על אתנו"
“G‑d’s wrath flared because he was going, and an angel of G‑d stood on the road to impede him. He was riding on his she-donkey.” (22:22)

QUESTION: Why is it necessary for the Torah to tell us that Bilaam was riding on his she-donkey?

ANSWER: When Balak’s messengers originally came to Bilaam asking him to go and curse the Jewish people, Hashem instructed him not to go. Balak sent a contingent of more prominent messengers and Bilaam greatly desired to fulfill Balak’s request, but Hashem told him, “If the men have come to summon you, ‘kum leich itam’ — ‘arise and go with them’ ” (22:20). Hashem did not tell him to travel by donkey, but He meant for him to arise and go by foot with them. Observing the peak intensity of Bilaam’s hatred for the Jewish people and lust to become rich at their expense, Hashem thought that if it would take him a prolonged journey to reach his destination, perhaps his “fit” would subside.

Once Bilaam received permission from Hashem to go to Balak, he saddled his donkey in anticipation of completing his journey as quickly as possible. When Hashem noticed Bilaam’s actions, He sent an angel who stood on the road to impede him because “vehu rocheiv al atono” — “he was riding on his she-donkey" — and did not follow Hashem’s instructions to go by foot.

(פרח לבנון)

"ותרא האתון את מלאך ה'...ותלחץ את רגל בלעם אל הקיר"
“The she-donkey saw the angel of G‑d...and it pressed Bilaam’s leg against the wall.” (22:25)

QUESTION: Why did the donkey crush Bilaam’s leg against the wall?

ANSWER: Many years earlier, Lavan and Yaakov made a peace treaty. First Yaakov took a stone and raised it up as a monument. Then they took stones and made a mound. Then Lavan declared: “This mound shall be witness and the monument shall be witness that I may not cross over to you past this mound, nor may you cross over to me past this mound and this monument for evil” (Bereishit 31:45,52)

Bilaam was a descendant of Lavan (Sanhedrin 105a). By coming to curse the Jewish people, he was the first to violate this ancestral agreement. When one deserves a punishment for transgressing before witnesses, the Torah prescribes that “yad ha’eidim tiheyeh bo barishonah” — “the witnesses should be first to administer the punishment” (Devarim 17:7).

The fences in the vineyard where the angel stood were of stone (Rashi). Since Bilaam had blatantly defied the agreement not to cause harm to the Jewish people, he was punished by having his leg crushed by the witnesses — the stones of the wall.


"ותלחץ את רגל בלעם אל הקיר"
“And it pressed Bilaam’s leg against the wall.” (22:25)

QUESTION: Why did Hashem make him injure his foot specifically?

ANSWER: There is a saying, “Sheker ein lo raglayim” — “Falsehood has no feet” — which means that lies cannot “stand up” for long. Eventually truth prevails and lies dissipate. Bilaam was permeated with falsehood. His lust for glory and money, so blinded him that he thought that he could even deceive Hashem. Therefore Hashem caused the donkey to injure his foot as a message that his attempts to hurt the Jewish people would be short-lived.

(פרדס יוסף החדש בשם נחלת יעקב יהושע)

* * *

In Hebrew the word for falsehood is “sheker” (שקר), and truth is “emet” (אמת). Emet is spelled with an ,"א" a ,"מ" and a "ת", each of which stand on two feet. On the other hand, the letters "ש" and "ר" have only one foot, and the "ק" has one foot longer than the other, which makes it imbalanced. Truth stands firmly on two feet and can stand forever. One may be able to stand on one foot, but not for long.

* * *

"א" is the first letter of the alef-beit, "מ" is the middle letter, and "ת" is the last letter. These three letters together spell the word “emet” — “truth” — because something true is true from beginning to end.

"ותאמר האתון אל בלעם הלוא אנכי אתנך אשר רכבת עלי מעודך עד היום הזה ההסכן הסכנתי לעשות לך כה ויאמר לא"
“The donkey said to Bilaam, ‘Am I not your donkey that you have ridden all your life until this day? Have I ever been accustomed to do such a thing to you?’ He said, ‘No.’” (22:30)

QUESTION: According to the Gemara (Sanhedrin 105b) during the dialogue between Bilaam and the donkey, she asked him, “Why did you take me and not ride on a horse?” and Bilaam replied, “My horse was out in the field.” Why didn’t the donkey ask him, “Why didn’t you go to the field to get your horse?”

ANSWER: Prior to the plague of hail, Moshe warned Pharaoh to send a message to his people: “ ‘Gather your livestock from the field; otherwise the hail shall descend upon them and they shall die.’ Whoever among the servants of Pharaoh feared the word of G‑d chased his servants and livestock into his house. And whoever did not take the word of G‑d to heart, left his servants and livestock in the field” (Shemot 9:19-21).

According to the Targum Yonatan ben Uziel, “The one who feared the words of G‑d” was Pharaoh’s adviser Iyov, and the one who “did not take the word of G‑d to heart” was his adviser Bilaam. Thus, during the plague of hail Bilaam’s horse was out in the field and died. Bilaam’s “wise” donkey wanted to ridicule him for not listening to Hashem and asked him, “Why didn’t you ride on your horse?” Though she knew very well that he had no horse, she was eager to force his embarrassing admission that he had disregarded Hashem’s word.

(ילקוט האורים)

"בנה לי בזה שבעה מזבחת והכן לי בזה שבעה פרים ושבעה אילים"
“Build me here seven altars and prepare me here seven oxen and seven rams.” (23:1)

QUESTION: The word “bazeh” — “here” — mentioned twice in the pasuk seems superfluous?

ANSWER: Concerning the statement “There did not arise another prophet in Israel like Moshe” (Devarim 34:10), the Sifri (Devarim 31:43) comments that although there was no equal to Moshe among the Jewish people, the gentile world could boast of Bilaam, who was his equal.

The only prophet to whom Hashem spoke directly and prophesied with the expression “zeh” — “this is” — was Moshe. All others prophesied with the word “koh” — “thus” (Rashi 30:2).

Immensely impressed by his own powers, Bilaam arrived in Moav and told Balak to build altars and to prepare animals so that Hashem would reveal Himself and instruct him to prophesy with the term “zeh” as He had done to his counterpart, Moshe. To his great surprise and humiliation, Hashem limited Bilaam’s power of speech and told him, “Shuv el Balak vechoh tedaber” — “Return to Balak and speak with the term ‘koh’ and not ‘zeh’ (23:5).

(עיטורי תורה - חרש אבן)

"ויעש בלק כאשר דבר בלעם ויעל בלק ובלעם פר ואיל במזבח"
“Balak did as Bilaam had spoken, and Balak and Bilaam brought up a bull and a ram on each altar.” (23:2)

QUESTION: The Jewish people offer oxen, rams and lambs as sacrifices. Why didn’t Bilaam and Balak also offer lambs on their altars?

ANSWER: The continual daily sacrifice in the Beit Hamikdash consisted of two lambs (28:3). Though oxen are more select in the animal kingdom, the lamb was selected because it represents humility. According to the Midrash the Jewish people are compared to lambs, which demonstrate the trait of humility by walking head to tail.

The Gemara (Chullin 89a) explains the pasuk, “ki atem hame’at mikol ha’amim” — “for you are the least among all the nations of the world” — to mean “you make yourself least” — insignificant and unimportant — while the nations of the world are the reverse — arrogant and conceited. Thus, the lamb, representing the character of the Jewish people, was selected to be the daily offering in the Beit Hamikdash. However, the haughty Balak and Bilaam considered the humble lamb unworthy to be offered by such “exalted” personages as themselves.

(שם משמואל)

"וילך שפי"
“And he went alone.” (23:3)

QUESTION: Of what importance is it to know how he went?

ANSWER: Bilaam knew very well that he was under Hashem’s control and that he could not harm the Jewish people without His consent. Nevertheless, his hatred of Jews and greed overpowered his better judgment. Ultimately he admitted his folly. Prior to his departure, he advised Balak of a way to destroy the Jewish community. He told him, “Their G‑d hates immorality. See to it that the Jewish people mingle with the Moabite women and their doom will be sealed.” Balak followed Bilaam’s advice and a grave plague took its toll.

In an effort to prevent the Jewish people from intermarrying, the sages have forbidden the oil, bread and wine of non-Jews (Shabbat 17b). The word “shefi” (שפי) — “alone” — is an acronym for “shemanan” (שמנן) — “their oil” — “pitan” (פתן) — their bread — and “yeinan” (יינן) — “their wine.”

Bilaam knew that he would not succeed in cursing the Jews, but his wicked mind was occupied with getting the Jewish people to eat together with the Moabites, so that they would eventually intermarry and, G‑d forbid, their destruction would follow.

Consequently, “vayeilech shefi” — he went the route of “shefi” (שפי) — advising Balak to invite the Jews to their festivities, where they would partake of non-Jewish oil, bread and wine.

(לקוטי בתר לקוטי - שיר מעון)

"מה אקב לא קבה א-ל"
“How shall I curse whom G‑d has not cursed.” (23:8)

QUESTION: What was Bilaam’s proof that Hashem had not cursed the Jewish people?

ANSWER: In the wilderness the tribes were divided into four groups and each had its own banner. On the banner of Yehudah were the letters א-י-י, which are the first letters of the names of the Patriarchs: אברהם, יצחק, יעקב. On Reuven’s banner were the letters ב - צ - ע, the second letters of the names of the Patriarchs. On Ephraim’s banner were the letters ר - ח - ק, the third letters, and on Dan’s were the letters מ - ק - ב, the final letters. The letter ",ה" the fourth letter of Avraham’s name, hovered over all of the camps and protected them as they traveled from one destination to the other (Yalkut Mei’am Lo’eiz Bamidbar 2-1,2).

Since in Avraham’s name "ה" is the fourth letter, shouldn’t the banner of Dan bear the letters ה - ק - ב, the fourth letters of the Patriarchs’ names, and the remaining "מ" should hover over the Jewish camp. The reason that Hashem did not so instruct is because the letters ה - ק - ב can be arranged to form the word “kavah” (קבה), which means “to curse.”

When Bilaam arrived and saw the banners of the Jewish people, he immediately realized from the Hebrew letters upon them that Hashem does not want anything resembling a curse to be attached to the Jewish people. Accordingly, he told Balak, “How do you expect me to curse them?”

* * *

Alternatively, the Gemara (Megilah 18a) explains that the pasuk Vayikra lo E-l Elokei Yisrael” — “he called it G‑d the G‑d of Israel” (Bereishit 33:20) means that Hashem called him — Yaakov — “E-l” (G‑d).

Thus, Bilaam told Balak, although Shimon and Levi deserved to be cursed for killing the people of Shechem, nevertheless, “E-l” i.e. their father Yaakov, accused only their rage and not them personally (Ibid. 49:7). If so, how can I curse them.

(רבינו בחיי)

"מה אקב לא קבה א-ל ומה אזעם לא זעם ה' כי מראש צרים אראנו ומגבעות אשורנו"
“How shall I curse whom G‑d has not cursed. How shall I bring anger upon whom G‑d is not angry. For from its origins, I see it rock-like, and from hills do I see it.” (23:8-9)

QUESTION: Rashi explains that “tzurim” and “geva’ot mean the patriarchs and matriarchs [of the Jewish people]. What does this have to do with Bilaam’s inability to curse the Jews?

ANSWER: There are a total of thirteen letters in the names of the patriarchs, אברהם, יצחק, יעקב, and thirteen letters in the names of the matriarchs, שרה, רבקה, רחל, לאה. Thus, the letters of the names of the patriarchs and matriarchs together add up to twenty-six, which is also the numerical value of the four-lettered holy name of Hashem, the Tetragrammaton. Afterwards, Yaakov received an additional name, “Yisrael” (ישראל), which added five more letters to the names of the patriarchs, and together with the letters of the matriarchs’ names, the total is thirty-one, which equals the Divine name of “Keil” .(א-ל)

The four-lettered holy name represents Hashem’s mercy and compassion (see Bereishit 1:1, Rashi). The name “Keil,” too, is a revelation of Hashem’s kindness, as it is stated Chessed Keil kal hayom” — “The kindness of G‑d is all day long” (Psalms 52:3). Thus, Bilaam told Balak, “Since through their patriarchs and matriarchs they are strongly connected with Hashem’s attribute of mercy and kindness, how can my curse have any effect?”

(אדרת אליהו)

"הן עם לבדד ישכן"
“Behold it is a nation that will dwell in solitude.” (23:9)

QUESTION: The word “Hen” (הן) — “Behold” — seems superfluous?

ANSWER: The 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet serve both as letters and numerals and are divided into three categories. From "א" to "ט" are the single numerals, from "י" to "צ" are the tens, and from "ק" to "ת" are the hundreds. In the single category, the first and last letters can be added to equal ten: i.e. "א" + "ט" = 10; the second and second-to-last, "ב" + "ח" = 10, etc. The only letter that remains single, without a pair, is "ה". In the category of tens, the first and last letters can be paired together to equal 100: i.e. "י" + "צ" = 100; The second and second-to-last, "כ" + "פ" = 100, etc. The only letter which remains unpaired is the "נ".

Bilaam, in describing the Jewish people, was alluding to a Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 15:7) in which Hashem says, “Just as in the alef-beit the 'ה' and the 'נ' (הן) remain alone without a pair, so too the Jewish nation is separate from the entire world and cannot join with any other nation.”

(פון אונזער אלטען אוצר)

"הן עם לבדד ישכן ובגוים לא יתחשב"
“Behold! It is a nation that will dwell in solitude and not be reckoned among the nations.” (23:9)

QUESTION: What did Bilaam mean with this description of the Jewish people?

ANSWER: Bilaam was amazed by the Jewish people’s survival in the face of constant oppression and persecution. What was the secret, he wondered, of their success?

In praise of the Jewish people, he proclaimed, “The reason they continue to exist is that they are ‘a people apart.’ They always bear in mind that the nations of the world do not consider them significant, and they realize that efforts to find favor in the eyes of the nations are futile. Even if on the surface it appears that they are accepted, they do not assimilate since they know that ‘ubagoyim lo yitchashav’among the nations, i.e. in their hearts, the Jew is not reckoned and will never be given respect and acceptance.”

(לקוטי בתר לקוטי)

* * *

Alternatively, the success of the Jewish people lies in the fact that they direct their lives according to the fundamentals and teachings of their Torah, “ubagoyim lo yitchashav” — they do not “reckon” (care or worry about) what the nations of the world think or say about them.

(דגל מחנה אפרים בשם הבעש"ט)

* * *

Alternatively, Bilaam was prophesying about the Jewish people: As long as they are “am levadad” — a people apart from the entire world — “yishkon” — they will dwell and remain an entity. However, when, G‑d forbid, “uvagoyim” — they will assimilate or adopt the lifestyles of the nations of the world — then “lo yitchashav” — they will lose their uniqueness and no one will reckon them as anything.

(דברי אליעזר)

"הן עם לבדד ישכן ובגוים לא יתחשב מי מנה עפר יעקב ומספר את רבע ישראל תמת נפשי מות ישרים ותהי אחריתי כמהו"
“Behold! It is a nation that will dwell in solitude and not be reckoned among the nations. Who has counted the dust of Yaakov or numbered a quarter of Israel? May my soul die the death of the upright, and may my end be like his!” (23:9-10)

QUESTION: Why, when describing the uniqueness of the Jewish people, did Bilaam express the wish that his end be like theirs?

ANSWER: An argument that Christianity makes to the Jewish people is, “You are the fewest of the peoples (Devarim 7:7), and your Torah requires you to follow the majority (Shemot 23:2). Why don’t you join our faith since we outnumber you?”

One of the answers to this argument is that the Torah says about the Jews who cleave to Hashem, “Chaim kulchem hayom” — “You are all alive today” (Devarim 4:4). Even those who are not alive physically are still considered alive since they will be resurrected after Mashiach comes. Thus, taking into account all the Jews of previous generations, we outnumber the Christians.

Bilaam, puzzled, exclaimed of the Jewish people, “It is a nation that dwells in solitude; they keep themselves separate and distinct. Since they are the minority, why don’t they assimilate and join the nations of the world?” Then Bilaam himself offered an answer to his question. “Mi manah afar Yaakov — Who counted the dust of Yaakov? — if one counts the members of Yaakov who have returned to the dust over the years and who are going to be resurrected, one discovers that they are in fact the majority. Consequently, I yearn that in death I join the majority and that my end be like theirs — resurrected in the days of Mashiach.”

(שמע שלמה)

"ויאמר אליו בלק לך נא אתי אל מקום אחר אשר תראנו משם אפס קצהו תראה וכלו לא תראה"
“Balak said to him, ‘Go now with me to a different place from which you will see them; however, you will see their edge but not see all of them.’ ” (23:13)

QUESTION: Balak was interested in the destruction of the entire people of Israel. Why did he ask Bilaam to curse them from a place where he could only see some of them?

ANSWER: Bilaam’s attempts to curse the Jewish people were to no avail and his debut turned out to be a colossal failure. Balak said to Bilaam, “Perhaps your difficulty is that you look at the Jewish people as one entity. When you judge them as a whole, you see their collective splendor. Blind your eyes to their general excellence and concentrate only on certain aspects, and surely you will be able to find faults in individuals.”

To their dismay, their efforts were futile because each and every Jew in his own right was holy and righteous.

(ר' מנחם מענדל זצ"ל מקאצק)

"הן עם כלביא יקום וכארי יתנשא"
“Behold the people will arise like a lion cub and raise itself like a lion.” (23:24)

QUESTION: Rashi explains that lion-like “From the moment the Jews arise in the morning they strengthen themselves to seize mitzvot: put on tallit, read theshema, and put on tefillin.”

The Gemara (Berachot 14b) says, “He who reads shema without tefillin is compared to one who gives a false testimony about himself.” If so, why does Rashi mention reciting shema before donning tefillin?

ANSWER: It is considered false testimony only when a person recites shema and does not put on tefillin at all. Thus, he speaks about the mitzvah of wearing tefillin, but does not actually perform it. However, if later on in the day he puts on tefillin, his recital of shema is not considered false testimony.

This can be substantiated from the Gemara (ibid.), which discusses the analogous case of one who brings a sacrifice without the libations. Though libations are indeed required with many sacrifices, the Gemara (Menachot 15b) clearly rules that it is unnecessary to bring them together. When one brings a sacrifice and a few days later brings the libations, he has properly fulfilled his obligation.

(החוזה מלובלין זצ"ל)

When one fears missing the deadline for the reciting shema, it is proper to recite it immediately without tefillin, and don the tefillin later on in the day.

(כ"ק אדמו"ר שלח תשי"ב, ועי' משנה ברורה סי' כ"ה סקי"ד וסי' נ"ח סק"ה)

"וישא משלו ויאמר נאם בלעם בנו בער ונאם הגבר שתם העין"
“He declaimed his parable and said: ‘The words of Bilaam son of Beor, the words of the man with the open eye.’ ” (24:3)

QUESTION: Rashi interprets “shetum ha’ayin to mean “blind in one eye.” Why did Bilaam praise himself with his blindness?

ANSWER: When the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, was a young boy he asked his father the following question: “Why did Hashem create me with two eyes. One eye would be sufficient because when I close one eye, I can see just as well?”

His father explained that people have two eyes for a reason. There are certain things at which one should “look with the right eye” — i.e. love and concern — and there are things which one should “look with the left eye” — i.e. apathy and indifference. When one looks at a Jew, one should always look with the right eye and find his good qualities. The left eye is for worldly matters and things of minor importance. Sometimes one should even close it and not pursue materialistic desires.

Balak was extremely disappointed with Bilaam because instead of cursing the Jews, he was praising and blessing them. Bilaam comforted Balak and told him, “Do not fear, I am blind in one eye. My right eye has no vision, and thus I cannot see any good in the Jewish people.”

"מה טבו אהליך יעקב משכנתיך ישראל"
“How goodly are your tents, O Yaakov, your dwelling places, O Israel.” (24:5)

QUESTION: Rashi comments that Bilaam was amazed when “he saw that the openings [of their tents] were not lined up one with the other.” Why did he focus on their “openings”?

ANSWER: The Midrash Rabbah (Song of Songs 5:2) says that Hashem urges the Jewish people to do teshuvah, saying: “Pitchu li petach kechuda shel machat ve’Ani potei’ach lachem petachim shetiheyu agalot nichnasot bo” — “Make a small opening like that of the head of a needle and I will open for you an opening through which caravans can enter.” In other words, the Jew merely has to begin the teshuvah process and Hashem will help him to attain the most lofty goals. Thus, the “openings” that Jews have to make and Hashem’s reciprocal “opening” are not comparable.

Therefore, in praise and envy Bilaam said, “You Jews are so lucky; your opening and Hashem’s opening are not ‘lined up’ — identical — to each other. You only have to put in a little effort and Hashem opens for you the vast gates of teshuvah. If your G‑d loves you so much, how can my cursing possibly have an effect?”

(ר' ברוך זצ"ל ממעזיבוז)

"מה טבו אהליך יעקב משכנתיך ישראל"
“How goodly are your tents, O Yaakov, your dwelling places, O Israel.” (24:5)

QUESTION: Why do we open our daily prayers with words of the vile Bilaam, uttered in an attempt to annihilate the Jewish people? (In fact, some omit it and start from “Va’ani berov chasdecha” — see Responsa Maharshal 64).

ANSWER: Inherent humility and insecurity usually inhibits a person from thinking highly of or praising his own endeavors and accomplishments. Very often he needs the assurance of an outsider to be convinced that his decision or action was correct.

A popular adage states: “A stranger for a while sees for a mile.” Particularly one who is familiar with “both sides of the fence” is in the best position to honestly appraise one’s virtues.

Bilaam the non-Jewish prophet had a profound insight of the secular world. When he took a close look at the Jewish people, he was stunned and flabbergasted at their beauty. Knowing keenly the shortcomings and faults of the gentile world, he involuntarily proclaimed, “How goodly are your tents, O Yaakov.”

In order to dispel any doubts that we may have about our convictions of G‑dliness and Judaism, we proclaim these words at the very beginning of prayers. We thus recall that even the great gentile prophet, Bilaam, attested to the beauty and superiority of our religion.

"ועתה ברח לך אל מקומך"
“Now, flee to your place.” (24:11)

QUESTION: Why did Balak tell Bilaam to flee?

ANSWER: Balak was very much afraid of the Jewish people. Since he would otherwise have had to engage armies to fight the Jews and incur great expenditures, he agreed to pay Bilaam a large fee for his services. Bilaam was confident that he would succeed and “lived it up” lavishly in the city of Moav.

Now that his failure was obvious and he would not be remunerated, Balak advised Bilaam, “Run away quickly before the creditors get hold of you and kill you or put you in prison.”

(פון אנזער אלטען אוצר)

"לכה איעצך אשר יעשה העם הזה לעמך באחרית הימים"
“Go, I shall advise you what this people shall do to your people in the end of days.” (24:14)

QUESTION: In lieu of “lechah” — “go” — shouldn’t he have said “bo” — “come”?

ANSWER: Balak feared the Jewish people would wipe out the people of Moav. Therefore, he hired Bilaam to annihilate the Jewish people through his power of cursing. Bilaam’s attempts failed and he had to flee in shame.

In parting, he said to Balak, “There is really no reason for you to be afraid of the Jewish people — lechah i’atzecha — I advise you — lechah — to go on — with your activities and not pay any attention to them. What you have seen — asher ya’aseh ha’am hazeh le’amcha — what this people shall do to your people — i.e. the Jewish people will destroy Moav — is correct. However, this will not take place in your days, but be’acharit hayamim — in a later period — when King David will reign. I see that then ‘a star of Jacob shall step forth who will smite the corners of Moav’ ” (24:17).

(כלי יקר)

"לכה איעצך אשר יעשה העם הזה לעמך באחרית הימים"
“Come, I shall advise you what this people will do to your people in the end of Days.” (24:14)

QUESTION: The Gemara (Sanhedrin 106a) says that Bilaam advised Balak “The G‑d of these people hates immorality” and presented him with a plan to entice the Jewish people to commit harlotry, so that Hashem would be angry and punish them. The episode related in the Torah about the relationship between the Jewish people and the daughters of Moav was a result of Bilaam’s advice.

Where is there an indication in the pasuk that Bilaam advised Balak to promote harlotry with the Jewish people?

ANSWER: Bilaam sought to annihilate the Jewish people. Unable to succeed with his prophetic powers, he tried to destroy them through enticing them to intermarry. According to the Gemara (Kiddushin 68b), when a Jewish man marries a gentile woman, the children are considered non-Jewish. Consequently, Bilaam advised harlotry with the anticipation that the Jews would assimilate and cease to exist, G‑d forbid.

This is derived from our pasuk, which superficially is hard to understand. Instead of saying, “What this people [the Jews] will do to your people [Moav],” he should have advised him, “What your people [Moav] should do to this people [the Jews].”

Bilaam was actually saying to Balak, “I will advise you what this people [i.e. Moav] should do, le’amecha — to cause the Jewish people to become a part of amecha — your people. Embark on a campaign to encourage intermarriage between Israel and Moav, and ultimately they will cease to exist as Jews and become Moabites.”

(עיטורי תורה)

"ויקם בלעם וילך וישב למקומו וגם בלק הלך לדרכו"
“Bilaam rose up and went and returned to his place, and Balak also went on his way.” (24:25)

QUESTION: Bilaam returned to his homeland of Pethor in Aram; to where and to what did Balak return?

ANSWER: Bilaam’s endeavors to curse the Jewish people ended in a colossal failure. Prior to leaving, he advised Moab not to fear the Jewish people, for though in years to come the Jews under King David would wipe out Moab, at present they would not harm them. After conveying this knowledge, he realized that there was no reason to stay and returned to his homeland.

Now, Balak was not really a native Moabite, but a Midianite. Fearing the Jewish people, and cognizant of Balak’s intense hatred of the Jews, the Moabites invited him to become their king (see p. 165). Upon hearing from Bilaam that the Jews posed no present threat, they concluded that there was no longer any need for the arch anti-Semite to be their king. Consequently, he was forced to resign and he returned to his native country, Midian, so that his reign was short-lived.

(אור החיים)

"ותקראן לעם לזבחי אלהיהן ויאכל העם וישתחוו לאלהיהן ויצמד ישראל לבעל פעור"
“They invited the people to the feasts of their gods; the people ate and prostrated themselves to their gods. Israel became attached to Ba’al Pe’or.” (25:2,3)

QUESTION: Hashem was angry with the Jews who worshippedBa’al Pe’or. Why is it necessary to tell us that they were invited to meals and that the people ate the food?

ANSWER: The worship of Ba’al Pe’or involved scatological practices. The people would undress and defecate before it (see Rashi). In the wilderness the Jews were sustained on manna from heaven which was entirely digested without creating any need to ease themselves (Yoma 75b). If so, how was it possible for them to attach themselves toBa’al Pe’or and worship it?

Therefore, the Torah tells us that, “They invited the people to feasts which were prepared in honor of their gods; the people participated and ate Moabite food.” Consequently, they were able to perform the scatological practices associated withBa’al Pe’or.

(תולדות יעקב - איילינבערג)

"והמה בכים פתח אהל מועד"
“And they were weeping at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting.” (25:6)

QUESTION: Targum Yonatan ben Uziel writes that they were weeping “vekaryan Shema” — “and reciting Shema.” Why did they say Shema at this time?

ANSWER: In the census of the Jewish people at the beginning of Bamidbar they numbered 603,550. In addition, there were 22,300 Levites, making a grand total of 625,850. In Parshat Pinchas, after the plague which struck the Jewish community for the Pe’orincident, the Jewish people were again counted, and together with the Levites they totaled 624,730 (601,730 + 23,000 Levites, see 27:51, 62). Thus, the total reduction of the Jewish population was 1,120. Included in this were also the blasphemer and the Shabbat desecrator, who were killed for their own sins (Vayikra 24:23, Bamidbar 15:36). Thus, the actual reduction due to the plague was 1,118.

The words of the pasuk “Shema Yisrael...Hashem echad have the numerical value of 1,118. Thus, the Targum is saying that they were weeping “and reciting Shema,” i.e. weeping over the loss of 1,118 people from the total Jewish population since the last census.

(קובץ כרם שלמה בשם ר' מיכאל דוב ע"ה ווייסמאנדעל)

Alternatively, in the recitation of the Shema 248 words are said (see Orach Chayim 61:3). In this prayer the Jew affirms his acceptance of the heavenly yoke (kabbalat ol malchut shamayim) and acceptance of the yoke of mitzvot (kabbalat ol mitzvot).

When Pinchas observed the heinous crime, the Torah relates that “vayikach romach beyado” — “he took a spear in his hand” (25:7). The word “romach” (רמח) has the numerical value of 248. The Targum is saying that Pinchas approached the sinners with confidence because he took, i.e. relied upon, the merit of K’lal Yisrael, who were reciting the Shema and declaring their dedication to Hashem.

(נחל קדומים)

"וירא פינחס בן אלעזר בן אהרן הכהן ויקם מתוך העדה ויקח רמח בידו"
“Pinchas, the son of Elazar son of Aharon the Kohen, saw, and he stood up from amid the assembly and took a spear in his hand.” (25:7)

QUESTION: Why didn’t Moshe or Elazar take action?

ANSWER: When Zimri decided to commit an act of adultery with Kazbi, he brazenly confronted Moshe and asked, “Is she forbidden or permitted? If you dare say she is forbidden, who permitted you to marry the daughter of a Midianite?”

When one is a “nogei’ah bedavar” — “an interested party” — he may not rule in the matter since his decisions may be motivated by personal interest. Consequently, Moshe did not take action against Zimri. For the same reason Elazar, too, who was married to the daughters of Putiel — Yitro — (see Shemot 25:6) did not take any action.

Though Pinchas was the son of Elazar, and if his father married a woman who was forbidden, it would make him a challal — disqualifiedKohen — (see Rambam Isurei Be’ah 19:56), he did not hesitate to act, because Hashem declared him a Kohen only after killing Zimri. Hence, at that time he could absolutely not be accused of conflict of interest.

(רשימות כ"ק אדמו"ר, חוברת נ')

"וירא פינחס בן אלעזר בן אהרן הכהן ויקם מתוך העדה ויקח רמח בידו...וידקר את שניהם"
“Pinchas, the son of Elazar, son of Aharon the Kohen, saw, and he stood up from amid the assembly and took a spear in his hand...And pierced both of them.” (25:7-8)

QUESTION: Pinchas guided himself by the halachah that if a person publicly violates the prohibition against having relations with a gentile, “kana’im pogim bo” — “zealots may slay him.” Of this law the Gemara (Sanhedrin 82a) says, though it is the halachah, “ve’ein morin kein” — when one inquires if he may slay the violator “we do not rule it.”

If it is halachah, why don’t we so rule? If we do not so rule, in what sense is it the halachah?

ANSWER: A zealot is one who reacts to a situation instantly. Upon seeing wrongdoing, he takes immediate action. In certain instances, the Torah has approved and legalized such behavior. However, if a person sees a heinous crime being committed and before taking immediate action he runs to the Rabbis to ask if he is permitted to act, obviously he is not a true zealot.

Hence, when one’s instinct directs him to take immediate action, he may do so and it is within the parameters of the halachah, but once one comes to ask a “she’eilah” — “a question” — this halachah is not ruled for him, because he has proven himself not to be a zealot.

(חידושי הרי"ם)