Parsha Balak – 5777

Parshat Balak In-Depth

“Moab said to the elders of Midian (22:4)

Moab and Midian were erstwhile enemies, as it is written (Genesis 36:35), ‘. . . who smote Midian in the field of Moab’; but out of fear of Israel, they made peace between them.

And why did Moab seek the advice of Midian? When they saw that Israel was victorious beyond the norm, they thought: ‘The leader of this people rose to greatness in Midian; we shall ask them what is his measure.’ Said they: ‘His power is entirely in his mouth.’ Said Moab: ‘We, too, shall bring a person whose power is in his mouth against them.’ (Rashi)”

Torah Sparks: Balak 5777

“The wandering Israelites repeatedly reach out to the local Middle-Eastern kingdoms to ask for safe passage through their lands and then defeat them in battle once those peace overtures have been rejected (the exception – their ignominious retreat from the Edomites in Numbers 20:21). By the time they reach the border with the Moabites the local tribes are thoroughly rattled. Balak, the king of Moab, realises that the Israelites cannot be defeated militarily and that maybe spiritual force could succeed where physical force cannot. He summons the most prestigious regional prophet, Bil’am, son of Be’or, to come and curse the Israelites for him.”

Distracted by Blessing

“In this week’s Torah portion, Balak, the king of Moab, Balak, is afraid that the Israelites’ encampment will ravish his land. He sends emissaries to a diviner named Balaam with the intent of hiring him to stop the Israelites. A summary of their encounter demonstrates a classic misunderstanding:

Emissaries: Come with us to curse the Israelites.
Balaam: Let me check with God.
God to Balaam: You can’t curse the Israelites; they are already blessed.
Balaam to the emissaries: God won’t let me go.
Emissaries to King Balak: Balaam refused to come.

Balak sends the emissaries back with the offer of silver and gold, and whatever Balaam might want. Balaam consults with God again, in case God had a change of mind. This time God says, ‘If these personages have come to invite you, you may go with them. But whatever I command you, that you shall do’ (Numbers 22:20).”

How Good It Is

“Mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, mishkenotecha Yisrael / מַה טֹּבוּ אֹהָלֶיךָ יַעֲקֹב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל

How goodly are your tents, Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel (Numbers 24:5)

The Israelites are journeying toward the Jordan River, and pass through the territory of King Balak of Moab. Balak is terrified, and hires the prophet Balaam to lay a curse upon the Israelites. Three times Balaam climbs up to a promontory from which he can survey the Israelite encampment. Each time, instead of a curse, only words of blessing issue from his lips. King Balak is furious, of course, and reprimands Balaam. But Balaam reminds him that as a prophet, Balaam is only capable of uttering the words that God puts in his mouth.”

Haftarah Parshat Balak

“The prophets Isaiah and Micah were contemporaries, both living during the reign of Hezekiah, a period in which the Assyrian empire threatened the fate of the nation. In one of the prophecies in this week’s haftarah, Micah uses imagery found in a famous prophecy of Isaiah’s in a way which seems to be a response to the latter’s message. A comparison of the two prophecies offers us a window into two theological approaches to the problems which confronted them and perhaps some insight into debates going on in the contemporary Jewish world as well.

If there is one prophecy for which Isaiah is famous, it is this one: “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, the leopard lie down with the kid, the calf, the beast of prey and the fating together, with a little boy to herd them.” (Isaiah 11:6) Isaiah, who was the older of the two, seems to have had an idyllic approach to the problems of his day. God would cause the animals of prey, namely Israel’s adversaries, to dwell in peace with their victims, Israel.”