Sermons and Parsha'iot        Parshat Balak: Numbers 22:2-25:9

Summary

This week's parasha, Balak, is named after the king of Moab. The Israelites were camped on the border of Moab, on their way to the Promised Land. Balak saw that the Israelites had prospered and grown in number and was afraid that the Israelites would try to take over his country. Balak sent messengers to Balaam, a pagan prophet of great reknown, asking him to put a curse on the Israelites so that they could be defeated and driven out of Moab. Before Balaam replied to the messengers, he asked them to stay overnight so that he might consult with God.

That night, he had a dream in which God spoke to him. Balaam told God of Balak's request and God replied, "Do not go with them. You must not curse the people, for they are blessed." The next morning, Balaam told the messengers that God would not allow him to accompany them. Balak then sent other messengers to Balaam, offering him riches if he would come and curse the Israelites. Balaam replied that regardless of what riches he was offered, he could not do anything against the command of God. God appeared again to Balaam during the night, telling him that he might go with the messengers, but that he must do whatever God would tell him to do.

In the morning, Balaam saddled his donkey and departed. "But God was incensed at his going; so an angel of God placed himself in his way as an adversary." The donkey saw the angel of God standing with a drawn sword in his hand and swerveed away from the road to avoid it. Balaam beat the donkey and tried to turn it back onto the road. Twice more the angel stood in the road; twice more the donkey swerved to avoid it; and each time Balaam beat the animal. Finally, God gave the donkey the ability to speak. The donkey declared to Balaam that she had never before taken him off the road, so why was he beating her now? God then "uncovered Balaam's eyes" to reveal the angel with the drawn sword. The angel of God informed Balaam that he was appearing because he did not approve of what Balaam was going to do, and that the donkey was protecting Balaam from death. Balaam admitted that he did not know that the angel had been standing in the way and offered to turn back from his journey. The angel instructed Balaam to continue, but that he must say only what he has been told to say.

When Balaam finally arrived, he made seven sacrifices to God. Then he looked out from a high place at the Israelite people - but instead of cursing them, he praised them. When Balak asked him why he was doing this, Balaam replied that he can only repeat what God has told him to say about the Israelites. Balak then took the prophet to another high place, and asked him to curse them from there. Once again, Balaam made seven sacrifices - and praised the Israelites! Balak took Balaam to a third place and the same thing happened again.This time, his oracle contained the famous words, "Ma-tovu oha-leicha Ya'akov ." ("How fair are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!") which we recite  whenever we enter a shul to pray. Enraged, Balak ordred Balaam to return home without any rewards since he did not do as he had been asked. Before leaving, Balaam foretold both the destruction of own Balak's nation and Israel's many victories over its enemies.

The Israelites encamped at Shittim. Eventually, they became involved with Moabite women and worshiping their god Ba'al-peor. God was angry and ordered Moses to have all of the idol worshipers executed. In an act of defiance, an Israelite man took a Midianite woman into a tent in front of Moses and the rest of the community. Pinchas, Aaron's grandson, saw this. Following them, he killed them both. As punishment for the Israelites' shameful behavior, God sent a plague and 24,000 of them died before the plague subsided. 

Some Thoughts and Questions:

  1. Only five Torah portions are named after people: Noach, Yitro (Moses' father-in-law), Korach, Balak, and Pinchas. Our sages assume that such a designation would be an honor. They come up with something commendable for each of the other four designees. What possible good thing did Balak do? 

  2. One of Balaam's famous lines of blessing is "How fair are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel." Rashi interprets the verse to mean that Balaam observed that the openings of the Israelite tents did not face each other, therefore showing the moral principle that everyone deserves privacy. (This principle is elaborated in the Talmud Baba Batra 60a.) How does your family respect the privacy of each member? Everyone needs his or her "own space." Is your space found in a special place or is it a certain time of day?

  3. Rabbi Joseph Hertz interprets the same verse to mean that Balaam envisioned the "tents" as "tents of Torah" and "dwelling places" as places of learning. Imagine your own dwelling place as a "tent of Torah." What would that mean? Describe the types of learning that take place in your home. Give examples of how each member of your family is a learner and a teacher. Do you think that this interpretation applies to your religious school or synagogue? Why or why not? 

  4. Although he obviously has a relationship with God (God appears to him in his dreams), Balaam thinks God does not know that he intends to curse Israel. When he says to the angel of God "I sinned because I did not know that you were standing in my way" (Numbers 22:34), the rabbis say that Balaam's ignorance is, in itself, a sin. As a prophet, the rabbis say, Balaam should be aware that God always stands before him. What do you think that means: ". God always stands before him?" Do you think Balaam chose not to see? How do you choose whether or not to do something that you have been told not to do? Is it ever permissible to do something wrong if you think that you're not going to get caught? Why or why not? Can you give examples of people who have chosen to do the wrong things for the sake of wealth or power? What happened to them? 

  5. Balaam's donkey speaks to him in parshat Balak. The only other time that an animal speaks in the Torah is in the book of Genesis, when the snake speaks to Eve (Genesis 3:1). In Pirkei Avot 5:6, the rabbis say that the "mouth of the donkey," meaning Balaam's donkey, was among the ten things that were created on the eve of the first Shabbat at twilight. These things were considered miraculous and outside the order of nature.Bamidbar Rabba 20:12 says that God caused the donkey to speak to teach Balaam "that the mouth and the tongue are in God's power; that if he sought to curse, his mouth was in God's power." What can we learn from this parasha about what we say with our own mouths and tongues? 

  6. Balaam's donkey sees the angel of God when it first appears on the road, but Balaam does not see it until God uncovers Balaam's eyes (Numbers 22:31). Bamidbar Rabba 20:13 asks "was Balaam then blind?" and answers ". this is to teach that even the eye is in God's power." Have you ever been in a situation and not seen somthing that was readily apparent? What helped you to eventually see it? What stops us from "seeing" things? 

  7. Some rabbis place Balaam in the same category as Haman and Amalek. Some have called him a prophet on a par with Moses. How can you explain these very different views? Is there evidence of both great evil and great good in Balaam? Find it.