art by Laya Crust
Balak: Numbers 22:2–25:9
Haftarah: Micah 5:6 – 6:8
This week’s Torah reading is about a Moabite king, Balak, who calls Bilaam the seer to curse the children of Israel. The parsha focuses on a very odd story, and there are a number of elements that are worth noting:
1) First of all no Israelites, no Jews, appear in the narrative. It is told from the perspective of a Moabite leader and his most respected prophet.
2) Gd, Who generally does not talk directly to individuals, carries on a conversation with Bilaam, the non-Israelite prophet.
3) There is a talking donkey (actually, a female ass) who figures pretty prominently in the narrative.
4) We are presented with the Israelite’s and Gd’s reputation among the other nations.
The parsha begins with Balak, the Moabite king, being frightened by the Israelite victory against the Amorites. He sends a message to Bilaam, a respected and successful prophet saying, “Behold , there is a people come out from Egypt; behold, they cover the face of the earth, and they abide over against me.” (Numbers 22: v. 5) As far as we know Balak had never previously confronted the Israelites. However their progress and strength had become legendary and their numbers were exaggerated.- “they cover the face of the earth.”
Through the course of this unusual story Bilaam was commanded a number of times to curse the Israelites but he refused. Once Bilaam even said ,”If Balak would give me his house full of silver and gold, I cannot go beyond the word of the Lord my Gd…” (ch 22: 18). Bilaam finally did get up and accompany the king’s men against the previous directions from Gd.
engraving by Gustave Dore
You may be familiar with the next part of the story . An angel stood in Bilaam’s path holding a sword. The she-ass saw the angel but Bilaam didn’t. When the she-ass repeatedly stopped Bilaam lifted his whip and beat her, to force her to continue. At that point the animal turned around and said, “Am I not your ass, upon whom you have ridden all your life to this day?…” The angel revealed himself and added,”…the ass saw me, and turned aside before me these three times; unless she had turned aside from me, surely now I would have slain thee and saved her alive.” (ch 22: 33)
This is an odd story on many levels and there are different lessons to be learned depending on which perspective you choose.
Bilaam was successful and highly regarded due to his communication with the Gd of the Israelites, the one Gd. This reminds us that Gd created all people and all people must be regarded fairly and respected for who they are, not where they were born or who their parents are. By the same token we are reminded that animals are also to be treated with respect. Animals are also within Gd’s purview and creation. They too are to be treated with decency and not abused. So- this is a parsha about respect.
We see from the beginning of the parsha that the actions of a nation and an individual make an impression. Although bnei Yisrael was a tiny, tiny nation it had overcome impossible difficulties and travelled a relatively large area of land after escaping from Egypt. Their tenacity and success had become legendary , to the point that the King of Moab thought the Israelites were a HUGE nation covering the earth. The same phenomenon can be seen today. Although Jews number about 0.2% of the world’s population we are recognized, noticed, and thought to be a much much higher percent of the world’s population. Although Israel is one of the world’s smallest countries it is seen as a gigantic world power- and of course vilified for its negatively perceived influence rather than lauded for its democracy and progress.
The lesson for this week can be summed up by a quotation from the haftarah. “…and what does the Lord require of you; Only to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your Gd.” Micah ch 6: v8
Have a Shabbat Shalom,