Balak: When the Jews First Hit the News

There is one thing that is staggeringly missing in this week’s Torah reading. What is it: Jews.

For the first time in our national consciousness, we are introduced to the concept of us being talked about. We aren’t doing any of the talking. We are just talked about. So much so that the rabbis when speaking about who wrote what part of the bible, write: “Moses wrote his book, and the Parasha of Bilaam”. No one was bothered by who wrote about creation, Noah’s ark, or Joseph and the brothers, the question of who wrote the story of Bila’am was not a simple one. Like a child who blushes when she or he realizes they are the subject of the conversation of the adults in their lives, the Jewish people suddenly realize they are hot news. Why? Why does the Torah tell us all these? What message does Bila’am have for us? Anyway, who cares about what this outsider has to say about us?! Apparently, we are told we should care.

He took up his parable and said, “Balak the king of Moab has brought me from Aram, from the mountains of the east [saying], ‘Come, curse Jacob for me and come invoke wrath against Israel.’ How can I curse whom God has not cursed, and how can I invoke wrath if the Lord has not been angered? For from their beginning, I see them as mountain peaks, and I behold them as hills; it is a nation that will dwell alone, and will not be reckoned among the nations. Who counted the dust of Jacob or the number of a fourth of [or, of the seed of] Israel? May my soul die the death of the upright and let my end be like his.” (Bamidbar 23)

If you were a Jew in the desert, for the past 37 years, you probably were not too excited about who you are. Nothing too exciting since receiving the Torah at Sinai. Lots of complaining, bickering, fights, plagues that come as punishments, and walking around in circles. Suddenly, an outsider looks at you, and when you pick up the paper you see “May my soul die the death of the upright and let my end be like his.” Wow.

Bila’am’s words aren’t just external observations of the Jewish people, they are about the special relationship between God and the Jewish people:

He does not look at evil in Jacob, and has seen no perversity in Israel; the Lord, his God, is with him, and he has the King’s friendship. God has brought them out of Egypt with the strength of His loftiness. For there is no divination in Jacob and no soothsaying in Israel. In time it will be said to Jacob and Israel, ‘What has God wrought?’ Behold, a people that rises like a lioness (See Malbim) and raises itself like a lion. It does not lie down until it eats its prey and drinks the blood of the slain.”

Bila’am continues to prophesize what the rabbis believe is a cornerstone of Jewish faith, the prophecy about the Messiah, the destruction of Amalek, and the end of the days.

How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel! They extend like streams, like gardens by the river, like aloes which the Lord planted, like cedars by the water. Water will flow from his wells, and his seed shall have abundant water; his king shall be raised over Agag, and his kingship exalted. God, Who has brought them out of Egypt with the strength of His loftiness He shall consume the nations which are his adversaries, bare their bones and dip His arrows [into their blood]. (chapter 34)

What is it about Bila’am? Of all the great prophets, rabbis, righteous men and women God couldn’t find someone better to deliver this message with?

Why does the Torah give us these most important messages thought someone who is believed to be corrupt, bribable and is not ever remotely Jewish?

What kind of message is the Torah giving us in this week’s Parsha? Why is it that some of the most important things we are reading about ourselves are being read of in the third person?

The answer comes in the final and one of the last sentences Bila’am has to say:

He crouches and lies like a lion and like a lioness; who will dare rouse him? Those who bless you shall be blessed, and those who curse you shall be cursed.

The Jewish people have a unique place in this world. So many times, we would really love to keep to ourselves. To not be noticed. How many times do we see ourselves so disproportionality discussed in the news and just wish there would be a segment now on, say the India, who with their 1.3 billion people are at least 500 times bigger than we are, or perhaps about Brazil with its 211 million residents. A discussion of the 50 million Salafi Muslims, who most people don’t even know exist, or perhaps just to the recent social media bottle cap challenge. Something. Anything. And yet we are told that our lives extend beyond our small community. We are taught that beyond our complaints on whether the Manna is good enough food, how much meat we will have for dinner, or where our next jug or water will come from, there is a world that is looking, a world in which what we do and who we are , really matter. The vision for the Jewish people has an impact extending far beyond our little here are now.

Bila’am goes on to recognize that role:

I see it, but not now; I behold it, but not soon. A star has gone forth from Jacob, and a staff will arise from Israel which will crush the princes of Moab and uproot all the sons of Seth. Edom shall be possessed, and Seir shall become the possession of his enemies, and Israel shall triumph. A ruler shall come out of Jacob, and destroy the remnant of the city.” When he saw Amalek, he took up his parable and said, “Amalek was the first of the nations, and his fate shall be everlasting destruction.” When he saw the Kenite, he took up his parable and said, “How firm is your dwelling place, and your nest is set in a cliff. For if Kain is laid waste, how far will Assyria take you captive?” He took up his parable and said, Alas! Who can survive these things from God? Ships will come from the Kittites and afflict Assyria and afflict those on the other side, but he too will perish forever.”

The role of the Jewish people is one that impacts every nation and every people. As must as we would wish to be relegated to our tranquil world of  Hamen Taschen, apple and honey, and our family Shabbat dinner, we will never live a quiet national life.

Parashat Balak brings with it good news and bad news. The good news is that God things about us and that we really matter. The bad news is that everyone is looking. No matter how quiet we would like our lives to be, we are on stage, and should be living that life Bila’am saw from the outside. The life of “how good are your tents O, Jacob”

Rabbi Yehuda Leib Alter, the great rabbi of Gur(1847-1905) explains (Sfat Emet, Shmot 5’652)that the lesson of Parashat Balak begins with Balak thinking this is a people to over run, a small, inconsequential people. What he learns by the end of the Parshat is very different. As the Midrash says, this is like someone who saw a plant, meant to uproot it, and as he dug deeper and deep saw how stiff the rout was. These are not a people that were meant to vanish. As JFK famously said about Israel:” “Israel was not created in order to disappear- Israel will endure and flourish. It is the child of hope and the home of the brave. It can neither be broken by adversity nor demoralized by success. It carries the shield of democracy and it honors the sword of freedom.”

May we be blessed with shining the light of “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel! They extend like streams, like gardens by the river, like aloes which the Lord planted, like cedars by the water. Water will flow from his wells, and his seed shall have abundant water.” May we live up to the words Bila’am said about us, against his will and next time we are in the news, may it only be for good reasons.

Shabbat Shalom

About the Author
The writer is an eleventh-generation rabbi, teacher, and author. He has written Sacred Days on the Jewish Holidays, Poupko on the Parsha, and hundreds of articles published in five languages. He is the president of EITAN--The American Israeli Jewish Network
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