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Torah Sparks

PARASHAT BALAK
July 16, 2005 - 9 Tammuz 5765

Annual: Numbers 22:2 - 25:9 (Etz Hayim, p. 894; Hertz p. 669)
Triennial: Numbers 22:2 - 22:38 (Etz Hayim, p. 894; Hertz p. 669)
Haftarah: Micah 5:6 - 6:8 (Etz Hayim, p. 915; Hertz p. 682)

Prepared by David M. Eligberg
Congregation B'nai Tikvah, North Brunswick, NJ

Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Paul Drazen, Director

Summary

Balak, fearful because of Israel's recent military successes, sends for Balaam, a prophet famous for his ability to invoke powerful curses. When first approached, Balaam declines. When Balak's messengers return, God, sensing Balaam's desire to go, permits him to do so with the caveat that he only speak God's words. During the journey, Balaam's ass sees an angel with its sword drawn standing in the path, causing it to veer off the path, press against the wall of a narrow passageway, and finally lie down. On each occasion, Balaam strikes the ass to get her to move. The ass speaks, challenging Balaam to explain his behavior. Only then is Balaam allowed to see the angel that stands in the path threatening him. God reiterates to Balaam that he must speak only what God communicates.

Balak welcomes Balaam with great fanfare and brings him to a mountaintop where seven altars and offerings for each have been prepared. To Balak's great chagrin, Balaam asserts that he can only speak the words God commands. The same scene is played out two more times. While giving his third oracle, Balaam proclaims the famous verse, "How fair are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel." Balak, enraged by Balaam's words, sends him away. Before his departure, Balaam offers one final oracle against Israel's enemies during which he curses Moab, the ultimate irony for Balak.

The majestic depiction of the Israelite camp and its future is quickly negated. The Israelites, enticed by the sexual promiscuity of the Moabite women, participate in the worship of Ba'al Peor. God commands that those who led the community astray be impaled publicly and those who worshipped Ba'al Peor be purged from the community. Pinchas pursues and runs through an Israelite man and Moabite woman who enter the Tent of Meeting bringing the episode and the plague afflicting the Israelites to an end.

Discussion Topic 1: Separate and Distinct

"As I see them from the mountaintops,
Gaze on them from the heights,
There is a people that dwells apart,
Not reckoned among the nations." (Numbers 23:9)

Derash: Study

  • All the early letters of the Hebrew alphabet partner up with each other to form the number ten: "Alef" (1) and "Tet" (9), "Bet" (2), and "Het" (8), "Gimel" (3) and "Zayin" (7), "Dalet" (4) and "Vav" (6). Only the letter "Hey" has no partner to form the number ten except another letter "Hey" like itself. Similarly, the letter "Nun" has no partner to add up to one hundred except for a second "Nun." This is hinted at the (Hebrew) "hen" (in our verse). Just as the letters "Hey" and "Nun" do not partner to form a base number with any other letters, so too a nation dwells alone. Israel cannot become friendly with any nation. (Midrash Rabbah, Sh'mot 15)
  • Once, while the Ba'al Shem Tov was returning from the mikvah, he passed by a group of (local peasants) and was fearful that they would attack him. He overheard one (peasant) say to his friend, "Beware of this Jew that he not touch you and defile you." The Ba'al Shem Tov said, "This is the meaning of the verse, 'there is a people that dwells apart' -- the people of Israel's ability to maintain its separateness, its uniqueness, its holiness, even while it is mixed amongst the nations -- and not reckoned among the nations,' for they do not consider us (worthy); they scorn us as if we were a lesser creation and do not wish for us to befriend them." (Degel Mahane Efrayim)
  • They are witnessed in their uniqueness and that is their strength and grandeur 'among the nations' -- but when they intermingle amongst the nations and follow their patterns, customs and ideas they are "not reckoned" -- they are (worthy of) being reckoned as important. (The play on words reckoned/important gets lost in translation).
  • "When they are happy, no other nation is happy along with them." (Rashi) (This interpretation takes) the word "hen" as deriving from the root meaning "pleasure/enjoyment" and the phrase should be understood as meaning: 'the joy of the nation and its pleasure' is when they dwell alone, separate and apart, and not mixed together with others, (and mixing them in) was how (the other nations) distracted Israel from joyfully serving God. (Hak'tav v'Hakabalah)

Questions

  1. Is isolation a realistic approach to the challenges of assimilation?
  2. How might this idea of separation be applied to the Israeli - Palestinian conflict?

Discussion Topic 2: "Do You Think Anyone Saw Me?"

"No harm is in sight for Jacob,
No woe in view for Israel,
The Lord their God is with them
And their king's acclaim in their midst." (Numbers 23:21)

Derash: Study

  • "No harm is in sight for Jacob..." Why? Because "Adonai, their God, is with them." There is always within the heart of every Jew a sense of awe for God even when he is sinning -- "the acclaim of God is within him (the Hebrew term used here teruah -- is understood as we do on Rosh Hashanah during shofar blowing -- "broken") the heart of the Jew is broken [from his actions]. A Jew performs a mitzvah with joy but does a Jew perform a sin with joy? No Jew expresses joyous intent before or during the performance of a sin. (Rabbi Hayyim of Tsantz)
  • He who commits one sin acquires against him an accuser. (Avot 4:11)
  • Rabbi Zusha from Anapoli said: I never saw a whole accusing angel created by a believing Jew who sinned. Such messengers are always missing a limb - a head, an arm, etc., for a Jew, even when he falls prey to sinful behavior, immediately regrets it, is troubled by it and sighs with a heavy and broken heart; such sighs that emerge from a broken heart, break and dismember these accusing angels. (Meyotsar Hehasidut)
  • Even when a Jew sins, even in the depths of depravity -- there remains within him a spark of godliness; a speck of the light of t'shuvah still flickers in his heart -- even at a time of sin -- "Adonai, his God, is with him." (Rabbi Israel Rhizin)
  • It states, "I see God before me always." Someone who knows in his thoughts that the Holy One is with him in every place will not turn quickly to sin and that is "no sin (Rashi) is in sight for Jacob" for "Adonai his God is with him" in every location and at all times, in his heart and in his thoughts. (Hatam Sofer)
  • Onkelos translates the phrase "Adonai, his God is with him" as "the King dwells in their midst." Rashi states: "The Holy One does not see the sins of Jacob, - when they transgress His words, He does not investigate after them." These two interpretations are really saying the same thing [even though they appear to negate each other]. A person who goes through life with a commitment to the Godly, the Heavenly King resides with him; if he does act sinfully then the Holy One does not take a great note of it. (Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Kotsk)
  • Adonai, his God, is with him." Therefore we need signs of holiness: circumcision, Shabbat, tzitzit and t'fillin because we are lost in this world, as David wrote; "I wandered like a lost sheep" (Ps.119) as a lost object that was being claimed. A lost object is returned [based on the] identification of distinctive signs, and these are Divinely [ordained] signs, for on the basis of distinctive signs objects are always the property of their owner, [and that is how] Adonai, his God is with him." (Rabbi Avraham of Sochtsov)
  • A Jew is never alone: Every place he goes and everywhere he stops -- Adonai, his God is with him. (Ba'al Shem Tov)

Questions

  1. What if there are no longer any distinguishing signs between Jew and non-Jew?
  2. Can we become unrecognizable to God and yet remain identifiable as a people?
  3. How would our actions differ if we took seriously the idea that we are always accompanied by God?

Discussion Topic 3: Home Is Where the Holiness Is

"How fair are your tents,
O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel!" (Numbers 24:5)

Derash: Study

  • Those who structured the prayer service placed these words at the beginning of the service. As soon as one enters the synagogue one realizes that the essence of the synagogue, praiseworthiness, is a reflection of the holiness that begins in the tent, the home. When your homes are good, O Jacob, then your dwelling places [your houses of worship, are too], O Israel. (Sh'ayreet Menahem)
  • ...all of them reverted to curses except for synagogues and houses of study (Sanhedrin 105). Thus it was that when Israel sinned, all the things that Balaam spoke of were affected except for the synagogues and houses of study that will never cease from Israel. (Hatam Sofer)

Questions

  1. What is the dynamic relationship between the home and the synagogue being expressed here?
  2. Where does the locus of holiness ultimately reside? Does this accurately reflect the perspective of many contemporary Jews?

 
 
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