Balak

  1. This is the only extensive area of Torah told from the perspective of others. It reminds me of Sisera’s mother. It is fundamentally empathetic, but it also shows the shortcomings of our enemies’ thoughts. Here, Moab are farmers and Midian shepherds. And Israel is a barbarian horde who kill entire populations. They spread fear and disgust. We are an Ox who consumes the greenery of their fields and leave nothing for others to live on. They are legitimately frightened. Of course, we never threaten to kill them but the fear remains.
  2. There is a classic question: why is Hashem angry when Bilaam goes? Near the end of this reading, Hashem says to Bilaam “if the men call out to you to come then you can go.” So he goes. But the men never ask Bilaam to come. On behalf of Balak, they ask Bilaam to “go to me.” They are not inviting him, they are asking him to do a job. Why is this distinction a problem? Because they are treating Bilaam not as an honored servant of G-d, but as a tool to be used to manipulate Hashem. This is the core of their error.
  3. In the first reading, we read that Bilaam lives in a town along the river of his people. A town on a river is a trading post. Here, we see his animal. He rides a donkey. A donkey is often a pack animal. Where Moab are farmers and Midian shepherds, Balak represents a third type of person and not a praised one. His people are traders. He is flexible – whether Israel or Moab wins, he wants to be open for business. But as he travels, we see him being continually constrained by Hashem until he has the revelation that Hashem is in control and he must choose the path chosen for him.
  4. In the first parable, Bilaam says: “How can I curse whom God has not cursed, and how can I invoke wrath if the Lord has not been angered?” We can infer from this, that he tried to directly curse but was turned away. Keep in mind, Balak’s curse is meant to be a minor one. He always says “curse to me” – make me a curse for them so they won’t destroy me. Don’t curse them altogether.
  5. In the second parable we read: “For there is no divination in Jacob and no soothsaying in Israel.” But the word for divination is Nachash (snake or copper). We see the role of the snake in the prior parsha. It is a functional purpose. The snake bites (or deceives) in order to guide the people back to the right path. But there is no role for the Nacash in the Jewish people. But we can infer that Bilaam tries this path.
  6. So finally, Bilaam turns away from Nachashim. And then he has his prophecy. He finally notices the Jews Shakein l’Shivatav (dwelling by their tribes). But the word for dwell isn’t laishev (or sit/rest) it is shakein (the same root as shechina or the divine presence). It implies a level of spiritual dwelling, like neighbors rather than coincidental settlers. The Jewish people are spiritually organized by Hashem. The decision to turn from nachasim and the revelation to see the spiritual in something as mundane as their camp’s organization opens Bilaam’s eyes to tremendous prophecy.
  7. Finally, we return to the Jewish perspective. But now we can have empathy for Moav. Others may fear us because they realize our great and powerful connection to Hashem. These are reasonable enemies (distinct from Amalek). But despite everything they try and despite their legitimate fear, Hashem has our back. And we see that when we are cursed through them, it is not because he abandoned us, but because we abandoned the connection that made us unassailable.

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