This Shabbat marks the realignment of the diaspora communities with the Land of Israel. Here is some background: The festival of Shavuot was celebrated this year, 5783, on Friday 26 and Shabbat 27 May. This was the case outside of Israel. But in the Holy Land, where Yom Tov is only one day, Shavuot ended on Friday night 26 May when Shabbat began. This resulted in a dichotomy between the diaspora and Israel. In the diaspora, the Torah reading on Shabbat 27 May, 7 Sivan, was for the second day of Shavuot, whereas in Israel, the portion of Nasso was read. Since then, the two communities have been reading different portions each Shabbat. When Israel read Behaalotcha, the diaspora read Nasso. When Israel read Shelach, the diaspora read Behaalotcha. When Israel read Korach, the diaspora read Shelach. And when Israel read Chukat, the diaspora read Korach. This week, balance will be restored as Israel read Balak and the diaspora read the double portion of Chukat-Balak. Next week, both communities will read the portion of Pinchas.


Is there any significance in the fact that Chukat-Balak is the reading that brings about the realignment between Israel and the diaspora? The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (whose yahrzeit fell last week on 3 Tammuz/22 June), addressed this, and other matters relating to this double parsha, at length on Shabbat Chukat-Balak, in the year 5742/1982. I am thankful to Rabbi Levi Silman for sending me the notes of the Rebbe’s talk and additional material on this topic. It would be impossible to convey the Rebbe’s explanation in its entirety in the limited space allotted, so I will share a few of his profound ideas.


As a rule, the Rebbe noted that the names of joined portions were opposite to one another and, by combining them, a synthesis of sorts is created. The two best examples are the double portions of Vayakhel-Pekudei and Nitzavim-Vayelech. In the Gutnick edition of the Chumash which is based on the teachings of the Rebbe, the editor, Rabbi Chaim Miller explains (page xlvi and lvii): “Vayakhel means, “assembled”, as in: Moshe assembled.” In Hebrew, there are many words which mean “gather”, but “vayakhel”, in particular, emphasises how all the assembled members merge identity to form a single whole, an “assembly.”  Pekudei means “counting”, an idea which stresses the worth of the individual, how every person “counts” as a separate entity. So when these two Parshiyos come together, the Torah is teaching us – and giving the spiritual potential – to harmonise these two opposing qualities.” 


In regards to the second example, Rabbi Miller, citing the Rebbe, explains: “Rabbi Saadia Ga’on writes that Nitzavim and Vayelech actually constitute one single Parsha, and it is only that in some years the Parsha is split into two (as opposed to other instances where two separate Parshiyos will be combined together).  Thus, even when Vayelech is read separately, we can derive a lesson from the reading of Nitzavim and Vayelech together. At first glance, the two terms Nitzavim and Vayelech appear to be diametrically opposed.  Nitzavim means “standing firmly” in the same position, whereas Vayelech, which means “he went”, indicates movement. So what is the lesson to be learned from combining together, “standing firmly” and “moving”, a feat which does not appear to be at all possible? Standing firmly represents stability, reliability and strength. A king, for example, remains stationary on his throne, and those who wish to see him must come from afar. Moving, on the other hand, is a sign of growth and expansion. Thus, the combination of simultaneously “standing firmly” and “moving” (Nitzavim-Vayelech) represents the ability to grow without compositing one’s prior position of strength.”


The opposite meanings of Vayakhel-Pekudei and Nitzavim-Vayelech are relatively simple to identify. Our parsha is far more difficult. Chukat means a “statute”, a law that seemingly has no rhyme or reason.  In particular, the “Chukat” of our parsha refers to the red heifer, whose ashes were used to purify a person or utensil that came into contact with a dead body.  It is considered one of the most mysterious laws of the Torah to the extent that King Solomon himself could not fathom it. Balak, on the other hand, is the name of the King of Moab who hired the sorcerer Bilaam, to curse the Children of Israel. How are these two names opposite of one another and how does their combination produce a synthesis?   


The Rebbe starts with a more fundamental question: how can a parsha in the Torah be named after a wicked anti-Semite who sought to eliminate the Jewish people? One explanation is that the Torah is bringing to light that, ultimately, evil only exists in order to be transformed into good, as it is written in Mishlei (16:4), “God has made all things for Himself, even the wicked on the day of evil”, on which the Alter Rebbe (the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Shneur Zalman, Tanya chapter 27) explains: “The wicked man will repent from his evil and turn his evil into ‘day’”. Thus Balak, as he is written in the Torah, represents the good that will eventually arise from people such as Balak, when they are transformed to goodness.


At first, the themes of these two portions seem diametrically opposed: Chukat refers to a super-rational law, the highest level of Torah observance, where a person loyally follows God’s commands even when they make no sense to him. Balak represents the wicked motives of a debased anti-Semite, contrary to God’s wishes. However, based on the above explanation that Balak represents a transformation of evil to good, it follows that the two portions of Chukat and Balak actually correspond to the two paths of serving God: that of the righteous (Chukat) and that of the ba’al teshuva, the penitent (Balak). Perhaps this explains why this parsha brings about the realignment of Israel and the diaspora.  Israel is the “Holy Land”.  It is inherently righteous.  Thus, it represents the values of Chukat, obedience to God.  The diaspora, however, is full of impurity and evil.  But just as the wickedness of Balak can be transformed into good ness, so too can the darkness of the exile be turned into light when the Jewish people there live according to the Torah’s laws.  There could be no better parsha to link Israel with the diaspora than this!


Good Shabbos

Rabbi Liebenberg

Link to Rabbi’s YouTube message for the parsha: 


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