This week we read the double parsha of Chukas - Balak.
A chok is a commandment that a human can not find a reason for, as opposed to a mishpat, which is a commandment that a human might think up himself. To not murder, for example is a mishpat. One reason the first of these two parshas is called Chukas is because it deals with the ultimate chok, the "para duma", the red heifer. King Solomon was said to be the wisest person who ever lived, but even he couldn't rationalize the seeming contradictions in this commandment.
The second parsha in today's reading is Balak, about the non- Jewish prophet Bilam.
This first aliyah gives instructions that a completely red cow (the para duma) is to be slaughtered, and burnt, and its ashes saved. Then, when a person becomes tamai mais (impurity from a dead body), a procedure is described here where such a person is purified on the third and seventh day with the ashes of the para duma, and after that, he is tahar (pure).
The interesting thing is that the ashes of the red heifer can make someone pure, but all the people involved in the manufacture and use of the ashes become impure from their involvement. This is why this is considered the biggest chok of them all.
This aliyah then brings the story of the Jews' travels 38 years later to the 40th year in the desert, when the Jews stopped in the wilderness of Tzin. It is here that Miriam, who was Moshe and Aharon's sister, passes away and is buried. Immediately after this, the Torah says the people had no water, and Rashi says that this is an indication that previous to Miriam's death, for 40 years, the Jewish community had plenty of water from a well provided because of Miriam's righteousness. The people start bitterly complaining about the lack of water to Moshe and Aharon.
After the complaints of thirst for water of the Jewish people in the previous aliyah, in the second aliyah G-D tells Moshe and Aharon to take a staff and gather the people together before a certain rock. They should speak to the rock in front of everybody, and it would give forth water. Moshe and Aharon do gather everybody, but instead of speaking to it as commanded, Moshe strikes the rock twice and it gives forth water. G-D then says to Moshe and Aharon that, since they didn't sanctify G-D in the eyes of all the Jews, they won't bring the Jews into Israel. Rashi says: had they spoken to the rock and it had brought forth water, the Jews would have reasoned that if the rock, which doesn't speak or hear, nor does it require anything to exist; if it does what G-D wants by bringing forth water, then certainly we should. The Torah then says that these are the waters of Maribah. And Rashi points out that this is what Pharaoh's astrologers saw back in Egypt when they saw that the leader of the Jews would be smitten by water, and they then decreed that all the Jewish baby boys should be thrown into the river.
Then Moshe sends messengers to the King of Edom asking permission to pass through his land. He promises to not harm the land in any way. And moreover he promises to purchase food and drink from them despite the fact the Jews are self-sufficient with their manna and because of this the Edomites should benefit. However, the King of Edom replies that they may not pass through, and that he will come out with sword to prevent them. To this Israel turns away in their travels.
After turning from Edom, the Jews arrive at Mt. Hor in the third aliyah. Rashi says that even though the Clouds of Glory that led them in their journeys also leveled mountains for them, three mountains remained standing: Mt. Sinai for the giving of the Torah, Mt. Hor for the burial of Aharon, and Mt. Nevo for the burial of Moshe. At G-D's command, Moshe and Aharon and Aharon's son Elazar go up the mountain. Then Moshe takes the clothes of the Kohain Gadol (High Priest) off of Aharon and puts them on Elazar. After Aharon sees that his son took over the office of Kohain Gadol, Aharon passes away. When Moshe and Elazar came down the mountain without Aharon, the people understood that Aharon was dead, and mourned 30 days. Rashi says that all the people wept because they loved Aharon because he would always pursue peace, and strive for peace between men and between a husband and his wife. After that Rashi says that the Cloud of Glory departed from them. Furthermore the nation of Amalak hears this and attacks, but G-d causes the Jews to win.
This aliyah then describes more journeys of the Jews in the desert. Also in this aliyah, another great miracle is performed, comparable to the splitting of the Yam Suf. The Jews are approaching the valley of Arnon. This valley is very deep and narrow. Rashi says that the mountains were so close that men on each of the two facing mountains could speak to one another. The Emorim realize that this is an excellent place to ambush the Jews because the Jews would have to pass in a narrow space far below them. So the Emorites take ammunition and stationed themselves in crevices and caves on each mountain ready to hurl rocks on the Jews below. As the Jews pass, the mountain on the Emorite side (which later is to become part of Israel) trembled with awe at the approach of the Aron Hakodesh and leaned toward the other mountain. The mountains come together and the peaks of one mountain precisely enter the caves of the other, crushing the Emorite army hiding there.
In the fourth aliyah the Jews approach the land of Sichon and send a message to its king asking permission to pass through in peace. The King refuses and comes out with an army to attack the Jews. The Jews fight them and win, and occupied their land. Later the king of Bashan, named Og, attacks the Jews. As a result the Jews kill king Og and occupy his land also.
(The fourth aliyah now continues into parsha Balak.)
At this point the Jews have conquered two kingdoms. Now Balak, who was the king of Moav, becomes aware of these victories of the Jews, which mean danger for him and his country. So he sends messengers to Bilam, who is known as a famous non-Jewish prophet, and asks him to curse the Jews. Bilam discusses the matter with G-D and G-D tells him not to curse the Jews.
In the fifth aliyah Bilam sends word with Balak's messengers that G-D doesn't give him permission to go with them. Actually, Rashi says that Bilam is hinting that he would go with messengers who are more honorable than those sent the first time. Balak then sends more honorable messengers to Bilam and promises him fancy rewards. Bilam discusses the matter again with G-D, and now G-D says that he may go, but only to speak such words that G-D tells him to.
Bilam saddles his donkey and goes with the Moavite dignitaries. However, G-D places an angel with a drawn sword in Bilam's way. Rashi says that animals have better sight than humans, so the donkey could see the angel while Bilam could not. The Torah describes the trouble Bilam has trying to get the donkey to go forward. G-D finally gives Bilam the ability to see the angel and Bilam sees him and becomes afraid and offers to go back. But the angel says he can go on, but only to say what the G-D wants him to say.
In the sixth aliyah Bilam goes with Balak and they build seven alters and make sacrifices to G-D. G-D puts a message in Bilam's mouth and he blesses the Jews saying that he cannot curse a people that G-D doesn't curse, that they are a nation dwelling in peace, and not counting itself among the nations. He ends by wishing that his end be like theirs. Balak, who hired him to curse the Jews, complains, and Bilam tells him that he can only say what G-D tells him to say.
Since Bilam didn't curse the Jews yet, Balak now takes Bilam to another place, namely the top of Pisgah, and Balak hopes that Bilam would be able to curse the Jews from there. Rashi says that Balak knew that this was an unfavorable place for the Jews. Rashi says that Balak had this feeling because this was where Moshe Rabeinu would eventually pass away. They build seven altars and make offerings again, then G-D puts further words in Bilam's mouth. According to Rashi Bilam says that G-D has already sworn to bring the Jews to Israel, so they cannot be stopped. He says that there is no iniquity or perverseness in the Jews and the friendship of the King is with them.
In the seventh aliyah, since Bilam didn't curse the Jews in the last aliyah, Balak now again takes him to another place, the top of Peor, and Balak hopes that Bilam can curse the Jews from there. Again Rashi says that Balak knew this to be an unfavorable place for the Jews. Now for a third time they build seven altars and make offerings. Then Bilam begins, and blesses Israel a third time, this time with the famous blessing of "How Goodly are your tents oh Yakov" interpreted by Rashi to mean that he saw their tents arranged not opposite one another for the sake of tzniousness (modesty).
Bilam then begins a prophecy about the coming of Moshiach and what he will do to the nations in the final days including the destruction of Amalak. After this, Bilam and Balak go home. Then the Moavite young ladies come out and seduce Jewish men to be involved with Baal Peor, one of the Moavite gods. Rashi says that they did this on the advice of Bilam. G-D becomes angry and commands Moshe to hang the guilty people. Then, a Jewish man named Zimri publicly takes a Midianite woman to commit harlotry with her, and Pinchas, Aharon's grandson, takes a spear and kills them both in a miraculous way.