When the foreign prophet was hired to curse the Jews, God made him bless.
Table for Five: Balak
Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist
God came to Balaam and said, “Who are these men with you?” Balaam said to God, “Balak the son of Zippor the king of Moab has sent [them] to me, [saying], ‘Behold the people coming out of Egypt, a nation, has covered the “eye” of the earth. Come and curse them for me, perhaps I will be able to fight against them and drive them out.'”
Rabbi Peretz Rodman, Jerusalem-based writer, translator & teacher
Balaam is careful. He is far more reliable in conveying to God Balak’s request than the king’s messengers will be in reporting Balaam’s answer to the king. Balaam quotes, nearly verbatim, almost all of the messengers’ offer. One verb, though, he carefully edits out: Balak had not concluded with “perhaps I will be able to fight against them…,” as Balaam reports, but rather “perhaps I will be able to whack them…,” using a verb, nakkeh, that means “whack” in both the literal and Mafia senses: “strike at” and “strike down,” meaning “kill.”
Balaam does not want the Lord to hear that Balak might adopt more than a defensive posture. The thought of Balak clobbering the Lord’s chosen people, thwarting their march to Canaan, would surely be a deal-breaker. And this story is all about the art of the deal. So Balaam portrays the Moabite king as wanting merely to push Israel away.
Balaam has already undertaken the game of maneuvering that he is to continue to the end of the tale, when Balak’s temper finally overcomes his patience and he wails at Balaam: “Don’t you utter another word!” Our prophet-for-hire, offered the commission of a lifetime—he hints at earning a “house full of silver and gold”—is caught between his avarice and his professionalism, for he knows he must not curse Israel. If we read as carefully as Balaam speaks, we see that he plays for time, manipulating everyone until his plan collapses in tragicomic failure.
Rivkah Slonim, Rohr Chabad Center, Binghamton University
It’s easy to be distracted by the zaniness of the narrative and miss the profundity in this week’s Parasha. Bnai Yisroel are just about to enter the Promised Land. Balak, king of the Moabites who inhabited Canaan is fearful. He hires Balaam, a powerful, gentile prophet and sorcerer to curse the Jews and diminish their power. And while God appears to Balaam and warns him against taking this contract, he cannot overcome his desire to harm the Jews. Even after his donkey speaks to him and makes clear that he is walking into a quagmire, Balaam persists.
Ironically, Balaam ends up being used as an instrument for blessing. Additionally, his words contain the most explicit reference to the Messianic era in the Torah!
Chassidus teaches that before entering the Land of Israel the Jews needed to learn of the end of days, the messianic era, that would come as a result of their service in exile. Am Yisrael is not a pedestrian people entering an ordinary parcel of land. This was the Holy Land, bequeathed to Jews for the purpose of irradiating light and sanctity unto the entire world. Entering the land was just the first step in a millennia long project: that of transforming the world into a place that reflects its Creator in manifest fashion. The parasha, named curiously for Balak, teaches us that this sweeping transformation must include every aspect of the universe, and all of its inhabitants. Even the ones most resistant to hearing God’s message.
Rabbi Natan Halevy, Kahal Joseph Congregation
The Midrash equates these verses to the tragic story of Cain and Abel. Hashem asks Cain “Where is your brother?” Cain answers arrogantly, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” He thought that Hashem was not fully cognizant of happenings in this realm and that he could succeed in fooling Hashem.
Likewise, Balaam had falsely inferred limitations within G-d and had misperceptions about his communication with Hashem. These men had divine revelations of G-d, yet they were scheming how to outsmart Him. Both knew right from wrong since it had been expressed by a present deity. Yet they chose to go against Hashem’s will, spilling innocent blood with wanton cruelty.
Sadly, this illogical spiritual path continues to plague the world. Mankind has been blessed with a wealth of knowledge, from the function of the most minute cells to the infinite depth and grandeur of the universe. We have reached the pinnacle of human innovation and technical advancement, yet humankind is no closer to the truth that comes with the intimate knowledge of Hashem. Men have strayed from the revelation and moral clarity of the Ten Commandments.
Just as Cain spilled his brother’s blood, human suffering has been inflicted by corrupt men with power and weapons. Just as Balaam tried to curse the Israelites out of pure evil, mankind has been cursed with man-made evils.
Every one of us has the power to make the choice for goodness and kindness, to improve our spiritual service, and to proclaim Hashem’s greatness. May it be His will!
Eva Robbins, Rabbi/Cantor N’vay Shalom, Faculty AJRCA
How bizarre that G-d should ask Balaam, “Who are these men?” Are we to believe that G-d does not know? The High Holy Day liturgy teaches that G-d sees and hears everything, “There is nothing hidden from You…” and it is all recorded in the great Book we confront on Rosh Hashanah.
Our Sages pondered this idea and Midrash Raba points out Balaam should have responded, “Master of the world, ‘Everything is revealed in front of You and there is not anything hidden from you, and You ask me?’” This response would have reflected some semblance of humility, what one would expect from someone standing before the awe of the Divine. Even more ironic is that this foreign prophet has the ability to converse with our Deity.
Ibn Ezra points out that G-d wants to engage in a conversation with Balaam. Perhaps this is to test him. What G-d hears is an arrogant prophet, bragging that he has the ability to curse the people, G-d’s people. To the One, whose reputation surely spread throughout the land that S/He had destroyed the Egyptian army, Balaam had the chutzpah to boast of his abilities to make it possible for Balak to defeat the Israelite nation whom he clearly feared. G-d teaches them both there is only One power in the Universe.
And G-d teaches us, as well, that curses can become blessings, that evil can be met with good, and that darkness can be transformed into light.
Miriam Mill-Kreisman, Tzaddik Foundation
When I was in college I used to wear a pin showing the map of Israel stating “Because G-d gave it to the Jews”. I could never understand how anyone could argue it didn’t. After all, we won it. War after war.
It was only years later after I started to properly learn Torah that I began to understand what my pin meant. Every victory was miraculous. The pasuk, “Behold the people coming out of Egypt, a nation, has covered the ‘eye’ of the earth”, describes how the Israelites have divested the Canaanite and Moav kings of its sentinels, Sichon and Og, the Kings of the Amorites, who were paid to protect them from invaders. At this point, Balak recognizes that if giants in battle like Sichon and Og can’t conquer the Israelites, then he had to use a different tactic.
So he hires Balaam, a powerful sorcerer and prophet, to curse the Jews. The cursing tactic didn’t succeed; G-d just won’t let it. In fact, Balaam is forced to bless the Jews and it is from his prophecy that we get much of what we know about the coming of the Moshiach. But evil is hard to overcome and we see later how these evil ones chose a different tactic that did work – reducing the Jewish men to sin with the Moabite women. May we always have faith that G-d is with us and have control over our own low desires to receive all blessings.
With thanks to Rabbi Peretz Rodman, Rivkah Slonim, Rabbi Natan Halevy, Eva Robbins and Miriam Mill-Kreisman.
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