The Torah portion, or parasha, this week is Chukat-Balak and is found in Numbers 19:1-25:9. In the first part, Chukat, the people again complain about a lack of water saying that they should have died when Korach and his followers died, and that Moses should never have brought them out of Egypt. Moses and Aaron bring the complaint to God and God instructs Moses to speak to the rock to produce water. Moses instead, yells at the people, “Listen you rebels! Shall we get you water out of this rock?”. God, knowing the people’s need for water, provides the water anyway. God, however, is displeased with how Moses handles the situation and tells him that he will not be able to enter the Promised Land, but will die in the wilderness. In the second passage, Balak, the king of Moab, sees that the Israelites have defeated the neighboring Amorites so he hires the prophet Balaam to curse the Israelites to insure their defeat. God tells Balaam not to go, but he does anyway, riding on his donkey. An angel appears and blocks the road. Balaam beats the animal, but it still refuses to move. After three beatings, the donkey speaks and complains that it doesn’t deserve this treatment. God then allows Balaam to see the angel, who rebukes him for beating his donkey but permits him to continue on his journey with the warning that he may only say what God tells him. Balaam asks Balak to build seven altars and to provide animals for sacrifices. After he makes his offerings he speaks the words God gives him, praising and blessing Israel. Balak is furious, but Balaam explains that he can speak only as God commands him. Twice more Balaam offers sacrifices and then praises and blesses Israel. Balak sends Balaam away; he leaves after describing the defeat of several other nations.
We have several points here in these stories. First of all, to most of us, Moses received a rather harsh reprimand for losing his temper. But more is actually being conveyed here. First, the message that God had hoped to get across to the people – God would provide for their needs – was missed. Moses’ words “shall we get you water” implies that he was equally responsible for producing water. Also, should all the people have been called “rebels?” It is highly unlikely that 100% of the people complained. Furthermore, is any human being truly unworthy of receiving water, regardless of who they are? Granted, the people were definitely annoying, but they were also still recovering from years of slavery, and as we can see in society today, it takes years, even generations, to heal from that. One of God’s greatest challenges with these newly freed people was to help them realize that they needed to value themselves and others as human beings, and not to take things for granted. What Moses, a leader and a representative of God, communicated to them was exactly the opposite, which is why God responded the way he did. However, God took care of the people even though Moses did not follow God’s command. In the Balak passage, we see a prophet, Balaam, known for his sorcery who is asked curse the Israelite people. Balaam must have felt a little concerned about the proposition because he turns down the proposition the first time and on his journey, he is painfully reminded from his donkey, that he is only to speak the words God allows. When he makes his offerings, only blessings come forth. Balak ends up sending Balaam away, without achieving what he wanted. We learn three things from the passage. First, if someone proposes something to us that we do not feel comfortable with and goes against principles we believe are sacred, then we are better off not to do them. Second, God speaks to everyone in simple and often unexpected ways. It pays to listen to good advice, even from unlikely sources. Third, the Israelites in the story are hardly mentioned and they seem completely unaware that they are being protected by God in this situation. We don’t always see evidence of God working in our lives. But that doesn’t mean God is not there.