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Parashat Balak
July 5, 2014 – 7 Tammuz 5774

Annual (Numbers 22:2-25:9): Etz Hayim p. 894; Hertz p. 669
Triennial (Numbers 22:2-22:38): Etz Hayim p. 894; Hertz p. 669
Haftarah (Micah 5:6-6:8): Etz Hayim p. 915; Hertz p. 682

Prepared by Rabbi Adam Rosenbaum
Charleston, South Carolina

Balak, king of Moab, hears of recent Israelite military victories, and hires the prophet Balaam to curse the Israelites. God warns Balaam not to take the job. After Balak offers Balaam great riches, God allows Balaam to take the job as long as he does as God says.

Balaam, riding on his donkey, strikes the animal three times when it refuses to move. Balaam only later discovers that the donkey had stopped because it saw an angel of God standing in its way.

Balak greets Balaam and builds altars for sacrificial offerings, but is shocked when Balaam praises the Israelites. Balak and Balaam repeat the process in two other places, and each time, Balaam only is able to recite the praises God places in his mouth.

Meanwhile, the Israelites cavort with Moabite women and sacrifice to the Moabite god. God kills 24,000 Israelites, a plague that ceases only after Pinhas, son of Eleazar the High Priest, stabs a copulating Israelite man and Midianite woman.

Theme #1: The Madness of King Balak

Balak son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites. Moab was alarmed because that people was so numerous ... (Numbers 22:2-3)

The news of Israel’s battlefield dominance strikes fear into the other nations, causing the king of the Moabites to take extreme action.

Why should this weekly portion be named after a man who was a heathen and an enemy of the Jewish people at that? It is true that all the heathens hate the Jews; as it is written: “It is a known rule that Esau hates Jacob,” but they usually cloak their hatred in honeyed words so that the Jews will not be aware of the need to protect themselves. Balak, however, was quite outspoken in his hostility, and there certainly can be no objection to naming a weekly portion of the Torah after a heathen who is actually honest. -- Rabbi Meir of Przemysl

By what merit does Balak deserve to have a parasha after him? We read in Sotah 47a: “Rab Judah said in the name of Rab: ‘Always a person should occupy oneself with Torah and commandments even though it be not for their own sake. One comes to do so for their own sake, because as a reward for the 42 sacrifices which Balak, king of Moab, offered, he merited that Ruth should issue from him, and from her issued David and Solomon’…” So the merit of David and Solomon and even of the Messiah of the House of David was accounted to Balak. -- Birkat Avraham

[Read the opening verse as] “all that Israel had done to emorai, My words.” [Balak saw] how the children of Israel were able to elevate the words of a person to the highest level, how they sanctified them with the Torah and through prayer, adorned them, cherished them, protected them. As we read, “Moab was alarmed because that people was so numerous …” -- Magen Avraham

Questions for Discussion:

Rabbi Meir of Przemysl displays a grudging respect for Balak; even though Balak aims to harm our ancestors, at least he does not hide his feelings for the Israelites. Often, we appreciate hearing the honest and harsh truth from someone, at least more than hearing sugar-coated true feelings. Is honesty always the best policy? Are there times when finessing our way out of a potentially damaging situation does more good than harm?

Birkat Avraham reminds us that Balak, as nefarious as he is, also is an ancestor to Ruth, one of the kindest and gentlest characters in our tradition, and the great-grandmother of King David. It seems that every family tree includes at least one unlikable character. How do we best cope with the thought that our ancestors may have been less than ideal? How do we best teach our descendants about such characters without causing unnecessary embarrassment?

Magen Avraham uses a pun to express Balak’s particular frustration with the Israelites for having a level of protection powerful enough to turn words from negative and positive. On some occasions, when we are particularly responsive to someone who is frustrated or angry, we too have the power to calm an enraged person enough that s/he speaks positively at the end of a conversation. While not a guaranteed outcome, what are some ways that this can be possible? How important is listening? How important is speaking in measured tones and acknowledging the other person’s feelings?

Theme #2: Which One is the Donkey, Anyway?

He was riding on his she-ass, with his two servants alongside, when the ass caught sight of the angel of the Lord standing in the way, with his drawn sword in his hand. The ass swerved from the road and went into the fields; and Balaam beat the ass to turn her back onto the road. … The ass said to Balaam, “Look, I am the ass that you have been riding all along until this day! Have I been in the habit of doing thus to you?” And he answered, “No.” (Numbers 22:22b-23, 30)

Balaam’s mission is derailed by a donkey who can see better than he can.

“Balaam beat the ass to turn her back onto the road …” This villain [Balaam] was going to curse an entire nation which had not sinned against him, yet he has to smite his ass to prevent it from going into a field! -- Numbers Rabbah 20:14

The story revolves around a numerical motif: the number three. There is a three-fold repetition of events, as emphasized by three-fold use of the phrase “three times.” Three times the angel of the Lord stands in Balaam’s way; three times, it is recorded that the donkey sees the angel; three times the donkey attempts to turn aside (twice she is successful and the third time she simply lies down); three times Balaam beats the donkey; and, whereas the donkey only responds twice to Balaam, she does so with a triad of questions. -- David Marcus, From Balaam to Jonah: Anti-prophetic Satire in the Hebrew Bible

Rabbi Abba Cohen bar Dala said: Woe unto us on the Day of Judgment. Woe unto us on the day of rebuke. Balaam, the wisest of the heathens, could not withstand his donkey’s rebuke: “Have I been in the habit doing thus to you?” And he answered, “No.” -- Genesis Rabbah 93:6

Questions for Discussion:

Numbers Rabbah relates the irony of a seer who wishes to bring down a foreign nation but can’t impact the behavior of his very own animal. Many otherwise powerful people discover the hard way that they cannot control every aspect of their lives. They might achieve great feats in their chosen fields, but then might be unable to have meaningful relationships with those closest to them, or might have issues with personal self-control. Does this suggest to us there are limits to the tendency to look up to famous, successful people? Does fame alone make someone a good role model?

David Marcus comments on this story’s frequent use of a formulaic number; in many biblical texts, the number three indicates some kind of preparation. Does the recurrence number three add a layer of meaning to the story of Balaam? Does the fact that his journey to curse the Israelites is fraught with mishaps foreshadow that his attempts to curse will not succeed?

Genesis Rabbah allows us to draw a Jewish lesson from Balaam’s struggles: if Balaam, an otherwise intelligent man, crumbles from the rebuke of such a creature as a donkey, it is all the more challenging us to be able to face God with our shortcomings during a time of repentance (such as the High Holy Days). How might we be able to overcome this? Are there ways for us to be better prepared to cope than Balaam does?

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