Tag Archives: Balak

Commentary for Balak

6 Jul

In this week’s parshah we encounter an oddity in the Bible: Bilaam, the non-Jewish prophet. Normally any “priest” or “prophet” who does not have God’s interests in mind is treated as if he or she is a false prophet or a priest of a false god, but in the case of Bilaam, Rabbinic literature paints him as being just as wise as Moses and just as respected among the gentiles as Moses was among the Israelites. While similar figures such as Pharaoh’s magicians or the priests of Ba’al are exposed as frauds, when Bilaam is hired to curse the Israelites it is presented as a real danger.


While Bilaam’s attempt to curse the Israelites is thwarted by God, there is still a lesson to learn from it. We often dismiss the words of our critics out of hand as being “wrong,” whether because we feel that they don’t understand the situation or because we feel that the views from which they have formed these opinions are flawed, but that does not mean that their words should not be considered.


“Ben Zoma says: who is wise? One who learns from everyone (Pirkei Avot 4:1).” Although Bilaam was a mercenary and an idolater who sought to sabotage belief in God, it should always be remembered that he was also a very wise man, and any weaknesses he tried to exploit were probably areas in which the Israelites really could have used some improvement.


Commentary for Balak

4 Jul

In chapter twenty-one of Numbers (read in last week’s parshah), we learn about three wars that the Israelites fought during their journey to the Promised Land. The first is the war with the nation of Arad, who heard that the Israelites were coming their way, and so they attacked them, taking hostages. The Israelites prayed to God to deliver Arad into their hands, vowing to forgo the loot that normally would have been their pay. God answered their prayers, and the Israelites held up their end of the bargain as well (Num. 21:1-3).

Then the Israelites came upon the border of the nation of Emor. “Israel sent messengers to Sichon, king of the Amorites, saying: ‘Let me pass through your land. We will not turn off into fields or vineyards, and we will not drink water from wells. We will follow the king’s highway until we have crossed your territory (Num. 21:21-22).” Rather than accept the Israelites’ offer of peaceful transit and vow not to use any of Emor’s resources, Sichon decided to attack them instead. The two nations fought, and in the end, the Israelites were victorious, and camped themselves in the Amorite cities while they recovered. (Num. 21:23-32).

After that, as the Israelites marched on, they were confronted by the army of Og, King of Bashan, but God delivered them into the Israelites’ hands, and the Israelites took possession of Og’s land as well (Num. 21:33-35).

This week’s parshah starts out with the making of another conflict: “Balak, son of Tzipor (King of Moab), saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites. Moab was alarmed because that people was so numerous, and Moab dreaded the Israelites. Moab said to the elders of Midian, “Now this horde will lick clean all that is about us as an ox licks up the grass of the field (Num. 22:2-4).” To try to give his nation an edge in a war he believes is coming, he hires the wizard Balaam to curse the Israelites.

The way we interact with the world around us is influenced by our perception of that world. If our own perceptions do not match up with the reality, this can often lead to making mistakes. In this week’s parshah, Balak makes two major mistakes. The first is his belief that a war with the Israelites is inevitable. Although the Israelites started none of these fights, Balak still believes that the Israelites intend to attack his country. Furthermore, the text records the particular incident that set him off as being the war with the Amorites. “Balak, son of Tzipor, saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites (Num. 22:2),” but what Balak perceived was not the reality, for if it was, he would have known that Israel had offered to pass through Emor peacefully, without even using any of its food or resources. In fact, Israel never had any intention of entering his land, as Judges 11:18 explicitly states that on their journey into the Promised Land, “they never came into the border of Moab.” Whether he was acting on incorrect information or if he was attempting to force the facts to fit into his own perception of the world, we do not know, but what we do know is that his incorrect perception leads to his utter humiliation front of his court when Balaam blesses Israel instead of cursing them, and curses Moab to boot.

Balak’s second mistake is his inability to accept God’s power and God’s role in the Israelite victories. How could a powerless charlatan possibly hope to curse a people protected by God? God decides to prove his power to Balak by controlling Balaam each time he tries to curse Israel, and blessing them instead.

One question that is commonly asked regarding this incident is why God felt the need to control Balaam’s speech at all. If God is omnipotent, then surely Balaam’s curses would not be able to circumvent God’s protection! Does God really care so much about how Balak perceives the world? Astruc says that it is not just Balak’s perception of things at stake, but the whole world’s. If Balaam were to curse the Jewish people, and then some disaster were to befall them, others might perceive this as proof that Balaam is more powerful than God, even though the events in question are completely unrelated (and would come to ignore the fact that God would be the One causing a disaster to befall Israel as punishment for their sins). God might be invisible, but that does not mean that God is not there, and as we learn from Balak, it is a major mistake to overlook God’s influence in the world.

Commentary on Balak

21 Jun

The Jewish calendar and the cycle of the Torah readings are often connected.  Some weeks, the connection is easy to find, such as the story of Noah, which shows us the danger of having too much rain, which is almost always read on the Shabbat directly proceeding the 7th of Cheshvan, when the prayer for rain is added into the weekday Amidah.  Other weeks, such as this week, we need to look a little bit deeper.

This week’s parshah, Balak, is always read on the Shabbat preceding the minor fast day of the 17th of Tammuz (this Tuesday from sunrise until sunset), which marks the beginning of the three-week period between the 17th of Tammuz and the major fast of Tisha B’Av.  This time (and these two days, in particular) are considered to be days of historical misfortune for the Jewish people, and many Jews commemorate this by doing things traditionally associated with mourning, such as not shaving or cutting their hair, not going on long trips, and not scheduling weddings or Bnei Mitzvah during the Three Weeks.

Tradition tells us that this, and many of the other tragedies of the days were, were divine punishments from God for the misdeeds of the Israelites, both physical and spiritual.  Two of the five events listed in the Gemarah as having occurred on the 17th of Tammuz are the cessation of the daily tamid offering, and the placing of an idol in the Holy Temple.  This forsaking of God and the worshiping of a false god is also found in the end of this week’s parshah, when the Israelites, many of whom have started to have illicit relationships with foreign women, start to forsake God in favor of the Canaanite god Baal-peor.  Incensed, God strikes the Israelites with a terrible plague, but still the Israelites do not turn back to God.  One Israelite, Zimri, is so brazen that he and his Midianite paramour go out into in front of the assembled congregation and into the Tent of Meeting in order to excrete (an act which was both disrespectful to God and was the way people worshiped Baal-peor).  Unable, to stand this affront to God, Aaron’s grandson Pinchas takes a stand against this illicit behavior by stabbing them both with a spear.  Scared and awed by this display of zeal, the people cease worshiping Baal-peor and having illicit relationships with Canaanites, and the plague, which had killed 24,000 people, ceases.

While these upcoming three weeks are a time of sadness, the seven after them, between Tisha B’Av and the High Holidays, are a time of consolation. As we head into this part of the year which is so marked by sadness it is important to remember that there is always a light at the end of the tunnel. Despite the sadness of the many tragedies that have befallen our people during this time, tradition teaches us that Tisha B’Av, the culmination of these three weeks and the saddest day of the Jewish calendar, will eventually become a day of happiness on which construction of the new Holy Temple in Jerusalem will begin.  No matter how dark things look, if we turn to God, we are never truly alone.