Musings of an Orthodox Jew

Thoughts on Torah and the Jewish world today.

Parsha Balak – originally posted June 26, 2007

Parsha Balak – Entry for June 26, 2007

The parsha deals with the famous incident in which Balak summons Bilam to curse Bnei Yosrael, and how the curses of Bilam are turned to blessings as he prophesises. The motivation of Balak in doing this is easy, after all, he is king of the Moabites, he expects to do battle with Bnei Yisrael, and is seeking assistance in defeating an enemy whom, he knows, has not just physical strength but is supported by Hashem. He has seen how Shihon, the king of the Amorites was defeated with ease by Bnei Yisrael, and seeks out all the help he can get, including that of the main prophet of the non-Jewish world, one whom, as he says. “Whom you curse, is cursed. Whom you bless, is blessed.” For him, it is an invocation to supernatural help to help him nullify the blessings of Hashem that are on Bnei Yisrael. Furthermore, Rashi brings that he was newly appointed, before this time Shihon had led the combined Canaanite tribes of the area, and Balak was not really suited to his job.

Bilam, on the other hand, was a well known figure to the Canaanites of all tribes. He was their major prophet, his level of prophecy equal to that of Moses. The question arises as to why Hashem would allow one such as he to reach that level. Rashi teaches that it was done in order to show that the non-Jewish nations of the world had the opportunity, if their prophets had turned to holiness, instead of idolatry, to be the chosen people. Instead, Bilam turned to idols, to arrogance and conceit, to wanting to challenge Hashem instead of obeying Hashem.

Bilam’s arrogance is evident when the first messengers arrive from Balak. His response to their request; for them to stay overnight and he will consult with Hashem on whether he can go or not, is worded to make it seem that he is not seeking permission, but rather asking Hashem if these messengers are fitting or if more exalted ones should be sent. Here we see his conceit; not wanting to admit that he needed Hashem’s permission to prophesise and that he could only prophesise at night, hiding his failings and turning it into a disparagement of the messengers.

In this conceit and arrogance we see his motivation. He sees himself as THE prophet, as the one that is better than the rest. The Jewish Nation is an affront to him, Moses an attack on his exalted status. After all, Moses is as powerful a prophet as him, he is an Egyptian prince, one who grew up surrounded by every luxury to seduce him to idolatry. Yet Moses was stronger than Bilam, he resisted that temptation, remained true to Hashem, and was the one picked to ascend Mt Sinai. Bnei Yisrael are an affront to him, a nation that accepted Hashem’s Torah without question “Na’aseh v’nishmah”, “We will do and listen”; first obey, and then understand, for not everything can be understood, some laws (the chukot, such as the Parah Adumah from last weeks parsha) will never be understood, but still, we obey. It is an affront to him, personally, and the Caaninite people who, according to the Midrash, were offered the Torah but questioned its contents and then rejected it.

Given all this, Bilam was anxious to curse the Jews; rushing out to saddle his own donkey, though normally one of his status would have others to do it for him. He hated the Jews, wanting to do them more harm than even Balak, who only sought a military victory. Bilam sought there destruction. His haste and eagerness to make the trip, his arrogance that he thought he would be able to get Hashem to abandon Bnei Yisrael, is the reason for the angel sent to kill him. The angel, according to Rashi, is one of mercy, sent by Hashem to prevent him sinning and the punishment incumbent upon one of his level for such a severe transgression.

Midrash Tanchuma brings an interesting understanding of the incident with the ass, and why the angel appeared to it three times before being revealed to Balak. The first time alludes to Avraham avinu, in that just as there were two pathways past the angel, there were two directions a curse directed at Abraham could fall, Keturah and Ishmael, but not on Yitzchak. The second time alludes to Yitzchak, there was only one path past the angel, showing that only in one direction could a curse directed at Yitzchak fall, Esau. The third time alludes to Ya’akov- and just as there was no path past the angel, there was no direction in which a curse directed at Ya’akov and his descendants could fall.

The third blessing of Bilam contains the famous line “Mah Tovu Ohalechah Ya’akov. Mishkanotechah Yisrael’, “How good are yout tents Ya’akov, your camps Israel”. Here he is remarking on the level of modesty and privacy that each of the Jewish nation afforded to each other. As Rashi states, no entrance of a tent looked into the entrance of another. No person sought to reside in the tribe of another, each content with his lot within his tribe, each content to be a part of the larger family of Bnei Yisrael and their spot inside it. Yet seeing this as the strong point of Bnei Yisrael, Bilam also perceived it as their weak point, that through this modesty, this privacy and mutual respect, Bnei Yisrael would be vulnerable. Here is where Bilam sins, where he perverts the holy words put in his mouth, by Hashem, to attack the Bnei Yisrael.

It is Bilam that suggests to Balak to send the women of Moab to corrupt the men of Bnei Yisrael (discussed in Chelek, chapter 11 of Masechta Sanhedrin). Just as the modesty of Bnei Yisrael is their strength, the corruption of that is their weakness. It is through the lust filled acts with these women that Bnei Yisrael is enticed to idol worship; Rashi teaches that the women would entice the men, and when the men were no longer thinking clearly, would produce a statue of Baal Peor, and demand they worship it (by defecating before it) before they would have sexual congress. Sorry men, but yes, there were plenty of us that were weak enough to fall for this ruse, the resulting plague sent by Hashem killing 24,000 people.

The parsha finishes with the incident that stopped the plague, the killing of Zimri and the Moabite women, by Pinchas. Rashi teaches that Pinchas went to Moses and asked for guidance, and permission was granted to him to act. Even with that permission, Pinchas made certain that the act would be unquestioned- as it states “vayidkor at shneihem et ish Yisrael vet ha’ishah el-kavatah” “and he pierced them both, the man from Israel and the woman, in the stomach” Rashi teaches that he pierced them through the sex organs, and thus it was obvious that they were engaged in an illicit act of sex and idol worship.


Comments, corrections and suggestions for improvement are welcomed.


June 24, 2008 - Posted by | Parshah | , , , , , , ,

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