The forty-fifth reading from the Torah and the second reading from the book of Deuteronomy is named Va’etchanan (ואתחנן), which means “and I besought.” The title comes from the first verse of the reading, which says, “I also pleaded (va’etchanan) with the LORD at that time” (Deuteronomy 3:23). The portion completes the historical prologue of the Deuteronomy covenant document and begins a rehearsal of the stipulations. Part of that rehearsal is a repetition of the Ten Commandments and the famous first passage of the Shema: Deuteronomy 6:4-9.
Devarim (דברים) is both the title for the last book from the scroll of the Torah and the title of the first Torah portion therein. Devarim means “words.” The English-speaking world calls this book Deuteronomy. The Hebrew title for the book comes from the opening phrase of the book: “These are the words (devarim) which Moses spoke to all Israel across the Jordan in the wilderness” (Deuteronomy 1:1).
The book of Deuteronomy is dominated by Moses’ farewell address to the children of Israel as he urges them to remain faithful to the covenant and prepares them for entering Canaan. During the course of the book, Moses reviews the story of the giving of the Torah at Sinai and the trip to the Promised Land, reiterates several laws of Torah and introduces new laws.
The name of the forty-second reading from the Torah is Mattot (מטות), which means “tribes.” The name is derived from the words of Numbers 30:1, which says, “Then Moses spoke to the heads of the tribes of the sons of Israel.” Numbers 30 discusses the laws of vows and oaths. Numbers 31 tells the story of Israel’s war with Midian. Numbers 32 relates the story of how the Reubenites, the Gadites and the half-tribe of Mannaseh came to inherit the land east of the Jordan River. Except in biblical calendar leap years, Mattot is read together with the subsequent Torah portion, Massei, on the same Sabbath.
The last reading from the book of Numbers is called Massei (מסעי), a word that means “journeys.” It comes from the first verse of the reading, which begins with the words “These are the journeys of the sons of Israel” (Numbers 33:1). Massei is the end of the continuous narrative of Torah that began in Genesis with the creation of the universe. The narrative does not resume until the end of Deuteronomy, when Moses dies.
The final reading in Numbers settles several last-minute details. In it we find a list of the encampments from Egypt to the plains of Moab. We also find instructions for apportioning the land, as well as the specifics regarding the borders of the land. While explaining the land and its borders, Moses introduces the laws of the cities of refuge and more inheritance laws. In most years, synagogues read Massei together with the preceding portion, Mattot, which accounts for the brevity of this portion’s commentary.
Pinchas (פנחס) is the Hebrew name translated in English Bibles as Phinehas. It is also the name of the forty-first reading from the Torah because of the second verse of the reading, which says, “Phinehas the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, has turned away My wrath” (Numbers 25:11). In this Torah portion, the LORD makes a covenant of peace with Phinehas and his descendants, orders a second census, settles questions about inheritance, appoints Joshua to succeed Moses and lists the sacrifices for the appointed times.
Pinchas is a very profound section. The Zohar dedicates two whole volumes to Pinchas. It is considered the section of healing and is probably the most important section in The Kabbalah Center. Many lessons to be gleaned from this reading. It is also the first week of The Three Negative Weeks.
Balak (Balak, בלק) was the name of a Moabite king in the days of Moses. It is also the name of the fortieth reading from the Torah. It comes from the second verse of this week’s reading, which says, “Now Balak the son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites” (Numbers 22:2).
This week’s Torah reading tells the story of how Balak hires the occult prophet Balaam to lay a curse on Israel. Balaam meets resistance from God, has a conversation with his donkey and ends up blessing Israel instead of cursing them.
Balak and Bilaam are dark characters in The Torah. What is the lesson? How do we decode this section? We are approaching the three “negative weeks” starting on June 27 and ending on Tisha B’Av on July 18. These weeks represent a time when The Light is direct. We may be more reactive and have the opportunity to really see and feel our “triggers” which need to be corrected.
We are heading towards “The Promised Land” and there are obstacles along the way. This week’s portion’s hurdle is the land of Moab, Balak and Bilaam.