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Torah Sparks

July 2, 2004 – 14 Tammuz 5764

Annual: Numbers 22:2 – 25:9 (Etz Hayim, p. 894; Hertz p. 669)
Triennial Cycle: Numbers 22:39 – 25:9 (Etz Hayim, p. 899; Hertz p. 673)
Haftarah: Micah 5:6 – 6:8 (Etz Hayim, p. 915; Hertz p. 682)

Prepared by Rabbi Howard Buechler
Dix Hills Jewish Center, Dix Hills, NY

Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Martin J. Pasternak, Director

Sedra Statistics

Balak contains 104 verses.

This Torah reading does not contain any of the 613 mitzvot.

As noted for Parashat Korah, there are a total of 6 Torah portions, which are named for individuals. Can you name them and suggest any themes, which link these named individuals as they have the honor of Torah portions bearing their names?

Torah Topics

The cast of characters in this narrative is evocative of great, provocative, and dramatic moments in Jewish history. Balak is the King of Moab and he is astounded at the Israelite victory over the neighboring Amorites. Balak is determined not to have his people meet the same fate. Therefore he sends messengers to engage the services of the well-known ancient oracle and soothsayer Bilaam, the son of Beor. Intertwined into this text are both Moabite and Midianite efforts to ward off the Israelites.

Bilaam is hired to curse the Israelites and bring imprecations of calamity upon them. Bilaam in this narrative delivers four prophecies that instead of cursing the Israelites, blesses them. In the first two oracles, Bilaam claims to speak in the name of God as he bestows abundant praise upon the Israelite tribes. His lavish praise of the unique status of the Israelites is gifted Biblical poetry and he also notes the everlasting presence of God amongst our ancestors. Furthermore, Bilaam is rebuked by Balak as he demands that the Israelites be cursed, not praised. In powerful imagery, Bilaam utters the lofty words, "How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel." These words, pronounced by a pagan sorcerer are the opening words of many synagogue prayer services as they form the first line of the Mah Tovu prayer.

Finally, in a fourth oracle, Bilaam notes that he is a servant of the Lord and cannot, for any wages, disobey the word of God. He continues in his poetry and states, "a star rises from Jacob, a scepter comes forth from Osrae;" (24: 17). Bilaam also pronounces that Moab is doomed and King Balak who had hired Bilaam to curse the Israelites, he and his people are cursed instead! Balak, of course then dismisses Bilaam from his duties and Bilaam then returns to his home.

Amidst the dramatic confrontations of Balak and Bilaam, a number of unusual events transpire. Bilaam's donkey is apparently more aware of the Divine Presence at certain moments and balks at progressing in a mission to curse the Israelites. Eventually the donkey has a sarcastic conversation with his master and the pun and double entendre of the speaking ass is a literary foil in this plot. The Rabbis state that the talking donkey did not transcend the given laws of physics, and Maimonides notes that this entire sequence of the speaking donkey is actually a vision or dream, and not a discrete reality.

The concluding segment of the narrative occurs at the portal to the Promised Land. The people are encamped at Shittim, on the eastern bank of the Jordan River near Jericho. There they are lead astray by Moabite women. While the imprecations of destruction, which Balak, King of Moab desired, could not be invoked nor come to fruition, the people themselves are led astray into theological and sexual apostasy by the seductions and enticements of the Moabite women. This moment of tremendous degradation and wholesale immorality reaches into the upper echelons of Israelite society. In a swift reaction to the idolatrous backsliding of the Israelites, Pinchas, the grandson of the High Priest Aaron, takes matters into his own hands and executes an Israelite engaging in relations with a Midianite woman. The reactions to this act of zealotry are quite complex and nuanced. In fact, this episode is bifurcated into a narrative that begins in this portion and continues in the portion next week. And in the ensuing licentiousness a great number of Israelites perish prior to the forthright actions of Pinchas.

Archaelogical Gems

Bilaam is one of the rare Biblical figures for whom a non-Biblical source has been found. Bilaam the son of Beor, the same sorcerer/prophet in our Biblical narrative is described in very similar detail in inscriptions found in Deir 'Alla, Jordan, dating to the year 800 BCE. The epigraphic evidence of writing on a plaster wall speaks of Bilaam the son of Beor and records a prophetic text which describes his vision of a divine punishment upon his people! This is a sensational find and a fine example of scientific scholarship and archeology deepening our knowledge of the Biblical text.

Sedra Spark #1 - Bilaam: The Right Stuff or the Wrong Stuff??

We encounter the remarkable Bilaam (also spelled Balaam) and clearly can see that he is a gifted orator and prophet. Yet how he uses, or abuses his gifts is open for much debate. Is Bilaam a righteous man, as he bestows blessings upon Israel, or is he a schemer and cunning man bent on seeking our destruction? How do we reconcile these conflicting strands of his personality or view Bilaam as a complex man with many complexities?

  1. Numbers 31:16 directly states that Bilaam is responsible for betraying the Israelites at Peor and causing our apostasy.
  2. A Midrash states that "while none arose in Israel like Moses, among the other nations, there did in others, and that was Bilaam, son of Beor." Bilaam in this portrayal is God's prophet to the Gentile world. He conveyed the word of God and though his level of righteousness was far below Moses, he is nonetheless a prophet. Maimonides notes that this statement is a polemic underscoring any attempt by the other nations of the world to say that if God had only given them a Moses, the other nations of the world would have been as blessed as Israel. The nations of the world had Bilaam and even he led his own people astray.
  3. Ibn Ezra, born in 1092 in Spain, declares that Bilaam is deceptive, cunning, and a dangerous man. He supports this accusation by reminding us that Bilaam never tells Balak's messengers that God will not allow him to curse Israel. Bilaam withholds information and distorts the truth in several episodes. He seeks to take advantage of Balak's fears for his own economic gain.
  4. Pinchas Peli, a modern Israeli Torah commentator notes that Bilaam is responsible for helping to seduce the Israelites into sexual immorality with the Moabites. Peli comments: "God grants human beings various degrees of talent in different areas of creativity; it is they themselves who are responsible, however, for putting this latent gift to the right use. Many waste their gifts, others pervert their use. Balaam was among the latter after uttering some of the most lofty songs of praise to Israel, Balaam proceeds to offer their enemies some of the most sinister pieces of advice on how to go about destroying Israel and it's 'goodly tents' behind their backs, he plots their annihilation through the lure of fertility goddesses."
  5. One other possibility is that Bilaam is entirely a literary foil, an artifice created for us to focus not on Bilaam, but on the role of God. Throughout these chapters, the everlasting Divine love is apparent as is God's role as a Shomer Yisrael -- a guardian of Israel. Therefore, the character of Bilaam is incidental to the overarching theme of the Divine love, empathy and passion for the People of Israel.

Torah Table Talk

  1. Bilaam is a 'hired gun' to curse the Israelites. Are their people who spurn morality and sell their souls to engage in unethical behavior like Bilaam? How and why?
  2. Bilaam praises the Israelites as a people that dwells separate (23:9) and a myriad of blessings of the uniqueness of Israel. What is most distinctive and kodesh, holy and special about Judaism and the Jewish people? How do we manifest our unique roles and how are Jewish observances distinct?
  3. Balak and Bilaam are part of an interesting alliance attempting to thwart and destroy the Jewish people? How does this relate to realities in the Middle East today?

Sedra Spark #2 - Modesty in Jewish Life

One of the reasons that Bilaam is unable to curse the Israelites is that when he looked at their encampment, he realized that he saw Israel dwelling according to each tribe. The Talmud elucidates upon this and notes that each tribal encampment was established in such a fashion that no tent opening ever faced another tent opening. No one could see into the tents of the others from their tents. It is as if when building homes in a neighborhood, the builder insures that the sight lines from window to window of opposing homes are not direct -- to insure privacy and personal modesty. Bilaam is amazed at the degree of personal modesty and dignity, which the Israelites displayed within their homes. The Hebrew word for modesty is tzniyut and connotes that "human dignity demands a certain measure of privacy in those moments that we share only with God" (Rabbi Eugene Borowitz writing in The Jewish Moral Virtues). Modesty is a Jewish value in terms of our relationship with God, with other human beings, in our marital intimacy and in regarding our bodies and dress. Even speech is to demonstrate modesty and dignity at all times.

Bilaam recognized that one aspect of Israelite uniqueness is the virtue of modesty. How do we express modesty today? Has the pendulum swung too far in terms of a lack of modesty in the public arena -- and how can we affirm modesty in our lives?

Torah Q & A

  1. How did Bilaam humiliate himself?
  2. How many altars did Bilaam ask Balak to build?
  3. Which global shipping corporation derives its' name from this portion?

(1. Bilaam is attempting to curse an entire nation while he cannot even have power over his own donkey. He threatens to kill the donkey in a humiliating recognition of his own lack of real power. The talking donkey speaks more sense then Bilaam! 2. Seven altars. 3. The Israeli shipping company Tzim is derived from Bilaam's parable (24:24) that large vessels -- the Hebrew word is “Tzim" will come from afar.

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