12 Tammuz

Not all that Glitters is Gold

As I read this week’s double portion Chukkat – Balak, as our Ranebi* advised us to do, I stepped back to see this mosaic from a different perspective and realized how the illusion of truth can distort our vision and create false “truths”.

The Emmy-winning writer David Sacks wrote: “In Hebrew the word olam (world) has the same root as ne’elam (hidden). This is because God is hidden in this world.” Thus, a dualistic world can be revealed as “the appearance” instead of “actuality”. For example, without any experience, who can distinguish zirconium from a diamond? or costume jewelry from the real? For those who are not experts, time will reveal if something is true or not, or we can know it through experience or study.

Rabbi Yeshua referred to a Mashal about wheat and tares, both are almost identical when they are young, but as they grow, their differences are revealed, which is why the owner of the field asked his servants: ” Let the one and the other grow together until the harvest, and at the time of the harvest I will say to the reapers: Collect the tares first and tie them in bundles to burn but gather the wheat into my barn”. (Mattityahu 13:30)

And this is exactly the problem in the dualistic world in which we live, when at a certain moment, whether sunset or sunrise, it becomes impossible to clearly discern the messages, the realities and the truths until it gets dark or until the light is bright.

We begin with the Parah Adumah, the Red Heifer, which had to be “perfect”, without having been yoked (Bamidbar 19), its purpose – to be sacrificed. The Torah gives us instructions on how to do it and calls it a perpetual statute (19:10), detailing how to purify oneself from the waste of this heifer and how to perform the ritual.

What is the purpose of this portion? Chapter 19: 9 says “It is a purification offering.”

I wondered, yes, it’s a “choke”(an ordinance which we need to keep simply because God said so), but how does obeying this make me a better person? How does this entire process purify me of my mistakes? Is it the cow that does it? There are sects within Judaism scouring the world in search of the perfect red heifer, without one single white or black hair, announcing that this cow is the prelude to the messiah. In my opinion, the red heifer had a meaning for the people at that time and I agree with Rabbi Maimonides (Rambam) when he mentioned that the red heifer was the mother of the golden calf, which when melted took on a reddish hue, thus cleansing the people of the sin of idolatry, and redeeming her son. However, as the world darkens, it seems that the red heifer has become hocus pocus and its legend, more important than its practical teaching.

*Ranebi – Rabbi Netanel Ben Yochanan


Next, we read about the death of Miriam. According to the rabbinical interpretation of Zechariah 11:8, the three shepherds of Israel “died” in the same month (although Miriam died in Nisan, Aaron in Av and Moshe died in Adar). It is interpreted that when Moshe died these three “gifts” died in the same month as he had assumed the void left by his deceased siblings. According to the Gemara, by the merit of Miriam, there existed the well of water (which represents her gift of prophecy), by the merit of Aaron, the column of cloud (the gift or attribute of mercy) and by the merit of Moshe, the manna (the gift of the “Word” of the Eternal). Now, in this portion, when Miriam died (20:1) the Torah states in 20:2: immediately after, “And there was no water for the congregation”.  That is, the miraculous well that no one realized was always with them, had dried up. Then the well was restored through the merit of Aaron and Moshe.

Now, for the congregation of Israel, who really provided them with water? Again, we enter into the spiritual darkness of this world, for some, it was the merit of Miriam, for others it was the rod of Moshe. I laugh when I hear the crazy stories of people attributing alien powers to Moshe’s rod, saying it was an alien weapon that was the source of his power. It is exactly for this reason that Moshe didn’t enter the Promised Land – he did not elevate the Name of the Eternal but in his fury took the glory (the merit) for himself or for his “rod”. We also learn that we must maintain composure even in the most adverse moments in life, because as Psalms 106:32-33 says, ” They angered Him also at the waters of Meribah, and it went ill with Moses because of them; for they embittered his spirit, and he spoke rashly with his lips.”  As I read this Psalm, I realized how easily I can become upset, either with employees, family, friends, neighbors, politicians or situations that I cannot control. This is something that I can work on.

The text continues with another event in which the people spoke lashon hara (the evil tongue (gossip), or perverse language) when they affirmed in 21:5 “Why have you brought us up from Egypt to die in the desert where there is no bread or water, and our soul loathes this light bread.” Let’s put this into context… Was it true, what Israel claimed? How often had the Eternal told them that He had freed them to go to the Promised Land? Who brought them? Moshe or the Eternal? The problem is that feelings can be expressed, based on one single event without thinking or looking back.  As a consequence, the Divine protection that, until then had protected them from snakes in the desert, was withdrawn and they were bitten (21:6-7). Miriam and Aaron were no longer there to help them, so Moshe was the one who interceded for them (21: 7), assuming the role of his siblings.

How did the Eternal save them? It says in 21: 8 “Make a fiery serpent, and put it on a pole, and everyone who was bitten, who looks up at it, will live.” Now, in 21: 9 he expresses: “If a snake bit someone, and he looked at the copper snake, he would live.” Therefore, we learn that the disease itself was the cure. From this passage, we return to the dualistic world, who was the one who saved? The copper serpent on the pole or the Eternal? The cure was not in looking up at the serpent, it was recognizing that a person’s “forked tongue”, like that of the serpent, was the cause of his illness (it was an matter of acknowledgment) and when they raised their eyes to “Heaven” (to the Eternal), he was the One who saved them.

Sadly, we read in 2 Kings 18:4 that Israel turned this serpent into Nehushtan and worshiped it, so it was destroyed during the reign of Hezekiah.

Ironically, modern medicine uses this bronze serpent on a pole as its symbol to express healing and to make matters worse,  the Christian world arrived at the false conclusion about Yeshua, due to a misreading of John 3:14 which says: “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so it is also necessary for the son of man to be lifted up so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have everlasting life.”

People today interpret that it was Moshe who raised up the snake but it was by the order of the Eternal. Then, when it says that the messiah must be raised up, it refers to the fact that just as the serpent was the means that the Eternal used for people to recognize their mistakes and look up toward Heaven, in the same way when we learn and follow the teachings of the messiah and we raise our gaze toward Heaven,  to the Eternal who will save and heal us. Unfortunately, they read it as the messiah being equal to God (another Nehushtan – a false god) and they no longer look upon the Eternal rather they focus on the serpent.

Although there are several episodes in which we can see a dualistic world of wheat and tares, I would like to close with the rise of an evil prophet, Bilaam. Just as Moshe appeared (who clearly saw the Eternal as the noonday light), Bilaam appeared, of whom it is said,  he does not see clearly, as we read in 24: 3 “The speech of Balaam, son of Beor; and the speech of the man whose eyes are opened; the speech of him who heard the words of God, who sees the vision of the Almighty, fallen down, but having his eyes open.”  In the eyes of the people of that time, Bilaam, who is said to be a descendant of Lavan according to the midrash, was for them a man of the Eternal and had special powers, because what he spoke was fulfilled. However, we see that even though Bilaam had “special gifts,” he was an idolater. Although he knew the Eternal, he also sacrificed to idols and his ego needed to be constantly fed; his arrogance was to such a degree that he was not surprised when his donkey reproached him for his behavior.

How many Bilaams rise up in society today in the form of spiritual leaders or gurus? They have many followers due to their special “gifts” that are conferred upon them by the Eternal. They, unfortunately, lead God’s people to destruction, in the way that Bilaam advised the Midianites to lead the people into harlotry with their idols. In the end, everything was part of the same coin; Moshe did not realize what Bilaam, Balak and his henchmen tried to do to Israel; he had Divine protection. In the end, the tares were cut off; we read that Bilaam asked for a death like this: “May I have a death like that of the righteous and may my end be like theirs!” (23:10) However, Bamidbar 31: 8 tells us that he was killed by the sword by Israel, that is, the Eternal did not grant him a sweet death like that of the three shepherds of Israel.

Today the Eternal continually speaks to us in a variety of ways. Personally, when something happens and I have no answers to what I see, I watch, listen and hold onto it until time, experience and knowledge appear that allows the truth to come to light and shows me whether what I looked at, heard or experienced were wheat or tares. It is my prayer today that as a community we grow, that we gain experience in fulfilling the commandments and that we gain knowledge through the study of the Torah. As Rav Shaul wrote in Ephesians 4:14 “We will then no longer be infants, tossed about by the waves and blown along by every wind of teaching and at the mercy of people clever in devising ways to deceive.” Let’s remember, in this dualistic world, that not everything that glitters is gold, and not everything that appears to be true, is.

Shabbat Shalom.

Mauricio Quintero