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Torah Sparks

Parashat Balak
June 22, 2013 – 14 Tammuz 5773

Annual: Numbers 22:2-25:9 (Etz Hayim p. 894; Hertz p. 669)
Triennial: Numbers 23:27-25:9 (Etz Hayim p. 903; Hertz p. 677)
Haftarah: Micah 5:6-6:8 (Etz Hayim p. 915; Hertz p. 682)

Prepared by Rabbi Joseph Prouser
(Temple Emanuel of North Jersey; Franklin Lakes, NJ)

Fearing the Israelites and their divine mandate, Balak, King of Moab – through a series of invitations – engages Balaam to curse the People of Israel. Balaam is an enigmatic admixture of heathen prophet, true believer, and instrument of Providence. Reflecting either sincerity or self-promotion, Balaam explains that he can do and say only that which God instructs. En route to his prophetic task, an angel of God, unseen by Balaam, blocks the road, standing before the donkey on which Balaam is riding. The beast, alone perceiving the divine emissary, turns from its path, injuring Balaam's foot against a wall. The bruised Balaam execrates and beats his miraculous mount, which in turn addresses the rider – reproving Balaam for his merciless blows. The angel finally reveals himself to Balaam as well, explaining that the hapless animal has in fact saved Balaam from divine wrath, as his mission to curse Israel is contrary to God's will.

Balaam meets again with Balak and his subordinates, who sacrifice with their hired prophet at seven altars constructed for the occasion, before again sending Balaam to execute his appointed task of cursing Israel. On three separate occasions, Balaam approaches Israel to carry out his mission of malediction… only to pronounce a series of blessings for the Chosen People… culminating in the famous pronouncement: Mah Tovu: "How goodly are your tents, O Jacob…"

Balak reproves Balaam for failing in his task. The prophet repeats his earlier disclaimer: he can only act as instructed by God. Balaam proceeds to prophesy a bright and hopeful future for Israel. Both Balak and Balaam return home.

Alas, the destiny of national greatness foreseen by Balaam must wait. The people of Israel are enticed by Moabite women into licentious liaisons and idolatrous worship of Baal-Peor at Shittim. Predictably, God responds with sharp anger, commanding the execution of the ringleaders in this wayward incident. An Israelite man brazenly flaunts his affair with his Midianite paramour, before a tearful Moses and Israelite community. The priestly Pinchas – son of Eleazar and grandson of Aaron – summarily executes the lustful couple – apparently confronted in flagrante delicto – impaling them with a spear. His zealous ire meets with God's approval: a plague, which has taken 24,000 Israelite lives, is thereby stayed.

Theme #1: "Damn!"

"They came to Balaam and said to him: 'Thus says Balak son of Zippor: Please do not refuse to come to me. I will reward you richly and I will do anything you ask of me. Only come and damn this people for me.'" (Numbers 22:16-17)

Derash: Study

"One should note that Balak's second dispatch to Balaam is much briefer than the first, not repeating anything about the vastness of the Israelite hordes, but instead stressing the promise of payment, not mentioned in the first dispatch." (Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses)

"There are no friendships between nations, only interests. Bilaam's interest was to destroy us, even with kindness and blessings if necessary… We still treasure Bilaam's words of how goodly are our tents and dwelling places. Yet deep down in our souls we are aware of his enmity and poisonous hatred of us. He is only the forerunner of many others of his type over the long centuries of our existence. And they are certainly still around today… Bilaam is not our friend because his financial and personal interests lie with Balak and Moab. And… interests always trump friendship. There is much to be learned from Bilaam's words and actions…We should continue to be astute enough to recognize him in whatever form he now manifests himself." (Rabbi Berel Wein)

'Tis pleasant purchasing our fellow-creatures; / And all are to be sold, if you consider / Their passions, and are dext'rous some by features / Are brought up, others by a warlike leader / Some by a place--as tend their years or natures; / The most by ready cash--but all have prices, / From crowns to kicks, according to their vices. (Lord Byron)

"Can anyone imagine Moses, Jesus, or Gandhi armed with the money-bags of Carnegie?" (Albert Einstein)

Questions for Discussion

Who are the spiritual and moral disciples of Balaam "still around today,"i.e., those who appear to bless us yet actually harbor enmity and poisonous hatred toward the People Israel, to whom Rabbi Wein refers? What dangers do they represent? How adept is the Jewish community at accurately identifying its detractors… and its friends?

Are wealth and material well-being incompatible with spiritual greatness, as Einstein asserts? Are there notable exceptions to this "rule"?

"All are to be sold… all have prices," avers Lord Byron. A frightening thought both in geo-politics and personal relationships… and a constant moral challenge to us as individuals and as Jews! Are there principles, ideals, and priorities that the Jewish Community has "sold out" for material gain or political advantage? How has the prospect of economic gain impacted Shabbat observance? How has the competition for educational advancement impacted devotion to the Festivals (which so often fall on school days)? How has Zionist loyalty and advocacy been subordinated to other political considerations? What ethically questionable business or personal decisions have you made that tend to validate Lord Byron's cynicism?

What significance might there be in the brevity of Balak's second (financially themed) appeal to Baalam?

Theme #2: "Oy!"

"He took up his theme and said: Alas (Hebrew: "Oy!" – JHP), who can survive except God has willed it!" (Numbers 24:23)

Derash: Study

"An obscure verse. Its probable meaning is, Who will be able to survive the terrible catastrophes wrought in Israel by Assyria, appointed by God to be the 'rod' of His anger?" (Rabbi Joseph H. Hertz)

"A literal rendering is incomprehensible… Another proposal suggests that mi-sumo derives from the root som, akin to the Arabic sham, 'to inflict ill fortune.' Thus the verse would translate: 'Alas, who can survive whom God has condemned." (Jacob Milgrom, JPS Commentary)

"An honest translator must admit that the Hebrew text here is not intelligible, and that the nexus between the seemingly philosophical pronouncement of the first verset and the invocation of a Mediterranean fleet in the second verset is obscure. Some scholars have sought to recover the original meaning by performing radical surgery on the text." (Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses)

"There is a dimension in Jewish history which even Abba Eban – a secularist – describes as mystical. The laws of universal history simply do not apply to the Jews. And for that reason the optimists can reassure us. Israel exists not because humanity ever wanted her – rather despite the express wishes of the major world powers." (Rabbi Emanuel Rackman)

"The Assyrians and Babylonians, Medes and Persians, the Greek and Roman empires, the Third Reich and the Soviet Union rose and fell. The people of Israel lived. Individually, Jews suffered. But collectively, they defied the laws of national mortality." (Rabbi Jonathan Sacks)

Questions for Discussion

According to scholarly consensus, our verse (at least in its original form) did not survive! Can it be a coincidence that, in its current version, this passage of "revealed Scripture" addresses the divine role in survival? Can it be a coincidence that an irretrievably obscure verse begins with "Oy!"?!?!

Some of the scholarly "radical surgery" on our verse suggests that "Oy" (together with the next word, "mi" – "who") should be emended to "iyim" – "islands." Alas, we may never know!! The verse as translated, however, makes perfect sense (It is the context that makes it incomprehensible). How does our verse – as translated, and ignoring the verses that follow(!!) – reflect the major themes of the narrative of Balaam and Balak… its greater literary context?

"Who can survive except God has willed it?." How has this "philosophical pronouncement" become still more troubling, perhaps even more "incomprehensible," for post-Holocaust readers of the Bible? How does the alternative translation provided by Alter complicate this question yet further?

Rabbis Rackman and Sacks both imply that only Providence explains Jewish survival. Where do you find evidence of God's presence and guiding hand in Jewish history? How is the process of grappling to derive meaning from an enigmatic, all but impenetrable biblical passage emblematic of other aspects of the Jewish spiritual enterprise?!

Historic Note

Parashat Balak, read on June 22, 2013, describes Balaam, hired to curse Israel, as "the man whose eye is true… him who hears God's speech, who beholds visions from the Almighty." Balaam, in addition to his famous (if originally unauthorized) words of blessing to Israel, also observed: "God is not man to be capricious, or mortal to change His mind" and prophesied: "A star rises from Jacob." The Sages are divided as to whether he was a true prophet or not. On June 22, 1633 Galileo Galilei, the father of observational astronomy, was forced by Pope Urban VIII to renounce heliocentrism – that is, to recant his teaching that Earth orbits the sun. On October 31, 1992, the Vatican conceded its error.

Halachah L'Maaseh

The fast of Shivah Asar B'Tammuz begins Tuesday morning, June 25, 2013. Largely on the basis of BT Rosh Ha-Shanah 18A-B, Rabbi David Golinkin, among others, has argued that the observance of Shivah Asar B'Tammuz has been rendered optional by the establishment of a sovereign State of Israel and by the relative peace and acceptance characterizing the Jewish condition in today's Diaspora. According to the Talmudic understanding of the Prophet Zechariah, the fast days commemorating the destruction of Jerusalem will be transformed to celebrations in a fully redeemed world. In a period in which the Jewish People is neither subjugated and persecuted nor fully at peace, however, the fasts are optional. Rabbi Ethan Tucker, Rosh Yeshiva of Mechon Hadar, explains his principled observance of the fast days which he considers no longer obligatory: "They must be maintained on the calendar so that the Jewish people will remember them when history takes the turn that will enable us to see the world as one infused with shalom. I have personally committed to be among those that guard that calendrical space for the future and I think it is most appropriate for yoshvei beit hamidrash – those who spend the lion's share of their time learning from the Jewish past and its application to the Jewish future to be among those who assume that road" (See Rabbi Tucker's on-line article "Shiv'a Asar B'Tammuz and 'the Three Weeks'" at "Halakhah Think Tank.") May we all be privileged to be among Yoshvei Beit HaMidrash… and to see the world at peace!

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