This week, our Parshat HaShevua Balak is being sponsored by Dr. Pinchas and P’nina Klahr of Ramat Beit Shemesh dedicated lilui nishmas Pinchas’ parents: Nosson Karpel ben Shmuel Zanvil Tzvi and Pessia Toiba bat Rav Yehuda Dov and Penina’s dad – Rav Matisyohu ben Rav Yaakov (Weisenberg). To the Klahr family, many thanks for your sponsorship and continued kindness.
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 (or as the case may be, co-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.
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. Through 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 of decades ago. 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.
Rabbi Shmuel Goldin writes in his sefer “Unlocking The Torah Text”, Sefer Bamidbar on our Parshat, concerning the story of Balak and Bila’am (pages 228-232):
This is the only story in the Torah — since our patriarch Avraham enters the historical stage — that takes place totally out of the view of B’nei Yisrael, their emissaries or their ancestors.
This narrative is comprised of a series of events, interactions at which no Jew is present. Had Hashem not informed us of these events, we would have never known that they happened. Bila’am would have pronounced his curses. Hashem would have simply ignored them and the B’nei Yisrael would have gone blissfully on their way, unaware of Bila’am’s words. Who knows how many other unnoted verbal threats were directed against the
B’nei Yisrael during the biblical era, their echoes fading into the mists of history. What makes this episode worthy of Hashem’s or our notice? Why is the narrative of Balak and Bila’am included in the Torah at all?
One perspective on…Bila’am’s power to bless or curse [is that] the threat posed by Bila’am’s words emanates from Hashem’s own decision to grant strength to man’s speech.
At the dawn of the history of Judaism, the launch of Avraham’s journey, Hashem promises the patriarch: “And you will be a blessing.” (Rabbi Goldin citing Sefer Breish’t, Perek 12, posuk 2) This statement is understood by the Midrash to mean “Blessings are given to your hand. Until now, they were in My hand. I blessed Adam and No’ach. From this time on you will bless who you wish.”
As a result of this heavenly decree, every word spoken by man about another, for good or for bad, acquires power. Hashem therefore moves to abort Bila’am’s curses before they can acquire the power of spoken words.
Hashem’s own self-imposed limitations in the face of man’s speech and/or Bila’am’s ability to manipulate the… rules Hashem created to govern His universe may well have enabled the sorcerer to seriously threaten the B’nei Yisrael through his words. Hashem therefore moves to stop those words from ever being spoken.
This approach to Bila’am’s threat is underscored in the Midrashic pronouncement “There were no days, from the day that the world was created, when the Holy One Blessed Be He needed to be with [the B’nei] Yisrael as much as the time when Bila’am wanted to destroy [them] from the world.” (Rabbi Goldin citing Zohar Chadash, Balak 54)
Other commentaries are unwilling to consider… that Bila’am’s words could have directly threatened a people protected by “the righteousness of the patriarchs and the merit of the Revelation at Sinai.” (Rabbi Goldin citing Abravanel on Sefer Bamidbar, Perek 22, posuk 7) Hashem is compelled, these scholars argue, to change Bila’am’s words for other reasons.
The Ibn Ezra… suggests that Hashem acts to prevent the surrounding nations from arriving at an erroneous conclusion that would damage the nation’s honor. In the aftermath of Bila’am’s efforts, the B’nei Yisrael endures a devastating plague as a result of the sin of the Ba’al Pe’or. Had Bila’am been allowed to curse the nation, observers would have mistakenly concluded that this plague had actually been caused by his curses. (Rabbi Goldin citing Ibn Ezra on Sefer Bamidbar, Perek 22, posuk 9)
The Abravanel rejects the Ibn Ezra’s approach [that observers would mistakenly assume that the plague resulted from the Ba’al Pe’or] and asks, are we to view… textual sources (Rabbi Goldin citing Sefer Devarim, Perek 23, posuk 6, Yehoshua 24:9-10, Micha 6:5) clearly testifying that, had it not been for Hashem’s merciful intervention, Bila’am’s curses would… have had a devastating impact upon the people? Had the sorcerer been allowed to pronounce his intended curses, surrounding nations would have heard and would have been encouraged to attack the “newly vulnerable” B’nei Yisrael…. Once Hashem transform’s Bila’am’s curses into blessings, however, the special status of the nation in Hashem’s eyes becomes readily apparent to all, rendering the people safe from attack. (Rabbi Goldin citing Abravanel on Sefer Bamidbar, Perek 22, posuk 2 through Perek 25, posuk 9)
A creative approach to the impact of Bila’am’s words is offered by Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch, the pivotal leader of nineteenth-century German Jewry whose emphasis on the universal role of Am Yisrael serves as a foundation of his religious philosophy. Hashem visits specific individuals, whether Jew or Gentile, with prophetic vision, to enable them to bring forward His message to the world. In this case, Hashem wants Bila’am to bless the Jews in his role of as a prophet [navi], not for their sake, but for the sake of the surrounding nations. He wants the world to recognize that Am Yisrael is a “blessed people,” whose very character and mission will reflect Hashem’s will for mankind as a whole. When Bila’am attempts to subvert this prophetic mandate by cursing rather than blessing the Jews, Hashem steps in to ensure that the intended Divine message to mankind will be properly transmitted and received. (Rabbi Goldin citing Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch on Sefer Bamidbar, Perek 22, posuk 12, i.e. “Hashem said to Bila’am, ‘You shall not go with them! You shall not invoke curse upon the people, for it is blessed.'” as rendered to English in The Sapirstein Edition, The Torah: With Rashi’s Commentary)
Given the various understandings and approaches addressed above as to why Hashem negated Bila’am’s attempts to curse Am Yisrael, this author asks what seems to be a pivotal question: Once Hashem aborted Bila’am’s attempts to curse B’nei Yisrael, seemingly dooming Bila’am’s mission on behalf of Balak and the other nations, why does Hashem not foil Bila’am’s plot to entice the B’nei Yisrael, through the Midianite and Moabite women, to the Ba’al Pe’or?
This author posed this very question to Rabbi Binyamin Jacobson, a Rabbi living here in Ramat Beit Shemesh Alef. Rabbi Jacobson responded:
I don’t know of an authoritative answer, but I can give you my guess: Hashem protects His people from harm, but He does not necessarily protect them from tests. Part of our job is to face tests and successfully pass them – the Bnei Yisrael being tested is actually a fundamental part of Hashem’s plan for them. So it is very understandable that while Hashem prevented Bila’am from cursing them, He did not prevent the test – He left that up to us whether to pass or fail (and note that while some did fail, most passed!).
In other words, as this author understands, had Bila’am chas v’challila succeeded in cursing Am Yisrael, there would have been nothing that the Jews could have done about it. Regarding Bila’am’s plot with Balak to entice the B’nei Yisrael, through the Midianite and Moabite women, to the avodah zora Ba’al Pe’or: the Jews had a choice — to cling to Hashem and His ways, or submit to the Ba’al Pe’or — ergo Hashem’s test of B’nei Yisrael. (Hat Tip to R’ Matis Sklar of Ramat Beit Shemesh Alef)
Rabbi Goldin concludes with comments that seem to blend with Rabbi Jacobson’s thoughts (ibid, pages 232-233):
Had Hashem permitted Bila’am to proceed with his intended curses, the Jews, upon hearing of the sorcerer’s words (or barring that, upon learning of similar phenomena) could have claimed them as justification for their failings: How can we be blamed? Were we not doomed from the start?
Hashem therefore decides to use the Balak/Bila’am episode as a teaching opportunity. He intervenes, changes the sorcerer’s curses to blessings and reveals the entire episode to Am Yisrael… In doing so, He effectively proclaims: Now I have removed any possible excuse. The words pronounced upon you by Bila’am are positive. The final impact of those words, however, like so much else in our lives, is in your hands.
Always remember that your story will be defined by no one else. You can blame no outside force. Ultimately, it’s all up to you!
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, that the thrice expelled families of Amona be restored to their rebuilt homes and the oft-destroyed Yeshiva buildings in Homesh be rebuilt, all at total government expense; 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 is now in his second year at home in Eretz Yisrael. May Esther Yocheved bat Yechiel Avraham have an aliyah in Shemayim and may her memory continue to lift Jonathan to at least 120 years. 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 seven 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!!!
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.