Parashat Balak
July 2 – 8, 2017 • 14 Tammuz 5777
Annual (Numbers 22:2-25:9): Etz Hayim p. 894-908; Hertz p. 669-682
Triennial (Numbers 22:2-22:38): Etz Hayim p. 894-899; Hertz p. 669-673
Haftarah (Micah 5:6-6:8): Etz Hayim p. 914-917; Hertz p. 682-685


There has never been another prophet in Israel like Moses
Rabbi Joel Levy, Rosh Yeshiva, the Conservative Yeshiva, Jerusalem

The wandering Israelites repeatedly reach out to the local Middle-Eastern kingdoms to ask for safe passage through their lands and then defeat them in battle once those peace overtures have been rejected (the exception – their ignominious retreat from the Edomites in Numbers 20:21).  By the time they reach the border with the Moabites the local tribes are thoroughly rattled. Balak, the king of Moab, realises that the Israelites cannot be defeated militarily and that maybe spiritual force could succeed where physical force cannot. He summons the most prestigious regional prophet, Bil’am, son of Be’or, to come and curse the Israelites for him.

What follows is a highly unsettling series of encounters between Bil’am and Balak, recounted at great length in Parshat Balak. If we had previously thought that the Israelites had an exclusive line of communication with YHVH, creator of the universe, this parashah shatters that illusion. Bil’am seems to have a degree of intimacy and constancy in his relationship with God that we may not even see amongst our own prophets. He calls God by the intimate name, YHVH, that we might have thought was reserved for the exclusive relationship between the Israelites and God; a name whispered to Moses at the burning bush. Each time that he is asked to come and curse the Israelites, Bil’am requests time to check in with God, receives clear guidance from YHVH and seems to follow it to the letter. Bil’am repeatedly and unswervingly says that he is not capable of casting powerful blessings or curses upon anyone, for he is merely a vehicle for transmitting God’s will:

If Balak would give me his house full of silver and gold I cannot go beyond the word of YHVH my God, to do less or more” (22:18)

Have I now any power to say anything? The word that God puts in my mouth, that shall I speak!” (22:38)

How will I curse when God has not cursed?” (23:8)

In his dealings with Balak, a local source of military and coercive political force, Bil’am seems direct and honest. In modern terms we might say that he has the courage to “talk truth to power”. Despite repeated attempts at bribery and intimidation he sticks to his guns. In the end he emerges unscathed from the encounter, “returning to his place” (24:25).

The midrash (Bemidbar Rabbah 14:19) acknowledges Bil’am’s greatness. Basing itself on the final verses of the Torah that emphasise Moses’ stature as a leader and prophet , “And there arose not a prophet since in Israel like Moses” (Deut. 34:10,  a verse immortalised in the piyutYigdal Elohim Chai”) the midrash adds, “…in Israel there arose not, but in the nations of the world he did arise, in order  that the nations not be encouraged to open their mouths and say ‘If only we had had a prophet like Moses then we too would have become worshipers of the Holy Blessed One’. And who was their prophet ‘like Moses’? Bil’am ben Be’or.” The midrash goes on to analyse the differences between Moses’ prophetic skills and Bil’am’s and suggests that Bil’am exceeded Moses’ prophetic capacities in three distinct areas, focussing on the constancy and predictability of Bil’am’s line of communication with God, an idea that seems to emerge directly from the story in the parashah.

What is the Torah teaching us here about who has access to knowledge of the will of Holy Blessed One? One of the consequences of being a monotheist is that you have to learn to share your God with everyone!

A Vort for Parashat Balak
Rabbi Daniel Goldfarb, CY Faculty

Ma tovu ohalecha, Yakov; mishknatecha, Yisrael – Balaam’s praise of Jacob’s tents and Israel’s sanctuaries (lit. “your dwelling places”) – are the first words Jews say upon entering synagogue. The BeSh’T (Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidism, 17th C, Ukraine) said a Jew’s “ohel/tent” is his itzoniyut, his external appearance; it should reflect Jacob, modest; but his “sanctuary” within, should reflect the glory of Israel.  The Sha’erit Menachem (R’ Samuel Jacob Rubinstein20th-century France) said the verse shows a progression, from home to synagogue, that the sanctity of the synagogue starts in and is dependent on the home.  The Toldot Yakov Yosef (R’ Jacob Joseph of Polonne, early student of the BeSh’T) said the synagogues are only our “dwelling places” if we are constantly present, “dwelling” there.

Table Talk
Vered Hollander-Goldfarb, CY Faculty

The People of Israel are camped on the border of Moav, causing the Moabites great concern.  Rather than attempt to ward them off by an army, Balak the king invites Balaam, a person who supposedly has the power to get rid of the enemy by placing a curse on it.  But not all goes as planned…

1) Israel has arrived at the border of Moab.  What event in the past and what potential problem in the future causes Moav, and its king, Balak, anxiety? (22:2-4)

2) Balak requests that Balaam come to Moav to curse the nation on his border, but Balaam has to get permission to do so from God (22:8-11).  How does God open the conversation?  What seems odd about this?  What might be God’s purpose in this opening?

3) Balaam receives conditional permission, and heads to Moav.  On the way, a sword-wielding angel block his path, but he does not see it (22:22-34).  Who sees it and saves his life? What message might we draw from this? What irony do you see in the story?  (Note that in Hebrew the root Resh-Aleph-Heh means seeing, and the term Ro’eh, Seer, is a term used for a prophet.)

4) Balaam’s first attempt at cursing the people of Israel is not successful (23:7-13).  What is Balak’s (the king) reaction?  How does he propose to avoid another failure?  What might this teach us about Balak’s understanding of God?

5) After repeated failures, Balaam goes home but an unforeseen problem succeeds in bringing the wrath of God on the People of Israel. What did they do (25:1-9)?  How does God show his anger?  Who takes action and so stops God’s anger?