Balak - A Generation Repents
By Rabbi Aron Tendler
The generation who witnessed the exodus from Egypt, the splitting of the sea,
and the giving of the Torah was no more. The generation that had crafted the
Golden Calf, believed in the Spies, and gave birth to Korach's rebellion, was
no more. A new generation stood poised to enter the Promised Land. A new
generation stood on the threshold of their foretold destiny.
In this week and last week's Parshios the Torah recorded three new
rebellions. The first rebellion took place after Miriam's death. The
second rebellion followed Aharon's death when Moshe led them in a
circuitous route to avoid the land of Edom. The third rebellion followed
the unsuccessful plot of Balak and Bilam to curse and destroy the Jewish
The first rebellion was about water. The second rebellion was about bread.
The third rebellion was because of basic carnal desire.
In the first rebellion no one died. In fact, it does not seem as if G-d was
angry at all. In the second rebellion many died, but the "Torah did not
record how many." In the third rebellion the Torah recorded that 24,000 died.
In what way was the generation of the Exodus different from the new
generation of the desert? Why did the new generation deserve to inherit the
land while their predecessors had not?
Why were the consequences for the first rebellion seemingly non-existent
while the second and third rebellions ended in great losses of life? What is
the significance of the first rebellion following the death of Miriam and
because of water? What is the significance of the second rebellion following
the death of Aharon and because of bread? Why is it significant that the
third rebellion was motivated by carnal sin?
The year was 2484. The Jews had wandered the desert for almost forty years.
The new generation was reaching middle age and had begun to assume the
leadership of the nation. The generation that had left Egypt as adults were
almost all gone, only a handful remained. For the new generation, water from
rocks and manna from heaven were not novelties. For them, these were
commonplace. These miracles had become nature.
Miriam, the matriarch of the nation, suddenly passed away. As with so many
great personalities it is only after their passing that their greatness is
recognized. All of a sudden, the "well" dried up. For forty years the Jews
had enjoyed water from a spring that appeared for them whenever they camped.
All of a sudden the nation knew that the spring, the well, had been in
Miriam's merit. (See Rashi 19:2).
Rashi (19:3) points out that death by thirst is a horrible way to die.
Therefore, panic set in among the people. Any change can cause stress and
concern but an entire nation in a desert without water is good reason for
concern. Remember, for most of the nation there had not been a single day
without running water. The original confrontation with Moshe over water had
been in the first two years of the desert. It was now 38 years later, and no
water! Miriam had died, and their sense of security in the presence of their
leadership had weakened. If Miriam could die, so could Aharon and so could
Moshe! The nation had begun to feel their own mortality. Therefore there was
panic; therefore, G-d did not get angry. (See not 3-5 pg. 843 Stone Edition
Aharon was the next to go. His death shook the nation to the core. Rashi
(21:29) points out that he was loved by all. The "peacemaker" had been a
constant. A legend in his own time, the new generation had grown close with
the First Kohain Gadol. He who had "stopped the Angel of Death" in last
week's Parsha (following the rebellion of Korach) was seemingly invincible,
immortal. Miriam was gone. Aharon was gone. Even worse was the fact that
he had died without warning. (See Rashi 20:29) Who might be next?
They wanted to enter the land. They did not want to wander anymore. Moshe
had led them around the land of Edom rather than fight for the more direct
route. Once again it seemed they were wandering. Then Aharon died. The
double punch of their disappointment and their insecurity turned to anger at
their situation. They took it out on the manna. They attacked their primary
source of sustenance. They displayed their anger and fear. However, this
time G-d was less forgiving. This time he punished the people for their lack
of gratitude, their immaturity. Therefore He sent the poisonous snakes.
(See Rashi 21:6).
However, in this instance, the new generation revealed its uniqueness and
greatness. As the snakes attacked and people began to die, the people came to
Moshe and exclaimed, "We have sinned for we have spoken against Hashem and
against you." They were no longer the "stiff necked" people who had
fashioned the Golden Calf, listened to the Spies, and supported Korach's
rebellion. This was a nation that admitted their shortcomings and said they
were sorry. In all the 38 preceding years there is not a single record of
the Jews admitting their guilt. This was a truly new, and in this way,
improved generation. Such a generation was worthy of occupying the land.
Such a generation was capable of living in the land. (Remember, life would
be an ongoing series of sinning and repentance. Note: The period of the
The last recorded rebellion in the Torah is found in the last verses of this
week's Parsha. The new generation had learned their lesson well. They
trusted G-d and they trusted Moshe. However, they also trusted themselves,
and therefore, they failed. Living in the desert, isolated, insulated, and
being frum in one thing. Living among the other nations exposed and
unprotected is entirely something else. Yes, the tents and dwelling places
of Jacob were good, but they could not withstand the test of assimilation.
They could not stand up against themselves.
The new generation had to learn a terrible, but important lesson. "Learn to
trust G-d. Learn to trust Moshe. Learn to never trust yourself". To be
human is to err. To be G-dly is to forgive. So long as we know how to evoke
His forgiveness, we will continue to ask His forgiveness. So long as we ask
forgiveness we will be deserving of the Land.
The 3 Weeks & The 17th of Tamuz
The fasts of Gedalia, the 10th of Teves,the 17th of Tamuz, and Tisha
B'Av,were ordained to commemorate the destruction of the 1st and 2nd
Batei Mikdash(Temples). Beginning with the 17thof Tamuz - July 8 and
culminating on Tisha B'Av - July 29 is a period of mourning. As legislated by
the Talmud and amplified by our customs, the degree of mourning becomes more
intense as we approach Tisha B'Av.
The laws of the 3 Weeks extend from July 8 - the 17th of Tamuz, until after
Tisha B'Av - July 29. Our custom is not to shave or take haircuts during
this three-week period, and it applies to men and women. Marriages aren't
performed and it is forbidden to rejoice with music and dance. The custom is
to refrain from listening to any music, or to attend any public entertainment.
Occasions necessitating the Bracha of Shehechiyanu, such as buying or wearing
new clothes or eating a new fruit should be avoided during the Three Weeks.
On the 17th of Tamuz, five tragedies befell the Jewish People.
In commemoration of these events Chazal - the Rabbis ordained a
1. Moshe returned from Mt. Sinai and witnessed the Golden Calf. Moshe broke
the first Luchos.
2. From the day that the Mizbeach was inaugurated in the desert (2449),
offerings were sacrificed every single day for 890 years. During the fall of
the first Bais Hamikdash, there were no more sheep to sacrifice due to the
hunger, and the daily offerings stopped.
3. During the fall of the second Bais Hamikdash, the Romans breached the
walls of Yerushalayim. At the destruction of the 1stBais Hamikdash, the
walls were breached on the 9th of Tamuz. The fast of the 17th
commemorates both occasions.
4. The Talmud in Taanis recounts that in 2610, right before the story of
Channukah, Apustomus, a Syrian governor, publicly burned a Sefer Torah.
5. In 3228, during the 1stBais Hamikdash, King Menashe placed an idol in the
Bais Hamikdash. During the era of the 2nd Bais Hamikdash, Apustomus did the
Copyright © 2001 by Rabbi Aron Tendler
and Project Genesis, Inc.
The author is Rabbi of Shaarey Zedek Congregation,
Valley Village, CA.