Parshat Balak 5779: Bila’am and Our Ongoing Battle Between Spirituality and Secularism

Shalom Friends;

Our Parshat HaShevua, Balak is sponsored jointly by Mutti and Michelle Frankel and Tuvia and Chana Frankel of Ramat Beit Shemesh in honor of their son/brother Eliyahu’s Birthday. To the Frankel family, many thanks for your sponsorship and your continued kindnesses.

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Moshe Burt
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Parshat Balak 5779: Bila’am and Our Ongoing Battle Between Spirituality and Secularism

by Moshe Burt

Although our Parshat is named for Balak, the king of Moav, renowned also as a mighty warrior, Balak played largely a supporting role. The real leading character, and what a character, was Bilaam son of Be’or. Over the years, this author can’t discuss Parshat Balak without evoking the irony and humor surrounding Bila’am and his donkey.

It sure seems that Bilaam’s actions toward his donkey while enroute to meet Balak, and the resultant historical she-donkey’s monologue and rebuke of him might have been the inspiration behind a famous long-running American comedy series. It was back in the days when American TV was still clean, slapstick and somewhat pure. You know the one:

Hello, I’m Mr. Ed!

A horse is a horse, of course, of course,
and nobody talks to a horse of course,
that is of course unless the horse is the famous Mr. Ed.

After the Jews had defeated the Amorite, Balak and the Moabite people feared Am Yisrael. (Ramban, as related in commentary at the opening of the Parshat in the Artscroll Stone Chumash, page 857)

Our Pashat opens by recording:

“Balak, son of Zippor saw all that Yisrael did to the Amorite. Moav became every frightened of the people because it was numerous… Moav said to the elders of Midian: ‘Now the congregation will lick up our entire surroundings, as an ox licks up the greenery of the field.’ Balak… was king of Moav at that time.”

“He sent messengers to Bilaam son of Pethor…” (Sefer Bamidbar, Perek 22, posukim 2-5 as rendered by the Artscroll Stone Chumash)

Rav Shmuel Goldin, in his sefer “Unlocking The Torah Text”, Sefer Bamidbar on our Parshat Balak, summarizes the responses of Bilaam and Hashem’s restrictions (page 217):

Bilaam, upon Hashem’s instructions, initially refuses the invitation. When a second group of messengers arrives from the king, however, Bilaam inquires again and gains Hashem’s permission to travel to Balak. Hashem informs the sorcerer, however, that he will be limited in his actions by Hashem’s further instructions.

Our Parshat informs us that as Bila’am traveled on his donkey to meet Balak, three times a moloch (angel) blocked the donkey’s way, and three times Bila’am struck the donkey trying to force it to continue. After Bila’am’s third attack, the donkey miraculously spoke:

“Hashem opened the mouth of the she-donkey, and it said to Bila’am, ‘What have I done to you, that you hit me these three times.'” (Perek 22, posuk 32 as rendered in the Artscroll Stone Chumash)

Sefer Shem Mishmuel (translated to English by Rabbi Zvi Belovski), pages 347-351 comments citing Rashi who quotes Chazal:

It is noteworthy that the word usually employed by the Torah for “times” is pe’amim, but in this verse an unusual form, regalim, usually denoting “festivals” is used.

“These three times.” (Bamidbar Perek 22, posuk 28) — It was a hint that he wanted to uproot the Jewish nation, who celebrate three pilgrim festivals each year.

There are many lessons that we draw from this sudden chain of events; Bila’am’s arrogance, his bias against Am Yisrael which drove him, even when his donkey’s path was blocked, and his deliberate attempts to circumvent and override the Will of Hashem in attempting to curse Am Yisrael. In the incident with his donkey, Bila’am was unable to see or perceive the obstacle, the moloch, which stood in the way of the donkey’s path.

There are profound lessons here for us today as the media, intelligencia, academia and political elites attempt to subvert the masses, create biases among the various sectors of Am Yisrael and orchestrate actions by successive Israeli governments such as to jeopardize the nation’s security and sovereignty.

Shem Mishmuel adds this from Chazal (page 351):

Bila’am wished to curse Klal Yisrael and destroy their ability to observe the shalosh regalim [the three festivals], which so contradicted his very nature. Hashem subverted his evil designs, and he was forced to bless them time and again, strengthening their ability to observe the very mitzvah he hated most.

And yet, Rav Shmuel Goldin, in his sefer “Unlocking The Torah Text” on our Parshat cites the Sifrei who appears to compare Bilaam to Moshe Rabbeinu, while others contrast the two (pages 220-225):

…On the statement towards the end of the Torah, “And never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moshe” (Sefer Devarim Perek 34, posuk 10), the Sifrei maintains that only “in Israel” was Moshe a singularly supreme prophet. Among the nations of the world, however, there did arise a prophet “like” Moshe, and that prophet was Bilaam. (Rabbi Goldin citing Sifrei, Sefer Devarim Perek 34, posuk 10)

Other authorities limit Bilaam’s prophetic abilities in comparison to the abilities of the prophets of Israel. The Midrash notes, for example, that the Torah repeatedly chronicles Hashem’s interaction with Bilaam through the unusual term “va’yikar,” “and [Hashem] happened upon.” (Rabbi Goldin citing Sefer Bamidbar, Perek 23, posukim 4, 16) This term [“va’yikar”], explains the Midrash, connotes a relationship rooted in impurity. (Rabbi Goldin citing Vayikra Rabbah, Perek 1, posuk 13)

Later scholars clarify that Hashem’s relationship with Bilaam is the product of happenstance and chance, and does not reflect the constancy of a real bond. (discussed previously on this blog by Parshat Vayikra)

This stands in contrast to the Divine connection with prophets, such as Moshe, about whom Torah states, “va’yikra,” “and Hashem called.” (Rabbi Goldin citing Sefer Vayikra, Perek 1, posuk 1) Hashem’s encounters with Moshe are constant, conscious and deliberate, while His encounters with Bilaam are random and sporadic. (Rabbi Goldin citing Rashi on Sefer Vayikra, Perek 1, posuk 1)

Another Midrashic source notes that Hashem initially communicates with Bilaam specifically during the darkness of the night (Sefer Bamidbar, Perek 22, posukim 9-10, 19-20), because “[Bilaam] was not truly worthy of receiving the Divine spirit.” (Rabbi Goldin citing Midrash Rabbah Sefer Bamidbar, Perek 20, posuk 12)

Rav Goldin then cites Nechama Leibowitz who points out other distinctions between Bilaam and nevi’im (prophets) of Israel, and also cites Ramban:

…Bilaam seeks prophetic vision. He builds altars, offers sacrifices and performs rituals in an attempt to “force” Hashem’s gift of prophecy. In stark contrast, …nevi’im do not seek divination. In many cases, in fact, the nevi’im actually attempt to flee the overwhelming responsibilities thrust upon them by Hashem, as did Moshe at the burning bush, and as will Yona, centuries later, in face of Hashem’s commandment to preach to the evil city of Ninveh. A true navi, in his humanity, invariably considers himself unworthy of direct contact with Hashem.

Secondly, the prophets of Israel consistently underscore the Divine authorship of their visions, …punctuating their pronouncements like a refrain. Only Hashem’s involvement, they believe, lends veracity to their visions and justifies their claim to be heard. Bilaam, on the other hand, takes personal credit for his visions, opening his last two declarations with the introduction “saith Bilaam the son of Be’or…” (Rabbi Goldin citing Sefer Bamidbar, Perek 24, posukim 4, 15)

Other commentaries move to further limit Bilaam’s pophetic abilities. Ramban maintains that Bilaam begins and ends his career as a sorcerer and only experiences a fleeting episode of prophecy during his involvement with Balak’s plot. This temporary gift of prophecy, in addition, is only granted by Hashem to enable Bilaam to participate in an episode that will bring eventual honor to B’nei Yisrael.

Rav Goldin informs us that once Bilaam is permitted by Hashem to travel to Balak (pages 219-220):

Over and over again, he persists in his attempts to curse the B’nei Yisrael, against Hashem’s express desires. Although Bilaam informs Balak from the outset, “Am I empowered to say anything [on my own]? Whatever word Hashem places in my mouth, that I shall speak”(Sefer Bamidbar, Perek 22:posuk 38), both the sorcerer and the king attempt to sway Hashem… through ritual and sacrifice. (Rabbi Goldin citing Sefer Bamidbar, Perek 22, posuk 40, Perek 23, posukim 1-4, 14-15, 29-30)

The Torah thus portrays Bilaam as a personality in conflict, an individual who accepts Hashem’s authority, yet actively chafes against and attempts to undermine that authority.

So just as Bila’am and his she-donkey might have inspired the TV creation of “Mr. Ed”, so too we can look at the so-called “prophet” who was blind to the Divine obstacles placed in his path, and beat his donkey instead, our modern-day Bila’ams in their blindness, seemingly rashaiyim within, seek to revise our medinat Yisrael to conform to an anti-spiritual form — a nation of all of its peoples — devoid of any form of spiritual Judaism, seemingly in effort to de-spiritualize observant Jews. They still seek to to separate us from our spiritual heartland — Yehudah and the Shomron as well as to bring upon us the advent of civil marriage, same-gender relationships, opposition to the very root of Judaism — Brit milah. They seek de-emphasis on Torah education and knowledge with seemingly the bogus rationale that observant boys and men don’t carry their weight in Israeli society, and they seek forced military service upon all observant men.

Today’s either benign or activist attitudes of various governmental and political leaderships, as well as the attitudes of the so-called intellectual elites, the progressives, academia, the media, etc. toward toleration as normal or new normal and attempted enforced incorporation of alien practices into medinat Yisrael have no well-meaning purpose. Practices such as same-gender relationships, separation of religion and state, Shabbos desecration, civil marriage, proselytization of Jews away from Judaism, delegitimizing parts of our Divine Legacy — Eretz Yisrael and more into the camp of Am Yisrael appear as having but one purpose: like Bilaam’s goal of eradicating the Shalosh Regalim, those advocating these practices aim for the ultimate dilution of all vestiges of Judaism and spirituality among Am Yisrael toward creation of an Israel, the state of all of its people rather than Hashem’s intent of Israel, a state of the Jews.

May we, the B’nei Yisrael be zocha that our brethren — the refugee families from Gush Katif be permanently settled and be made totally whole — be totally restituted for all that was stolen from them and that the twice expelled families of Amona be restored to their rebuilt homes, at government expense; both due to alt-leftist-agendized, supreme court legalized Yassamnik gunpoint. May our dear brother Jonathan Pollard be liberated and truly free — only upon his return home to Israel, and that the MIAs be liberated alive and returned to us in ways befitting Al Kiddush Hashem, as should the remains of the two chayalim from the Gaza War of nearly five years ago. May we have the courage and strength to stand up and physically prevent the possibility of Chas V’Challila any future eviction of Jews from their homes and prevent Chas V’Challila the handing of Jewish land over to anyone, let alone to enemies sworn to Israel’s and Judaism’s destruction and eradication. May we fulfill Hashem’s blueprint of B’nai Yisrael as a Unique people — an Am Segula, not to be reckoned with as with “the nations” and may we be zocha to see the Moshiach, the Ge’ula Shlaima, as Dov Shurin sings; “Ki Karov Yom Hashem Al’Kol HaGoyim”, the Ultimate Redemption, bimhayrah b’yamainu — speedily, in our time”, — Achshav, Chik Chuk, Miyad, Etmol!!!

Good Shabbos!
Moshe Burt, an Oleh, is a commentator on news and events in Israel and Founder and Director of The Sefer Torah Recycling Network. He lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh.