Balak

Torah Portion of the Week: Balak

In this parashat Balak, we learn that the Moabite king, Balak, the son of Zippor, is overwhelmed with fear as a result of what he had seen Israel do to the Amorites, crushing them in battle. Although the Moabites and Midianites were long-term enemies, they now joined together in order to defend themselves from the threat of the Children of Israel.

Recognizing that he could not vanquish the Israelites in a military battle, Balak decides to call upon Balaam, the famed gentile prophet, to curse Israel. The Moabite king initially sends elders of Moab and Midian to the prophet Balaam, to convince him to come and curse the Children of Israel. After consulting with God, Balaam is informed, Numbers 22:12לֹא תֵלֵךְ עִמָּהֶם, לֹא תָאֹר אֶת הָעָם, כִּי בָרוּךְ הוּא , “You shall not go with them! You shall not invoke curse upon the people, for they are blessed!”

 

Balak sends a second delegation of even higher ranking officers, promising Balaam much honor and riches if he would curse the Jewish people. Balaam again declines, saying that even if Balak would give him a household of gold and silver, he is unable to transgress the word of God, to do anything small or great.
Balaam, however, is reluctant to give up. He requests that the emissaries stay the night, so that he can once again “consult” with God. In Numbers 22:20, God says to Balaam, אִם לִקְרֹא לְךָ בָּאוּ הָאֲנָשִׁים, קוּם לֵךְ אִתָּם, וְאַךְ אֶת הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר אֲדַבֵּר אֵלֶיךָ, אֹתוֹ תַעֲשֶׂה “If the men came to summon you, arise and go with them, but the thing that I shall speak to you that is what you shall do.”

Balaam, who despite God’s warning, is eager to do harm to the Israelites, arises early the next morning, saddles his own donkey and begins to make his way to meet Balak. Even though God has given him permission to go, God is angry at Balaam, seeing his enthusiasm, and places an angel on the road to stop Balaam. Although the great prophet Balaam is unaware of the angel, the lowly donkey sees the Divine emissary and refuses to travel further. After hitting his donkey several times, the donkey speaks up, and Balaam finally sees the angel. The angel of God gives Balaam one last warning, saying, Numbers 22:35לֵךְ עִם הָאֲנָשִׁים, וְאֶפֶס אֶת הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר אֲדַבֵּר אֵלֶיךָ, אֹתוֹ תְדַבֵּר , “Go with the men, but only the word that I shall speak to you, that shall you speak!”

 

Rashi  picks up on God’s words to Balaam in Numbers 22:20אִם לִקְרֹא לְךָ בָּאוּ הָאֲנָשִׁים, קוּם לֵךְ אִתָּם “If the men came to summon you, arise and go with them.” Rashi derives from the word לְךָ “to you,” the connotation “for your benefit.” Meaning, if it would be to Balaam’s financial advantage to go, he was free to do so.

 

Even though Balaam himself acknowledges that, Numbers 23:19לֹא אִישׁ אֵ-ל וִיכַזֵּב, וּבֶן אָדָם וְיִתְנֶחָם , that God is not like a human being who changes His mind, Balaam knows well that humans are accorded free will, and hopes that perhaps through prayer and petition he can eventually change God’s mind.

 

Balaam then resorts to sorcery in order to overcome God’s decree forbidding him to curse the people of Israel. Each time he is about to deliver another one of his prophetic messages, both Balaam and Balak move further away from the People of Israel, hoping that the peoples’ Godly influence would be diminished as he and Balak distance themselves from the people. The reduced presence of sanctity would somehow allow Balaam to curse the Jewish people despite God’s unequivocal decree otherwise.

Balaam learns the hard way that he cannot outfox the Al-mighty, and that although there is free will in the world, God has the right to limit that free will, under certain extraordinary circumstances.

It is only when Balaam realizes that he is unable to curse the Jewish people that he resorts to a reliable method of harming the Jewish people–seducing the Israelite men with gentile women. As a result of Balaam’s plot (Numbers 25:9), 24,000 Israelites are killed in a plague as retribution for the Jewish men consorting with the Midianite women. Shabbat Shalom