Parshat Balak 5780: How Hashem Compels Bila’am’s Blessings and Why They Revert Back to Curses

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.

You can celebrate a Simcha — a birth, a Bar/Bat Mitzvah, a Chassuna or other Simcha event in your life, or commemorate a Yahrtzeit of a loved one, or for whatever other reason by sponsoring a Parshat HaShevua.

Please forward to your relatives and friends and encourage them to sponsor a Parshat HaShevua. And please be in contact with me with any questions, or for further details.

Best Regards,

Moshe Burt
skype: mark.burt3

Parshat Balak 5780: How Hashem Compels Bila’am’s Blessings and Why They Revert Back to Curses

by Moshe Burt

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)

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)

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 and intimidate 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.

But Rabbi Goldin now provides context, questions and possible answers regarding the catastrophic aftermath of Bila’am’s attempts to curse the B’nei Yisrael, which Hashem compelled to became blessings (ibid, pages 250-251):

Following Bila’am’s failed attempts at cursing the nation, the Jews are seduced by the “daughters of Moav” and fall prey to the licentious idolatry of Ba’al Peor. Hashem responds with a devastating plague that tragically claims twenty-four thousand victims from among the people.

Although no clear connection is drawn in the [Torah] text between the main story of Parshat Balak and the devastating episode of Ba’al Peor, a brief reference found later in sefer Bamidbar lays blame for the tragic event squarely at the feet of the sorcerer Bila’am:

“Behold! It was they [the Midianite women] who caused the B’nei Yisrael, by the word of Bila’am, to commit betrayal against Hashem regarding the matter of Peor; and the plague occurred in the assembly of Hashem.” (Rabbi Goldin rendering to English Sefer Bamidbar, Perek 31, posuk 16 — Pashat Matot)

If the episode of Ba’al Peor can be directly traced to the scheming designs of Bila’am, why doesn’t Torah immediately say so?

Why record this tragic episode as an apparent epilogue to the Balak/Bila’am narrative, omit any connection between the two stories, and then subsequently affirm such a connection, in a textual aside, much later in the text?

The Talmud maintains that Hashem’s transformation of Bila’am’s curses into blessings ultimately has very limited practical effect. Due to the sins of the B’nei Yisrael, the majority of these blessings revert back to their original curses. From this Rabbinic perspective, the Balak/Bila’am story conveys a powerful, counterintuitive lesson: Bila’am’s words… do not matter all. Ultimately our fate is determined by our own merit or guilt.

As the Jews emerge unscathed from Bila’am’s external threat, they fall prey to their own shortcomings…: We can blame no one else for our failures, our destiny is in our hands.

The Torah’s immediate omission of Bila’am’s pivotal role in the episode of Ba’al Peor now becomes completely understandable. Any mention of the sorcerer’s involvement would have diminished the Torah’s consistent message of personal responsibility. Through its silence. the Torah effectively robs us of the ability to blame anyone else for our people’s descent into idolatry. We are forced to realize the uncomfortable truth: Bila’am’s machinations would never have succeeded had he not found the B’nei Yisrael easy prey.

Rabbi Goldin concludes (ibid, page 251):

….For now, the Torah is intent on bringing Parshat Balak to a cohesive end. From start to finish, this Parshat is designed to sensitize us to the role that we play in determining our own fate.

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 thrice 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, as Naama Issachar is now free and home — which can only occur when Jonathan is home in Israel and carrying for his ill wife Esther Yocheved bat Rayzl Bracha, and that the MIAs be liberated alive and returned to us in ways befitting Al Kiddush Hashem — as with the return in April, 2019, via Russia, of the remains of Zachariah Baumel, as should the remains of the two chayalim from the Gaza War of five and a half 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.