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Shabbat Chukat Balak

Numbers 19-25:9 - Faith or Magic

by Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen
Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

This week we have two very different weekly readings of the Torah combined into one. Yet there are some important themes running through them. The first section starts with the law of the Red Heifer, a young, red, cow that was sacrificed, and its ashes were gathered by the priest, mixed with water, and used to purify ritually impure people. This doesn't mean a person was physically impure but symbolically impure. And as a result, couldn't enter the sanctuary. The irony is that the ashes that purify made the priest who carried out the ceremony impure. This is not logical. But it has the function of reminding us that there is a spiritual world as well as a physical world and we should try to combine them.

The Torah includes some laws that have a reason and a rational purpose, and others that don’t which are called a Chok. An instruction that has no apparent justification or explanation whatsoever. But it is a pure test of faith to accept something that has no rational basis at all.

Once again there is no water, and the people complain. God tells Moses to go and gather everybody and speak to the rock. A generation before the same thing happened but then Moses was commanded to hit the rock with his staff. This time he ignored the instruction to speak to the rock and struck the rock twice with his stick and again the water flowed. Two sides of the same person. God decreed that he would not be able to enter the land of Canaan. Which again does not seem to be fair or rational. The commentators argue as to why he was punished. It may be to avoid his being worshipped as the agent of God instead of God. We don't worship people. But we accept a Divine perspective that is beyond us.

In the wilderness, Miriam and then, Aaron have died, the new generation is ready to invade, and Torah describes the diplomatic measures taken to avoid conflict as they head towards Canaan. Once again there is a problem, and the people complain. A plague of snakes attacks the camp. Moses is told to make an image of a snake, to put it on a pole and if people look up at this snake they will be cured.

Once again this seems irrational. Since when does an image of a snake cure anybody? The Mishna explains that the purpose was to get people to look up towards the snake and then on toward HaShem. And thinking of God and faith would heal them. And again, something that seems to be irrational leads them to strengthen their commitment and faith in God.

The second part of the reading is concerned with the attempt of the Balak king of Moab to get the non-Jewish magician Bilaam to come and curse the Israelites because he realized that there was no way he could resist the invasion. The whole of the narrative seems irrational again. One minute God tells him not to go, then to go but blocks his donkey who opens her mouth and starts talking and seems much wiser than her human master. Is Bilaam really a magician or is he just a tool? Cursing does not work. Magic is simply deception, a trick.

All of these different texts have a similar message. Nothing in life is as it seems. A lot in life is uncertain and unpredictable. It is natural to look for solutions and easy answers, which is why so many people turn to magic. But the Torah tries to move the people away from the idolatrous magic of Egypt and all around them in the land of Canaan and to avoid it by putting our trust in HaShem and living a good life. HaShem’s role is to help us. The other side wants to help themselves.

Shabbat Shalom ( and sorry about last week's error in the title!


Jeremy Rosen was born in Manchester, England, the eldest son of Rabbi Kopul Rosen and Bella Rosen. Rosen's thinking was strongly influenced by his father, who rejected fundamentalist and obscurantist approaches in favour of being open to the best the secular world has to offer while remaining committed to religious life. He was first educated at Carmel College, the school his father had founded based on this philosophical orientation. At his father's direction, Rosen also studied at Be'er Yaakov Yeshiva in Israel (1957–1958 and 1960). He then went on to Merkaz Harav Kook (1961), and Mir Yeshiva (1965–1968) in Jerusalem, where he received semicha from Rabbi Chaim Leib Shmuelevitz in addition to Rabbi Dovid Povarsky of Ponevezh and Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Shapiro of Yeshivat Be'er Ya'akov. In between Rosen attended Cambridge University (1962–1965), graduating with a degree in Moral Sciences.


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