Parashat Balak

July 22-23, 2016 – 17 Tammuz 5776
Annual (Numbers 22:2-25:9): Etz Hayim p. 894; Hertz p. 669
Triennial (Numbers 23:27-25:9): Etz Hayim p. 890; Hertz p. 677
Haftarah (Micah 5:6-6:8): Etz Hayim p. 915; Hertz p. 682

PDF Balak 5776

From Anti-Semitism to Qualities without Ethnic Boundaries

Rabbi Daniel Goldfarb, The Conservative Yeshiva, Jerusalem

Balak, the King of Moab, “saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites” at the end of last week’s parasha.  In typical anti-Semitic fashion Balak ignores what the Amorites had done to Israel – attack them while seeking safe passage – that had led to Israel’s defending itself (Num 21:21-25).  The worried Balak engages a “seer,” Balaam, to “curse” the children of Israel so that he (Balak) could defeat them and drive them out of the land.

Balaam is one of the most enigmatic characters in the Bible. Of unclear origin (his name could be interpreted as “without a people”), Balaam has access to God.  In fact the Midrash says that he had prophetic power like that of Moses.  Hired to curse, Balaam tells Balak he can only declare words which the Lord puts in his mouth, and indeed delivers four parables, each more rhapsodic than the one before, singing Israel’s praises.  A Jew’s first words upon entering the synagogue, “Ma tovu ohelecha, Yakov; mishkenotecha Yisrael / How lovely are your tents (sanctuaries), O Jacob; your dwellings (study houses), O Israel,” are a quote from Balaam (Num 24:5).

Yet the rabbis took a very negative view of Balaam.  Balaam is blamed for inciting the Midianite women to seduce the Israelite men at Baal-Peor, the incident with which our parasha ends (Num 25:1-9), leading to crisis and tragedy in the camp.  Thus, through treachery and the exploitation of human weakness, Balaam manages ultimately to curse the Jewish people, which he had been unable to do directly.  The basis for this rabbinic interpretation is the mention of Balaam amongst the important people slain with the Midianites (Num 31:8, 16), suggesting that after failing to produce for Balak, Balaam had joined the Midianites in their hostility to the children of Israel.

In Pirkei Avot (5:21) Balaam is portrayed as the antithesis of Avraham Avinu – Abraham’s disciples have “a good eye” (a generous view towards others), humility and moderate appetites (for the pleasures of the world).  Balaam’s disciples, on the other hand, have “an evil eye” (they are jealous), a haughty nature and excessive appetites.  The commentators find proofs in the Torah’s text for each of these traits – for good in Abraham’s case, negatively in regard to Balaam.  The consequences are extreme – Abraham’s disciples will be doubly rewarded, both in this world and in the world to come, while Balaam’s disciples are doomed to destruction and the lowest pit in “Gehenom” (“hell”).

It is interesting to note that Balaam, who began by cursing/blessing Israel as a racial/religious group, becomes the archetype of evil on the human level. Abraham, the “father of many peoples,” is portrayed here as having the three key qualities a person should strive for – a healthy, non-jealous attitude towards others; humility; and control over physical passions. Balaam, the loner, is deficient in all three; people like him “drive themselves from the world” (see Pirkei Avot 2:16, 4:28).  These good qualities are not exclusive to Jews nor are the deficiencies found only amongst non-Jews.  They are human traits; both Jews and non-Jews can be disciples of Abraham or of Balaam.  The choice is ours.  Shabbat shalom!

A Vort for Parashat Balak
Rabbi Daniel Goldfarb, CY Faculty

Balaam’s donkey, which saw things that Balaam did not, bumped into the wall of the narrow path to avoid the Angel of the Lord obstructing the way, injuring Balaam’s foot (Num 22:23-25).  Rashi says it was a “stone wall,” a seeming trivial point.  R’ Yitshak ben Mordechai (1788-1868, Neshchiz, Ukraine) says, in Toldot Yitshak, that “stones” refer to the peace pact Jacob had made with Lavan (Gen 31:44-52), where they erected heaps of stones, which each swore not “to cross to do harm; the stones are witnesses.”  Balaam was a descendant of Lavan and the first to violate that oath; his foot was hurt in his attempt to cross the stones to do harm to the descendants of Jacob.

Table Talk
Vered Hollander-Goldfarb, CY Faculty

At the end of the previous Parasha we read about Israel’s conquest of the lands of Sihon and Og in trans-Jordan. This put them on the border of another trans-Jordanian nation: Moab, making Moab anxious.  Let’s see how they deal with the situation:

1)  According to the Torah, why is Moab nervous by the close presence of Israel (22:2-4)?  What is the danger in that situation? Have we seen a similar fear elsewhere?

2) As swords don’t seem to guarantee a victory over Israel, Balak, king of Moab chooses to invite Balaam. What is Balaam supposed to do and how will this help Moab (22:5-6)?

* Extra Hebrew challenge: Note the language that Balak uses to describe the blessing and cursing powers of Balaam in the end of v.6.  Similar words were used to describe another character in Tanakh.  Who is the person and how is he linked to our story?

3) Balaam does not seem to be independent in his choice to use his powers.  Who has to give him permission (22:8-13)?  Does he receive it?  Does he accept the answer?  If you are comfortable reading the Hebrew text, consider whether God’s words in v.12 are a response to Balaam in v.11 or to something else.

4)  Eventually Balaam is granted permission to go, but with a stern warning that he can only say as he is told.  None the less, God seems to stop him along the way.  How (22:22-35)?  How would you have expected Balaam to react to his speaking ass?  What do you learn about Balaam from his behavior during this episode?

5)  Balaam speaks 4 times in the name of God (chapters 23-24).  By a cursory look, does he fulfill the mission for which he was called?  Do you think that he expected that he would be able to fulfill it? Did he have any reason to think that he might be prevented from doing so?