Project Genesis


Bilaam’s Prophecy

Question: I am studying the Torah portion of Balak and I am struck by the beautiful imagery that follows the familiar “Mah Tovu” (Numbers 24:5). But since these words were uttered by the false prophet, Bilaam, I am curious as to why we begin our daily prayer with them.

Answer: Hi! I’m a little surprised that you called Bilaam a false prophet. There was nothing false about him. In fact, on the verse, V’lo kam navi od b’Yisroel k’Moshe (there never arose a prophet in Israel like Moses), our Sages say: But among the nations of the world one did arise – Bilaam.

You’re right, though, that Bilaam was not worthy to be a prophet. He lacked the perfection of character that prophecy should require. On the contrary. As we say in Chapter of the Fathers 5:19, he was the exemplar of bad character, the diametric opposite of Abraham.

All prophets, though they be very great and perfect people, still have human flaws that can distort the prophecy that passes through them. Only Moses was able to see “through a clear glass”; his humility was so total that he presented no barrier to the pure words of G-d.

Bilaam was a completely different story. As he said many times, he had no role to play in his prophecy: “The word that G-d puts into my mouth, that is what I say.” G-d effectively took hold of his mouth and stuck the words right into it.

So his prophecy (and I guess his donkey’s also! – Numbers 22:28) was like Moses’: undistorted – for a different reason. And unlike the words of other prophets, Bilaam’s prophecy is not part of the books of Prophets, but is the direct word of G-d, part of the Torah itself.

Best wishes,
Michoel Reach

Miriam’s Well and Leaving the Supernatural

Question: How does the stopping of the well of Miriam relate to faith?

Answer: You do mention that the episode describes a lack of faith on the the part of the Jewish people. That is certainly true. The Jewish people are about to enter the land of Israel. This transition was actually quite a momentous one. In the desert, the Jewish people lived a life within a bubble, sheltered by Hashem. All of their needs were taken care of in a supernatural way. It was a very spiritual life. In the land of Israel, in contrast, they would need to live within the confines of nature, and find God through the physical world. This is in fact, God’s plan for the Jewish people, and the ultimate mission of the Jewish people. The bubble of the desert was meant to be temporary, to give the Jewish people the spark they would need to live within the confines of nature and the physical.

The cessation of the well of Miriam was part of this transition from the supernatural to the natural. The Jewish people panicked however. They were so accustomed to the life of the supernatural they did not know how to react when confronted with the world of the natural. Their failing was certainly a lack of faith—that even within the world of the natural, God could, and would provide from them.

Rabbi Yoel Spotts

Studying the Laws of Taharah and Tumah

Question: What is the purpose of studying the laws of ritual purity (TAHARAH), such as the laws about the “red cow” (PARAH ADUMAH; Num. Ch. 19)? Do these laws have any relevance nowadays? 

Answer: These laws have no practical relevance for ordinary Jews (other than Kohanim) when there is no Temple. Except for Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, the standard Jewish law codes omit these topics because they are inapplicable nowadays.
When the Messiah comes, these laws will become relevant again because we will have a Temple again. Even nowadays, studying these laws qualifies as “theoretical” Torah study.

Even though they don’t apply to us today in a practical sense, studying them teaches us about the practices of our ancestors (and our descendants, some day). We can also learn many moral lessons from these laws. For example, the Midrash tells us that the priest’s preparation of the ashes of a red cow for purification was an atonement for Aaron’s making the golden calf at Mount Sinai. The ashes were mixed with “living water”, cedar, and hyssop; this is symbolic of the fact that a person who wants to be cleansed of his sins must become as humble as dust and ashes, must absorb the living water of the Torah, and must be firm as a cedar tree (in rejecting sin) and pliant as a hyssop twig (in reforming).

Thank you and All the Best,

Rabbi Azriel Schreiber 

The Laws of Impurity

Question: What is an impure person forbidden to do? Can such a person become pure again?

Answer: An impure person is forbidden to enter the Temple or eat sacred foods, but currently those things don’t exist. For more than 2000 years there have been two opinions about whether an impure person is allowed to pray; some people immerse themselves daily in a Mikvah, a ritual pool, for this reason, but most people follow the lenient opinion. We don’t have the ashes of the “red cow”, so can’t purify ourselves from contact with the dead, but we can purify ourselves from most other types of ritual impurity through immersion.

All the Best,

Rabbi Azriel Schreiber 

Aaron Between the Living and the Dead

Question: In the Torah portion of Korach it says that Aaron went between the living and the dead in order to end the plague. Since Aaron was a Cohen, how could he be permitted to come close to the dead?

Answer: Hi! Interesting question. I don’t know if Aaron was close enough to the dead to be an issue; he didn’t have to touch them. But the truth is that in order to save a life, even a Kohen Gadol (the High Priest) is allowed and required to do whatever is necessary, including touching dead people.

Best wishes,
Michoel Reach

Portions Named after Korach and Balak

Question: Why is a Parsha (Weekly Torah Portion) named after Korach and Balak? Wouldn’t Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob be more appropriate?

Answer: Unfortunately I do not know the particulars about the naming of the different portions. It seems that the name of each parsha is a word found among the first few words of that particular parsha. There are sources that imply that the contents of the parsha revolves around the name of the parsha. So in the cases that the parsha is a name of a non-Jew or an evil person it is because the events of that section revolve around that non-Jew or evil person. As you point out there are no sections named after our forefathers. However, there are sections named after events in their lives. For example, Parshas Lech Lecha is referring to Avraham’s sojourn to a foreign land (no one parsha encapsulates the entire essence, or series of events of any particular forefather).

Yochai Robkin
Project Genesis

“The Sons of Korach Did Not Die”

Question: I have read that Samuel was a descendant of Korach. If Korach and his entire family fell into the earth (Numbers 16:31-33), how could Shmuel have been his descendant?

Answer: In Numbers 26:11 it states, “The sons of Korach did not die.” Therefore, when the verse (ibid 16:32) says that “all the men who were with Korach” were swallowed in the ground, it did not include Korach’s children.

There is even a very fascinating Medrash, brought by the medieval commentator, Rashi, that says as follows: The children were indeed swallowed, but repented on the way down. Therefore, they did not die!

The nature of the way the Torah is written is that it is “skimpy in one place and rich in another”, and often the information from different places has to be worked out together.

Best wishes,
Michoel Reach

Infanticide and Divine Justice

Question: Please forgive me if my question is impudent; I certainly do not mean to be disrespectful. My question is this: When Korach and his cohort got swallowed up by the earth (Numbers 16:31-33), did that include babies who were not involved in the rebellion? If so, why were they punished? (I have had a similar question about the death of the first-born (Exodus 12:29-30)—as a father, it has bothered me enormously to think of children dying…)

Answer: Thank you for your question. Please do not apologize for it; the question is not disrespectful at all. On the contrary, anyone who takes Torah seriously has to deal with difficult questions and not “brush them under the rug”, as they say. I only want to add a caveat: If my answers are not satisfying, keep struggling with the issue yourself and be patient. In the course of time, you will find a better understanding than mine. Very often, it takes me years to get things straight.

I want to expand the scope of your question. Whether or not children died in the story of Korach, children were certainly killed in other places in the Torah. For instance, there is a commandment to destroy the nation of Amalek—men, women, and children (see Samuel I 15:3). The nation of Midyan was similarly destroyed, with only baby girls, and not boys, being saved (see Nachmanides on Numbers 31:6). So too, the Jews were bidden, “Don’t leave a soul alive” (Deuteronomy 20:16), with regard to the inhabitants of the land of Canaan. This is all in addition to the death of the first-born in Egypt. None of these children and babies sinned.

Furthermore, we believe that God rules the entire world and everything in it. Our health and illness are in His hands, as well as our lives and deaths. When my three-month-old daughter Shulamis died, may she rest in peace, she obviously had had no chance to sin when God took her life. I don’t think that I see a difference in terms of judging God’s actions, so to speak, whether someone dies because a person is ordered to kill him, or if that person dies because God takes away his life directly.

It could be that I have expanded the question far enough so that we can now see how to deal with it correctly. We live in an imperfect world, full of a lot of joy—but also a lot of pain and sadness. This is actually our fault and not God’s, for the world He originally gave to Man lacked all the sadness. But, that is how the world has been ever since the sin of First Man, and it will remain so until it is finally perfected in the end.

People die. Children die. They die for a great number of reasons, some having to do with their circumstances, and some having to do with God’s larger purposes in this world. Generally, we don’t know one reason from another. We have no reason to complain; even when it hurts, we know that God is always acting only for our benefit—individually and collectively. He has absolutely no other goal in this world than to bring it back to the perfection it could have had originally, to give us all the kindness we can accept. And He keeps track. Whatever we deserve and can’t get now, he will give to us at another place and time, in a different way.   (more…)

Lessons from Samson

Question: What are the main lessons to be learnt from the story of Samson?

Answer: Hi! Thanks for your question. To tell you the truth, I would never venture to make a suggestion on what is the main theme of any part of the Bible. As the Torah is infinite, it can have any number of “main” lessons. So I’m just confining myself to suggesting some things we can learn from the story.

  1. Self-control is strength. Unlike what Delilah seems to have imagined, Samson’s strength was not a result of some kind of magic or trick. It was a direct result of his being a nazir, dedicated from the womb to a special kind of service to G-d. A nazir has turned away from some of the normal pleasures of this world. Any of us who has tried to diet knows how difficult it is, and also knows that success in self-control gives a type of courage and strength that can be matched in no other way.

  2. Strength comes from G-d. Though people tend to describe Samson as ‘ha-gibor”, the mighty one, the narrative nowhere says that he was strong. It says a spirit of strength came over him from G-d, as if his strength were an unusual form of prophecy. I don’t know that he had big muscles, or needed them. The gemara in Sotah says that he was a cripple!

    1. This theme recurs through the Bible. Israel never ever lost a battle because of weakness, or won through their military might. They won when they deserved to, and lost when they didn’t deserve to win. (See the battle of Ai in the book of Joshua, and many other places too in the book of Judges.)


  3. The great importance of simplicity. Samson did his best to defeat the enemies of Israel, but he was not ultimately that successful, because the means he chose (marrying Philistine women) were not ones that are allowed. The theme also recurs throughout the Torah. We are supposed to serve G-d in the ways he prescribes, not in ways that seem to us to be better. There is lots of room for individuality and initiative in the Torah, but there is also right and wrong. Our most successful leaders succeeded by doing the right things, and when they failed, it was because they for a moment thought they knew better. (more…)


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