Balak (King of Moab)

Numbers 22:2 to 25:9

Balaam, a noted gentile prophet in the time of Moses, is asked to curse the Israelite people so they will not be successful in potential conflicts. However, because of God’s power, he can only offer the words which God places in his mouth – words of praise and blessing. These blessings focus on specific reasons for the success of the Israelites.

BalakParsha Balak provides a total change of perspective from the text of past weeks.

• The location is outside the Hebrew community in Moab, a nation near Canaan, the final destination of the Israelites.

• The perception of the Israelite people is different when seen from outside the community. The Israelites scouts/spies of a few weeks ago viewed the peoples of Canaan with fear: “The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers. All the people we saw in it are of great size; we saw the Nephilim – and the Anakites are part of the Naphilim – and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.” (Num. 13:32) But, Balak, the king of Moab views the Israelites with fear: “Now this horde will lick clean all that is about us as an ox licks up the grass of the field.” (Num. 13:4) “There is a people that came out of Egypt; it hides the earth from view, and it is settled next to me…”  (Num. 22:5)

• Moses is mentioned only once in the entire parsha – just four verses from the parsha’s end… and then, only to reference his presence.

The bulk of the parsha relates the story of a king – Balak – who hires a famous non-Israelite prophet- Balaam – to place a curse on the Israelite community so that in event of battle, the Israelites would be defeated. It was generally believed that curses and blessings help create defeat or victory. Balaam not only knew of the Israelite’s God, but, actually talked with the Eternal. At first, the Eternal tells Balaam not to go to Moab to curse the Israelites. But, after being offered great riches, Balaam accepts. God then gives Balaam approval to go with the condition that he “must say nothing except what [the Eternal] tells him.” (Num. 22:35) Balaam then tells Balak “I can utter only the words that God puts into my mouth.” (Num. 22:38) The time comes for Balaam to curse the Israelites and he can only utter words of blessing. Three times Balaam attempts to curse the Israelites… and he can only utter the words of God … the words of blessing. King Balak is deeply angered and sends Balaam away. Upon Balaam’s departure he utters a fourth blessing which predicts the defeat of Moab and its surrounding neighbors.

The blessings are written in a very beautiful and dramatic poetic format. They tell of God’s connections to the Israelite people and predict a successful future for the Israelite nation. Rabbi Shaul Rosenblatt (Tikun UK) comments on a line that is found in the third blessing … a line that appears above the entrance to our temple, Temple Chai: “In this week’s Torah portion, Bilaam’s great praise for the Jewish people is found in the famous words that begin our daily prayers and that every Bar/Bat Mitzvah child knows by heart: Ma tovu ohalecha Yaakov “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings. O Israel.” (Numbers 24:5)

Rabbi Rosenblatt continues,” The Sages explain that Bilaam noticed how the tents of the Jews in the desert were carefully aligned so that no one could see into anyone else’s home. Bilaam wanted to curse the Jewish people, but because of their modesty, he was unable to do so.”

“There is an underlying message here. The strength of the Jewish people lies in their homes. Homes, not individuals, are the basic building blocks of a nation. Much more so than individuals create homes, homes nurture individuals. Stable homes, with strong values and focused education, are the most fundamental element in creating a strong nation.”

Then Rabbi Rosenblatt brings the concept of the importance of home into contemporary times… “Schools are an important part of an education system, but parents (and governments) who think that schools can be relied on to create individuals of strong moral character will realize their mistake after the horse has already bolted. Even taking into account the element of free will, parents are majorly responsible for who their children turn out to be. They cannot merely blame the school, society, or the child’s friends. The most fundamental influence is the home.”

“Yet, as easy as it is to say, it’s equally difficult to do. And bringing up children requires an inordinate amount of Divine assistance. But recognition of the reality is a first step in making it happen. Let’s rely on no one but ourselves to create the environment in which our children can prosper and develop into the decent and contributing members of society we would like them to be. For as we know from Bilaam, because of our homes, he could not curse us.” (Balak – The Jewish Home, as it appeared in Straight Talk by Rabbi Shaul Rosenblatt on )

Balaam delivers a powerful message…. And it is receives even greater attention when seen as coming from the mouth of a non-Israelite. These are the words of the Eternal … presented through the mouth of a non-Israelite for the entire world to hear. True, as we read in so many places in Torah, the Israelites are not perfect. They make many errors and are constantly angering the Eternal. But their basic beliefs, the essence of their thinking, makes them a special people that have the power to survive over three thousand years. This is what Balaam saw from the mountain where he made these blessings.

It is only hoped that the homes of our communities… and the beliefs of the people within these homes … can also merit similar blessings.

Earl Sabes

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