Summary: Parshat Balak is 7th in the Book of Numbers covering Chapters 22:2-25:9. It describes the strategy of Balak, King of Moab, who feared Bnei Yisrael were about to overtake his kingdom enroute to the Land of Canaan, just as was done to Sihon and Og.
Balak, attempting to thwart their efforts, hired notorious Prophet Balaam with the promise of unbounded riches if he would curse Bnei Yisrael. But G-d warned Balaam not to go.
Balak persisted, sending higher ranked dignitaries to recruit Balaam. This time G-d granted conditional permission but while travelling to Moab, an angel interfered causing Balaam’s ass to veer from the road 3 times. Each occasion Balaam struck the animal before it cried out and spoke to him. Again, G-d warned Balaam to use care in what he would say.
Despite the fanfare of Balak’s welcome, on 3 separate occasions – at Bamot Ba’al, Sadeh Tsofim and atop Peor – frustratingly, Balaam’s words came out as blessings, not curses.
Infuriated, Balak dismissed Balaam who then delivered an unflattering prophesy about the bleak future of Moab and its surrounding neighbours. Shortly after, Bnei Yisrael began committing the grievous sins of harlotry with the daughters of Moab and of worshipping the god Baal Peor.
This internal leadership crisis climaxed when a prince of the tribe of Shimon, publicly cavorted with a daughter of Midian in front of Moshe & Aharon. Their act was interrupted by the zealot Pinhas’s spear, which also put stop to a plague that had taken 24,000 lives.
Parshat Balak contains esoteric poetry about Bnei Yisrael and their close neighbours, describing the Jewish people and their destiny through the prophetic lens of an outsider. Included are the famous words, ‘How good are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel’ (Numbers 24:5), a phrase Jews recite daily during morning prayers.
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Comment: Several parashot in the Torah are named after individuals – some righteous and some not. It’s noteworthy that the main figures in this week’s parasha, Balak & Balaam, were not Jewish. And though they aimed to harm Bnei Yisrael, their plan was – through the benevolence of the Almighty – mostly thwarted.
In Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers 5:22) Balaam is contrasted with the Patriarch Avraham. Avraham is said to have had a Good Eye, a Humble Spirit and a Meek Soul, Balaam to have had the opposite. Those following in their footsteps are considered ‘disciples’.
That the two men were compared to each other shows the prophetic stature of Balaam. The rabbis go further and say that he was as great a prophet to the nations of the world, as Moses was to the Jewish people.
Curiously, the Torah text doesn’t prove Balaam did anything egregious – after all, he blessed the Jewish people 3 times. So why was he identified as the epitome of wickedness in the Oral tradition?
One point which could be raised in justifying the Mishna’s view, is that by hiring himself out as a spiritual mercenary, Balaam betrayed his authenticity.
We expect a prophet who intimately encountered the Divine to be inclined to Goodness. But Balaam hired-out his services to bless or to curse; effectively showing that spirituality depended on circumstances, and that there were no absolutes.[Alternatively, Balaam may have reasoned that if Balak wished to squander money chasing after a curse, Balaam would be all too happy to relieve him of it. Supporting this view is that Balaam too eagerly stipulated the amount of wages ‘he wouldn’t accept’, implying a higher amount might have been acceptable.]
Authenticity is an essential of the human condition. To live authentically is to be true to our Divine nature. It requires a healthy body and mind; feeding ourselves wholesomely, pursuing uplifting ideas, and nourishing our souls. A well-known broadcaster-preacher in the UK pointed out that this can only be accomplished by eating well, finding stimulating material to read and by nourishing our soul through prayer and helping others.
At a time when material-relativism reigns supreme and the highest bidder wins, perhaps it can be useful to remind ourselves that spiritual values are not open for compromise and that authenticity has its absolutes. Less than that, one might be construed as belonging to the students of Balaam.