By Rabbi Doug Zelden, Torah Columnist
Torah Portion: Balak (Numbers 22:2−25:9)
Two weeks ago we read the Torah Portion of Korach. Korach was turned out to be popular but not such a good guy, as we know, yet a Torah portion was named after him. This week we come across someone evil from the very start, yet once again the portion is named after the evil King of the Moabites, Balak. Why name a portion after Balak?
King Balak, is well aware everything Israel has done and what a great powerful nation they are. What he does not realize is that it is G-d behind their might and that blessings and curses are divine. After seeing the fate of the Amorites, The Moabite people become sick with fear. Balak fears Israel too.
The king hopes to be able to attack Israel in a weakened state. So he sends for Balaam, a (non-Jewish) prophet with the power to bless and the power curse. He sends the elders of his area, great men of Moab and Midian, with all the latest tools black magic to recruit Balaam into his dark service.
The elders deliver Balak’s message, but Balaam bids them wait till morning for his decision; he must first speak with G-d.
As soon as he’s out of earshot of the elders, G-d says to Balaam, “Who are these people?” So Balaam tells G-d about Balak and the black magic and the Israelites who need cursing.
G-d, of course, tells Balaam not to go with these people. “And don’t curse that nation. And don’t bless them. They are already blessed.”
Balaam tells the elders to return to their king, that G-d won’t let him go because they aren’t important enough. Balak, of course, sends a distinguished delegation in response, telling Balaam to please not refuse this time. “It will be worth your time,” they say. “Balak will honor you awesomely.”
Again, Balaam bids them wait for morning, so that he may speak with G-d. This time, G-d tells Balaam that he may go with the dignitaries if he feels their offer will be profitable. “But still, you must only do what I say,” G-d adds.
In the morning, when he finally goes, trailing the messengers on his donkey, G-d is angry with Balaam. and puts an angel in the middle of the road to block the prophet’s way.
The donkey sees the angel, with sword in hand, and immediately turns from the road and walks into a field. Balaam beats the donkey. He gets back on the road.
Now, G-d places the angel on the path between two walls. There’s nowhere for the donkey to go, so it pushes up against the wall, crushing Balaam’s leg. The prophet beats the donkey again.
The angel of G-d wedges itself in a very narrow place, leaving no space for the donkey even to turn. So the donkey stops and lies down. Again, Balaam beats the donkey.
That’s enough for G-d, who opens the donkey’s mouth so that it may ask: “Why do you keep hitting me? What have I done?”
“You embarrassed me, donkey. Would that I had a sword, you’d be dead.” Again, the donkey speaks and asks: “I’m your faithful donkey, am I not? Have I ever done this to you?”
“No,” Balaam replies and is silent and stares until his eyes open wide, and he sees before him the armed angel of G-d. He falls on his face while the angel asks, “Why did you beat your donkey? I’ve come to stop you since you journey against G-d. Your donkey saved your life by turning away these three times. I would have and should have killed you but for this poor animal.”
“Oy! I have sinned. I did not see you there. I will turn back if I must.” “No. Go. But speak only the words G-d tells you to speak,” the angel replies. So Balaam goes, and Balak greets him at the outermost edge of his outermost city. Numerous times Balak slaughters animals for Balaam. Balaam each time at Balak’s request, is sent to curse the Israelites but each time only words of blessing come from Ballaam’s lips. Balak is furious. “Three times I call you to curse, but three times you bless them. I meant to honor you, but G-d has removed that honor.”
“Didn’t I tell you I would only say what G-d would have me say? Still, I will tell you what to do: Entice the Israelites. Let them mingle with your women.” Now, Balaam tells Balak about the end of days — how his people and others around him will be destroyed by the people of Israel; how Israel will only grow stronger. And Balaam leaves, and returns to his people. And Balak, too, goes home.
Studying Parashat Balak, we see that our rabbis have a few statements directing our attention to connections between Abraham and Bilaam. The most famous might be a mishna in Ethics of Our Fathers – Pirkei Avot Chapter 5 which tells us:
“Those who have a good eye, a humble spirit, and a meek soul (ayin tova, ruach nemucha, nefesh shefalah) are among the disciples of our forefather Abraham. Those who have an evil eye, an arrogant spirit and a greedy soul (ayin ra’ah, ruach gevoha, nefesh rechava) are among the disciples of the wicked Balaam.”
Why do the Rabbis contrast Balaam and Abraham? What could these two men possibly have in common that one would seek to find the differences between them? In this week’s parsha, we see another difference our Rabbis highlight when they say that although both woke up early and saddled their own donkey (although they had many servants who did those tasks for them), Abraham did it out of extreme love and Balaam was driven by hate. Also, they say that Hashem’s (G-d) response to Balaam was basically: “Oh big deal! Abraham woke up early and showed that trait of zrizut (alacrity) long before you.”
Something is clear to the Rabbis about this connection/contrast between Abraham and Balaam. What do they see? Notice there are actually a lot of language parallels between these two characters. Both “go” (lech) and “see” G-d’s angel. And the most striking parallel might be that Abraham is promised that “those who bless him will be blessed and those who curse him will be cursed” while Balaam is described by Balak as someone who has the power to bless and curse and those whom he blesses will be blessed and those whom he curses will be cursed.
Sounds similar, right? What is the deeper connection here? What might the Torah be trying to tell us?
At the very beginning of our nation Abraham was chosen, and promised that his children and grandchildren will grow and continue to multiply into a nation which will always be guarded and blessed by G-d. And now, Bnei Yisrael reach Arvot Moav – the last stop along their journey towards Eretz Yisrael. Although, we have many Torah portions to read before Moses’ death at the end of Deuteronomy, in this week’s parsha, we reach the last stop along that journey. And right before we enter Eretz Yisrael someone comes along and tries to curse us and bring us down.
Hashem does not let that happen and never will! As we stood there at Arvot Moav facing the curses of Balaam, we were reassured that G-d’s promises to Abraham were still in effect, four generations later! And today, we are still seeing that same protection and blessing. May we, The Jewish People, continue to merit that protection as we continue to emulate Abraham with his humility, chesed (kindness), and faithful service of G-d.
So earlier I asked the question, why name a Torah portion after evil Balak? Here is one answer: The Talmud relates that the Biblical figure Ruth, who transformed her own life by converting to Judaism and merited to become the great-grandmother of King David, was a direct descendant of Balak. A lesson that we can all turn our lives around for the better. That is also the message of Teshuva and Yom Kippur. Even an evil Balak, in the end, can produce a righteous Ruth.
Rabbi Doug Zelden is rabbi of Congregation Or Menorah, Chaplain for Home Bound Healthcare, and hosts the weekly TV show “Taped With Rabbi Doug” (www.tvrabbi.com).