Rabbi Dr. Raymond Apple
Rabbi Dr. Raymond AppleCourtesy


The people felt they were not getting a fair deal so they spoke against God (Num. 21:5).

The Targum Onkelos is concerned at the thought of anyone criticising God so it amends the verse and says that they grumbled against the "memra", the "word" or "command" of God.

People who have a complaint are not allowed to attack God personally. He is great, loving and awesome and perfect, but when God gives a ruling they can and do question the wisdom of the ruling.

The verse goes on to say that the people quarrelled with Moses – something which is both feasible and possible, because though Moses is great he is not perfect, and there may be something in his personality which is error-prone.


When the Israelites grumbled, they were bitten by serpents (Num. 21). What happened next? God told Moses to make a brass serpent and place it on a pole. If anybody was bitten by a serpent, they were to look at the brass serpent and then they would live.

Rashi questions this notion and suggests that if someone suffered they should turn their gaze upward to God and subdue their hearts to their Father in heaven, and this would cure them. It seems clear that if anyone had sinned the result would be suffering, and only if they appealed to God would they be forgiven and purified.

However, this leaves unanswered the question of the purpose of the brass serpent. Ramban thinks the idea is psychological: if one were suffering, the healing would come from the cause of the suffering. "Healing," said Ramban, "is effected by the very cause of the suffering itself".

Maybe the lesson is that suffering comes from looking away from God, and recovery comes from restoring one’s trust in the Divine power.


King Balak’s name is linked with the verb "to lick" because his power "licked up" his enemies.

It is possible that this is one of the ancient Hebrew words that gave rise to a word in English. Other examples are "keren", which may have a connection with "corner", and "mazon", which might be connected with "maize".

Whether or not these ideas have any validity, we are entitled to be bothered by the statement that Balak was the son of "Tzippor" (Num. 22:2) which literally is "a bird".

Tzippor, Balak’s father, ruled Moab in the time of Moses. If his name is Hebraic, it may be from a root that means "to chirp", possibly because he had a happy disposition (others think he was a gossip-monger).


Q. How can you prove there is a God?

A. I have two quarrels with your question.

The first quarrel is with the delineation of what the real issue is.

What is the real issue? Whether there is God, not "a" (i.e. any) God. If there is "a" God there can equally be other gods, and if there are other gods there is no God.

The second question is with the word "prove". There were medieval theologians who proposed rational proofs (cosmological, teleological, ontological) and indeed Maimonides insisted that it is logically impossible for God not to exist, to be one and unique, and to be eternal.

However, believers know God is there for reasons that are above and beyond conventional standards of proof. God is there not because of rational proofs but because we encounter and experience Him.

An attempt at an analogy: how do we know that love exists? Can we prove it in some scientific manner? We experience it (or its absence). We see what love does for people and what people do for love. How do we know God exists? We see what God does for people and what people do for God.

What does God do for people? The long and distinguished history of belief provides an answer. The sheer existence of the world provides an answer (don’t tell me about all that is wrong with the world: there is a God-given charge to man "l’takken olam", to repair, to restore the world). The fact that we are alive is evidence that God does things for man and has faith that man will be worthy of the privilege.

What does man do for God? Man can and should make himself into the response to the Divine command, "Be a blessing".


Q. Do visitors from the Diaspora keep a 2nd day yom-tov when in Israel?

A. It’s a difficult question with strongly opposed points of view. The general rule is to follow the most stringent view.

The lenient view (associated with Rabbi Shne’or Zalman of Liadi and recorded in the Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayyim 496:5)) is that if a man and wife are in Israel together they are regarded as at home and need keep only one day. A student who is in an Israeli yeshivah is also regarded as at home.

The strict view (Mishnah Berurah Orach Chayyim 496:13) says that if you intend to return to the Diaspora you should keep two days whilst you are in Israel.

Rabbi Raymond Applewas for many years Australia’s highest profile rabbi and the leading spokesman on Judaism. After serving congregations in London, Rabbi Apple was chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, for 32 years. He also held many public roles, particularly in the fields of chaplaincy, interfaith dialogue and Freemasonry, and is the recipient of several national and civic honours. Now retired, he lives in Jerusalem and blogs at http://www.oztorah.com