Following are some of the ideas, insights and interpretations that emerge from our weekly Chumash learning group at the Young Israel of Oceanside, Long Island. We cite sources when possible. Some of our interpretations may derive from ideas we may have seen elsewhere, possibly without attribution. Or we may simply have forgotten the source. For this we apologize. We invite your comments, observations and participation.
King Balak of Moav joins with the nation of Midian (both located near the land of Israel and neither of whom is threatened by the Israelites) to hire Bilaam, the heathen diviner from far-off Mesopotamia (Bavel /Babylonia) in the East, to curse the Israelites [Note: the name Bilaam may mean devourer; destroyer; loner ]
Balak sends messengers to Bilaam who initially refuses because of God’s communication to him in a dream
Balak sends more prominent dignitaries with the promise of tremendous honor
Bilaam responds that even if Balak were to offer him “his house full of silver and gold”, he cannot transgress the word of God
Bilaam invites these emissaries to stay overnight in the hope that God will again appear to him in a dream
God does appear in a second dream and gives Bilaam free choice to go, but with certain restrictions
Incident of talking donkey
Instead of cursing, Bilaam pronounces powerful and poetic prophecies and blessings
Bilaam foretells the end of days
Bilaam and Balak part ways
Israelites behave immorally with the Moavite women who seduce them to worship pagan Baal-Peor (major Canaanite deity of thunder and fertility)
God becomes enraged and brings on a plague that eventually kills twenty four thousand people
Pinchas, grandson of Aharon, seeing Zimri of the tribe of Reuven together with a Midianite woman (Cozbi) publicly in flagrante delicto pierces a spear through both of them
Why is the Parsha named after an anti-Semite…?
…whose goal was to destroy the nation of Israel?
The Lubavitcher Rebbe answers that even the lowest elements need to be included in the Torah because ultimately these evil forces will be transformed into a force for good. Furthermore, notes the Rebbe, the parshiot of Chukas and Balak are usually read together on the same Shabbos, making the point that both the righteous (Chukas) and the ba’al teshuva (Balak) are possible paths for embracing God.
• Bilaam was given free choice. The Midrash notes that “whatever direction Man chooses to go, he is helped along” by God.
• A Parsha of “Reversals”, according to Professor Everett Foxx, in that…
A donkey becomes a kind of prophet
A prophet turns into a fool
Curses turn into blessings
• Linkage of Israel’s blessings with military successes (in last week’s Parsha)…Israel’s behavior at Baal-Peor is linked to Bilaam’s insidious advice.
• Recurring phrases and words:
1. Bilaam “I can only do whatever God says”
2. The Hebrew root word YSF, to resume/start anew. Franz Rosenzweig notes how the Torah uses the “device of recurring cues” to highlight for us the duplicity/arrogance of Bilaam in thinking that by waiting and by asking again he can sway God to modify or reverse His unequivocal opposition to Balak’s proposal. Bilaam also refuses to disclose that he is under Divine control. Balak resumes sending more honorable messengers after Bilaam rebuffs the first delegation. Bilaam tells the second, more impressive delegation to bide their time until God resumes the dialogue. Later in the incident of the talking donkey Bilaam resumes striking the donkey (without giving a thought to the bizarreness of arguing with a talking animal) and the unseen Angel of God resumes passing, standing in a narrow place, trying once again to save Bilaam from himself.
3. The phrase malach Hashem (angel of God) appears ten times during Bilaam’s encounter with the talking donkey. The word malach means messenger. Perhaps the malach Hashem can be understood as the universal positive force within each of us emanating from God. Perhaps the repetition of the phrase is meant to enlighten us about God’s ongoing actions to get us back on track, should we wander off. Even though Bilaam chose the evil alternative (to curse the Jewish nation), Divinely-inspired forces are still at work to give him one last chance to change his mind.
Bilaam’s Departure Triggers Divine Wrath
Bilaam asks Balak’s emissaries to wait overnight. In a dream, God tells him unequivocally not to go because the Jews are blessed. Balak, reasoning that Balaam is holding out for a larger fee, sends more prominent nobles offering more money. In a dream God tells Bilaam “Since it is to call you that the men have come, go with them”.
The exalted prophet, without waiting for his servants, rushes the next morning at daybreak to saddle his own donkey himself—hasin’a mekalkeles es hashura (hatred distorts one’s dignified behavior). God becomes angry when he sees Bilaam leaving with Balak’s emissaries. The question is why, since He told Bilaam it was okay to go!
Some commentaries reason that since God knows what is in the deepest recesses of one’s mind and heart He knew that Bilaam’s plan was to not follow His demand not to curse the Israelites. Others think that the cause of God’s anger can be found in the words “Ki holech who”(because Balaam is going).The use of the present form (holech) hints at Balaam’s (on)going, constant single-minded desire to curse Israel. Still others believe that Bilaam erred in his failure to immediately act on God’s permission to go (“kum laych etam”). Instead, he waited until the next morning.
Rabbi B.S. Jacobson cites other explanations:
Rabbi Isaac Erama (1420-1494) notes that Bilaam should have categorically refused Balak’s invitation the first time knowing full well that the request was totally unacceptable to God. When he pestered God a second time, God became angry but allowed him to [thinking that Balaam would not] follow his malicious urge and allowed him to make a fool of himself in the eyes of those he sought so desperately to impress.
Ramban (1194-1270) and Seforno (1475-1550) interpret “Em likro lecha…” to mean “if the intent was to be only a consultant or advisor, then go with them”. Bilaam should have told them of his limited role and capabilities. Instead he chose to participate with Balak in cursing the Israelites.
Rav Jacob Tzvi Mecklenburg (1785-1865) observes that when God tells Bilaam he can go, the Torah uses the phrase “lech eetam” meaning to just walk along, separate from them—a formal accompaniment out of respect. Similarly, the Vilna Gaon (1720-1797) explains that the phrase “lech eetam” means to go but not to do exactly what they want. Instead, Bilaam gets up early, “Vayelech eem…” (“…and he went with”).The Hebrew word eem (instead of eetam) communicates that when Bilaam went he was of one mind with them to curse the Jewish nation.
A Talking Donkey
Flavius Josephus, the first century Romano-Jewish historian cited by Rabbi J.H. Hertz, notes that “…in regard to its narrative, readers are free to think what they please”.
• Nothing is impossible for God.
• Perkei Avos teaches us that the talking donkey was created on day six of Creation, just before sunset, as His creative activity drew to a close. This is one of the miracles that were incorporated into the Divine cosmic plan to be brought forth at the appropriate time.
• Rambam (1135-1204) and Saddya Gaon (882-942), noting Bilaam’s seeming lack of surprise at a talking animal, think that the incident was a prophetic dream or a night vision.
• Shadal (1800-1865) points out that the text does not say the donkey spoke only that God opened the mouth of the donkey. This braying donkey and an at-first-invisible Angel may be a projective identification on Bilaam’ s part, employing words and dialogue that reflect his anger and internal struggle over whether or not to go and curse the Israelites.
• Torah’s mockery of human gullibility, of those believing in magic. The mighty prophet Bilaam with his sorcerer’s power is reduced to arguing with a talking donkey without expressing any surprise at this phenomenon and also unable to see what the donkey perceived .Picture the man and his animal arguing and the animal prevailing in his reasoning! The Torah wishes to discredit superstition and belief in magic. The lesson to be learned is that only God has the power.
• The talking donkey addresses its master to save him, in contrast to the talking snake in the Garden of Eden that sought to persuade Eve to sin.
Is Bilaam a Prophet or a Magician?
He appears to be a learned, well-known non-Jewish follower and legitimate prophet of God, and a person admired by some Jewish commentaries.
A Midrash notes that God gave prophecy to men like Bilaam and Job so that the other nations could not complain that God was only accessible to Israel.
Others see him as wicked, with his haughtiness, his greed, his being responsible for Israel’s “whoring” at Baal-Peor, and his attempt to “wait God out” to grant him permission to curse Israel. Nechama Leibowitz describes him as hankering after prophecy, striving through magical means to force it down from Heaven. He stands in contrast to the prophets of Israel who do not run after prophecy and often resist it’s being granted to them.
Abrabanel (1437-1508) thinks Bilaam evolved from a heathen seer to a true prophet. He initially pursues divination to bring God around to do his bidding, but ultimately is forced to bless the Israelites in spite of himself. In his first attempt he introduces both theme and mission. He seems in awe of the historic continuity of the Jewish people. On the second try he responds to his employer Balak’s complaints. He again attributes his prophetic abilities to himself, refusing to acknowledge that it is God Who puts words of blessing and not curses into his mouth. On the third try he saw (i.e., realized and understood) that God cannot be influenced by sorcery and that it was His desire that Israel not be cursed. Bilaam’s attitude changes and without any preliminary invocation he spontaneously prophesizes blessings.
Rabbi Menachem Leibtag argues that initially Bilaam appears to be a God-fearing individual who twice informs Balak’s emissaries that he will not veer from God’s command not to curse the Israelites. But his true character becomes evident only after he leaves Balak to return to Mesopotamia. It appears that after returning home he then makes the long journey back to Moav where he advises Balak to send the local women to seduce the Israelite men to pagan worship. Although he was unable to curse the Israelites, he shrewdly reasoned that by causing the Israelites to sin he could trigger God’s wrath to punish/curse them. He mobilized his God-given capabilities for evil—unlike Avraham Avinu who used his resources for good. Furthermore, reasons Rabbi Leibtag, Israel’s existence and mandate to bring God and His ethics to the world represented a threat to Bilaam’s livelihood--his professional monopoly on communicating God’s message to the nations of world.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks cites Midrashim that praise Bilaam’s prophetic skills as being comparable to (or even greater than) Moshe’s. But Bilaam’s character flaw is in being a man without loyalties and without a people (Bilaam= blo am).Because he had no commitments he was a “hired hand” whose services could be bought to be used without concern for justice or for the lives of those he affected. Concludes Rabbi Sacks that Bilaam is the classic example of the individual who is endowed with extraordinary intellectual and spiritual gifts but whose pride and arrogance lead them to believe that they can get away with great crimes. Bilaam’ s plan “… to entice the Israelites into sin even after he knew that God was on their side is a measure of how the greatest can sometimes fall to become the lowest of the low”.
Rabbi Günter Plaut concludes that the text is “less the tale of a pagan, be he prophet or sorcerer, than a paean of God and His affection for the children of Israel.”
When the two finally meet, Balak brings Bilaam to Bamos-baal, a place named for the pagan god of fertility and material plentitude. Balak hoped to provoke Bilaam to attack the Israelites economically [Rav S.R. Hirsch]. At Bilaam’s instruction, seven altars are built upon which are offered seven bullocks and seven rams. God meets Bilaam, and instructs him what to say; He “puts a word in Bilaam’s mouth”. Upon returning to meet Balak, Bilaam sees the camp of Israel and, impressed with the numbers, the power and the unity of the nation, launches into a beautiful description of the historic continuity and uniqueness of the people of Israel including “Hain ahm l’vadad yishkon u’vagoyim lo yis’chashav” [“This is a people that shall dwell alone and shall not be reckoned among the nations”].
Unhappy with these words of blessing instead of the curses he expected, Balak decides to move to the field of Zophim, where only a part of the nation will be visible. Balak hopes that Bilaam will attack the Israelites’ spiritual power and foresight [Zophim means watch or overlook]. Again seven altars are constructed and offerings brought and again God meets Bilaam and “put a word in his mouth”.Bilaam refers to Israel’s recent history and proclaims God’s strength vis a vis Balak who is merely a man. God remains resolute in his roles of Defender of and Dispenser-of-Blessings to His people. No magic can prevail against Israel: “Ki lo nachash b’Yaakov v’lo kesem b’Yisrael” [“No black magic can be effective against Jacob and no occult powers against Israel” or “there is no divination in Jacob and no sorcery in Israel”.] Furthermore, He causes to be announced what He plans to do: “Now it is said of Jacob and of Israel ‘what hath God wrought’.” [Note: the phrase in bold was the first telegraph message sent by inventor Samuel F.B. Morse on May 24,1844 over an experimental line from Washington, D.C. to Baltimore, Md. It was witnessed by members of Congress.]
An enraged Balak agrees to allow Bilaam one more chance and moves to the top of Peor, named after the pagan god of sexual license. [It was Balak’s hope that somehow Bilaam would undermine the chastity and purity of the nation.] Again seven altars are built and offerings brought. But this time Bilaam--inspired by Ruach Ha’kodesh-- spontaneously prophesizes that no harm would befall the Israelites because of the purity of their family life: “Ma tovu ohalecha Yaakov, mishkenosecha Yisrael” [“Your tents are so good O Yaakov, your dwellings O Israel”]. An even more enraged Balak sends Bilaam packing. But before he leaves, Bilaam offers a vision of Israel’s future including “Darach kochav meYaakov, v’kam shevet meYisrael” (A star shall shoot forth from Yaakov [King David? Messiah? metaphor for ordinary Jew?Bar Kochva?]; and a staff will arise from Israel).
Both Balak and Bilaam then return to their respective homes.
Do Curses Work?
Rabbi Plaut views curses as prayers to God asking for fulfillment of the petitioner’s wish.
Rabbi Dr. J. H. Hertz notes that the Babylonian/Mesopotamia religion was filled with demonology. Certain individuals had the power to change the will of the deities and to secure prosperity or bring on calamity via their spells and incantations. A magician/sorcerer/wizard could predict the future, discover secrets and either bless or bring ruin.
But the Torah discredits superstition and belief in magic. So why did God try to stop Bilaam or even care about his curses?
In answer of this question, Nechama Leibowitz cites…
• A number of commentaries who think that stopping Bilaam’s evil plan was meant to teach him a lesson.
• Joseph Ibn Kaspi who notes the psychological (rather than actual) damage to the object of a curse.
• Abrabanel who reasons that cursing the Israelites would have catalyzed the surrounding nations to do battle with Israel on the strength of these curses.
• Shadal’s view that Bilaam’s curses would have prompted Moav and its King Balak to boast of their success in warding off the Israelites.
• Anselm Astruc (author of Medreshei Torah commentary, who was murdered in an attack on the Jewish community of Barcelona in 1391) thinks that the inhabitants of the land (and even the Jews themselves) would (incorrectly) attribute any of the Israel’s miseries to Bilaam’s curse.
A Timeless Message
The name Balak is related to another Hebrew word that means “anyone”. The name Bilaam can also mean “a man without faith” [blee emunah]. The story of these two men is the story of Anyman, anytime. It is the story of one who, perhaps lacking faith, seeks to harm others, to do evil, and to be excessively greedy and cruel. The optimistic message is that God in His mysterious and caring ways often seeks to block this self-destructive behavior [i.e., Bilaam’s dream communication from God]. And even if one still exercises one’s free choice and continues down this evil narrow path, God still offers another chance [i.e., angel, a positive Divine force, blocking the narrow path Bilaam took].
When Bilaam finally prepares to curse the Israelites, God “puts a word in in Bilaam’s mouth”. Scholars debate the meaning of this expression. Some think that it means that he was guided from above not to curse the Israelites. Others maintain that it was like a hook put in the mouth of a fish.Bilaam struggled like a fish on a hook; he struggled to curse but was forced to say blessings in spite of himself. During the first two parables it is God that tells Bilaam what to say. But the third time, it is Bilaam who speaks spontaneously and positively about the nation of Israel and its future.
Bilaam resisted the Good, but it was divinely thrust upon him. By acting, behaving and speaking positively his character began to change to a point where he spoke positively of his own accord. Perhaps this is a living example of “Metoch shelo lishma, ba lishma”(“for out of not for its own sakecomes for its own sake”)—a lesson for us all.
“Hayn Aam L’vadad Yishkon Uvagoyem Lo Yischashav” (“This is a People That Shall Dwell Alone and Shall Not be Reckoned Among The Nations.”)
In his book The Prime Ministers, Yehudah Avner describes Prime Minister Begin’s Saturday night Bible study group and its discussion of the meaning of this verse:
• Golda Meir sees in this a prediction of Israel’s loneliness and absence of family at the United Nations
• Prof Ephraim Auerbach interprets this as Israel’s voluntarily setting itself apart
• Nechama Leibowitz notes the grammar (reflexive form) makes the meaning does not reckon itself among the nations
• Prof Yaakov Katz, citing Marcus Jastrow, interprets this to mean does not conspire against other nations
• Prof. Harel Fisch focuses on the uniqueness of Jewish people in blending Peoplehood (Exodus from Egypt) and religion (Mt Sinai experience).This uniqueness distinguishes Jewish people from other nations and, therefore, we will always dwell alone.
• Srulik opines that Bilaam’s prophecy, no matter how understood, stamps the Jewish nation as eternally abnormal among nations—undermining the Zionist dream of our being “normal” like all other nations.
• Dr. Chaim Gevaryahu wonders why Zionist founders thought Jewish self-determination would end anti-Semitism. Bilaam the anti-Semite underscored our fundamental uniqueness that, unfortunately, feeds anti-Semitism.
• Menachem Begin sees the refusal to assimilate starting with Avraham Avinu who maintained his distinctiveness. The fulfillment of religious national destiny means there can be no separation between religion and State in Israel. “Cease dwelling alone and we cease to exist.”
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks defines the phrase to mean that we are a people “…prepared to stand alone if need be, living by its own moral code, having the courage to be different and to take the road less travelled”. We are a distinctive people defined by our shared memories and collective responsibilities having survived and capable of again surviving even in exile and dispersion because our society is built on justice and human dignity. “Israel uniquely became a society before it was a state. It had laws before it had a land. It was a people before it was a nation, that is, a political entity… Israel’s strength lies not in nationalism but in building a society based on justice and human dignity”.