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Torah Sparks

July 12, 2008 – 9 Tammuz 5768

Annual: Numbers: 22:2 – 25:9 (Etz Hayim, p. 894; Hertz p. 652)
Triennial: Numbers: 22:2 – 22:38 (Etz Hayim, p. 894; Hertz p. 652)
Haftarah: Micah: 5:6 – 6:8 (Etz Hayim, p. 915; Hertz p. 682)

Prepared by Rabbi Joyce Newmark
Teaneck, New Jersey

Torah Portion Summary

Balak, the king of Moab, sees that the Israelites have defeated the neighboring Amorites and he is afraid. He joins forces with the Midianites to hire the prophet Balaam, asking him to curse the Israelites to insure their defeat. Balaam receives the delegation from Moab and Midian and asks them to spend the night so that he can receive God’s instruction. God tells Balaam that he may not go with them; he must not curse the Israelites, who are already blessed. Balaam sends the delegation away. Balak sends a second delegation, promising Balaam great riches for his services. Once again Balaam asks them to wait over night, and this time God tells him that he may go if he wants to, but he will only be able to do what God commands.

Balaam sets out, riding on his ass. An angel appears and blocks the road. Balaam doesn’t see it but his ass does and refuses to move. Balaam beats the animal, but it still refuses to move. After three beatings, the ass speaks and complains that it doesn’t deserve this treatment. God then allows Balaam to see the angel, who rebukes him for beating the ass but permits him to continue on his journey with the warning that he may only say what God tells him.

Balaam asks Balak to build seven altars and to provide animals for sacrifices. After he makes his offerings he speaks the words God gives him, praising and blessing Israel. Balak is furious, but Balaam explains that he can speak only as God commands him. Twice more Balaam offers sacrifices and then praises and blesses Israel. Balak sends Balaam away; he leaves after describing the defeat of several other nations.

While the Israelites are camped at Shittim, Moabite women incite Israelite men into illicit sex and worshiping their god, Baal-peor. God tells Moses to have the ringleaders executed publicly. An Israelite man brings a Midianite woman to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting and engages in public sex. Pinhas, the son of Eleazar the High Priest, grabs a spear and stabs them both, ending the plague that had resulted from God’s wrath.

Curses, Foiled Again

Come then, put a curse upon this people for me, since they are too numerous for me; perhaps I can thus defeat them and drive them out of the land. For I know that he whom you bless is blessed indeed, and he whom you curse is cursed. (Bamidbar 22:6)

  1. Because Balak knew that he whom you bless is blessed indeed, why did he hire Balaam to curse Israel? Would it not have been better for him to hire Balaam to bless Moab so that it would be victorious in war? This is proof that the essential intention of the enemies of Israel is not to benefit their own people but to do evil to Israel, and all their rage against Israel is not a result of their love of their own people but out of hatred for Israel. As a result of the great hatred they spoil everything and bring a curse upon their people and their land. (Beit Ramah)
  2. Behold, his power was not in blessing but in cursing, by reminding [God] of iniquity or by anticipating the time ]of God’s anger]. Therefore [Balak] did not ask him for a blessing to be victorious, or that he might be able to stand up to them; but he said, for I know that he whom you bless is blessed indeed for Balaam’s honor, to demonstrate that he does not consider him to be one who only does damage. (Rabbi Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno, 1475-1550, Italy)
  3. Why did God prevent Balaam from cursing the Israelites? Why should they have cared about his curse, as long as the Lord blessed His people with peace? Balaam’s sorcery was world-famous. Balak referred to his renown when he said: For I know that he whom you bless is blessed indeed, and he whom you curse is cursed. Had Balaam cursed Israel, the surrounding nations would have plucked up courage and gone to do battle with Israel on the strength of his curses. But when they heard how God had turned them into blessings, they would then realize who was Master... and would lose all desire to fight His people. From this point of view, the turning of Balaam’s words into blessing served a very useful purpose. (Don Isaac Abravanel, 1437-1508, Spain and Italy)
  4. The curse of Balaam has no objective potency in terms of either the author or the deed. Its effect must be considered only from the point of view of those at the receiving end – the Israelites. Balaam was a renowned sorcerer and people were impressed then as they are now by sorcerers and diviners... in particular women and children, who would be greatly affected by the maledictions of such a renowned sorcerer. A true friend will save his colleague any pain, even if he knows that no danger will ensue. Similarly, the Almighty, out of the abundance of His love for Israel, prevented Balaam from cursing them, though He was aware that his curses were impotent. (Tirat Kesef (Rabbi Joseph Ibn Kaspi, 1278-1340, France))

    Sparks for Discussion

    Why did Balak hire Balaam to curse the Israelites rather than to bless his own people? Was he blinded by hatred? Or, as Sforno suggests, was Balaam’s power limited to cursing? Do you think most people are happy for the success and good fortune of others or do they look for reasons to tear them down? Does that change if the person having the good fortune is a friend? An enemy?

    Abravanel and Ibn Kaspi both make the point that Balaam’s curses would have no actual power but God still prevented him from uttering them. Why? Was it because they might embolden Israel’s enemies or because they might distress the Israelites? How do you react when someone “curses” you?

    Making an Ass of Himself

    Then the Lord opened the ass’s mouth and she said to Balaam, “What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?” (Bamidbar 22:28)

    1. This was done in order to make known to him [Balaam] that the mouth and the tongue are in His power and that if he wished to curse, his mouth was in His power. (Bamidbar Rabbah 20:14)
    2. This was to bring it home forcibly to Balaam that he had no cause to consider himself great because he had been endowed with prophetic vision. Why, even the donkey, which certainly could not be considered fit to look upon an angel or to speak, was enabled to do both because it was for the good of the children of Israel. Balaam was no more fit to be a prophet than the donkey and was given the gift of prophecy only in order that the children of Israel might benefit thereby. (Klei Yakar [Rabbi Solomon Ephraim ben Aaron of Lunchitz, d. 1619, Poland])
    3. When the mind of a man who was given the ability to utter words of superior intelligence becomes unhinged by passion or base cupidity, he becomes unworthy of the mental abilities granted him. At that moment God will make it possible even for an animal, under the stress of unjustified abuse, to utter words like a human being. By so doing, God prepares the man of superior oratorical skill – no matter how unworthy he himself may be of this talent and no matter how much he may have misused it – for the moment when he will have to use his gift of speech as a vehicle for the word of God and when – albeit reluctantly – he will be forced to lend hismouth to proclaim the truths of God. He who can make an animal speak can use the mouth of even one such as Balaam as an instrument to proclaim His word. (Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, 1808-1888, Germany)
    4. The other nations had heard that Moses’ power was derived from his utterances. They did not realize that this referred to his prayer and instead believed that his power lay in his tremendous oratorical powers. They therefore went to hire Balaam, who was known as a great orator and who had exceptional powers to curse people, in order to vanquish Moses. As a result, the Lord opened the ass’s mouth – He showed them that even an ass can be a good orator. (Imrei Kohen [Rabbi Meir Warshawick, 20th century, Poland])

    Sparks for Discussion

    What do you make of this episode of the talking ass? Was it meant as comic relief? Did it really happen or was it simply Balaam having a dream or vision? Was it to teach us a lesson about the use of our power of speech (and our other powers as well)? What do the commentators want us to understand about style and substance? Particularly in an election year, how can we guard against being carried away by oratory and not paying sufficient attention to the message?

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