Parshat Balak 5781: Who’s Fault was the Sin of the Ba’al Pe’or, Anyway?

Shalom Friends;

This week, our Parshat HaShevua Balak is co-sponsored by Shlomo and Shoshana Weis lilui nishmas Chaya Perel bas Chaim Mordechai and by an anonymous donor, both families from Ramat Beit Shemesh. To the Weis family and to our anonymous donor, many thanks for your sponsorship and for 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 5781: Who’s Fault was the Sin of the Ba’al Pe’or, Anyway?

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 Bila’am 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 Bila’am’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 Bila’am’s attempts to curse the B’nei Yisrael failed by Divine mandate, Torah relates:

“Israel settled in the Shittim and the people began to act promiscuously with the daughters of Moav. They [the Moabite women] invited the people to the sacrifices to their gods; the people ate and bowed to their gods. Israel became attached to the Ba’al Pe’or, and the wrath of Hashem flared up against Israel. Hashem said to Moshe, ‘Take all the leaders of the people, and hang them before Hashem opposite the sun — and the flaring wrath of Hashem will withdraw from Israel.'” (Sefer Bamidbar, Perek 25, posukim 1-4 as rendered to English in the Sapirstein Edition, Torah with Rashi Commentary, pages 313-314)

Rashi comments on these posukim (ibid):

“to act promiscuously with the daughters of Moav,” by means of the advice of Bila’am, as stated in Chelek. “and bowed to their gods.” When [an…] urge was at its strongest, and he would say to [a Moabite woman], “Consent to me,” she would bring forth for him — an image of the pagan deity Pe’or from the folds of her garment, — and say to him, “First, bow down to this.” Pe’or is called by this name, — because they expose before it… — and expel excrement. This is the manner of worship. “And the wrath of Hashem flared up against Israel’ — He sent a plague upon them. “Take all the leaders of the people” — to judge those who worshipped Pe’or.

The Sapirstein Edition, Torah with Rashi Commentary provides footnotes on Rashi’s comments (ibid, pages 313-314):

Rashi explains how the Moabites could have ensnared the B’nei Yisrael, who were characterized by chastity, into promiscuous conduct. It was only through the strategies devised by Bila’am. (citing Mizrachi; Sifsei Chachamim)

“Take all the leaders of the people” — in Chelek [which] is the eleventh and last Perek of Sanhedrin.

Rashi explains how the desire for sexual immorality led to committing idolatry. (citing Sifsei 131, Sanhedrin 106a, Mizrachi; Sifsei Chachamim)

Rashi explains that the verse [posuk 4] uses the specific name to teach us what the B’nei Yisrael did after they “bowed to their gods.” They “became attached” to Ba’al Pe’or by worshiping it in its particular form of worship.

Rav Shmuel Goldin, in his sefer “Unlocking The Torah Text”, Sefer Bamidbar on our Parshat Balak provides context, questions and possible answers regarding the catastrophic epilogue to our Parsha which follows (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 Pe’or. 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 Pe’or, 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 Pe’or 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.

There have to be lessons to be learned from this devastating turn by segments of B’nei Yisrael. Just as many of B’nei Yisrael were turned from chastity and cleaving to Hashem to promiscuity, and idolatry at its most humilating worst, segments of modern society of Jews turn to same genderism, abortion and lives centered on their cellular and mobile phones and more. And on a national level, political and governmental appeasement in the face of warring enemies of Judaism resulting from fear of the nations and an addiction of dependence on a so-called “superpower” to the point of possible worship.

Rabbi Goldin makes this compelling point (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. Baruch Hashem that our dear brother Jonathan Pollard is now free of his parole and restrictions and that he and his ill wife Esther Yocheved bat Rayzl Bracha are finally home in Eretz Yisrael. May 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. And may we soon and finally see the total end to the Communist Chinese corona virus pandemic and all like viruses. May we fulfill Hashem’s blueprint of B’nei 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.