The connection between this week’s haftarah and the Torah reading is obvious. The parasha recounts Balaam’s attempts to curse the children of Israel only to have God thwart his attempts and turn his curses into blessings. Generations later, the prophet Micah recounts this episode as a reminder to the children of Israel that God deserves their gratitude: “My people, remember what Balak king of Moab plotted against you and how Balaam son of Beor responded to him. [Recall your passage] from Shittim to Gilgal and you will recognize the gracious acts of the Lord.” (6:5)
Micah expected the memory of this past event to rekindle his people’s faith in God. In a drashah on Parshat Balak, Rabbi Shalom Noach Barezovsky, the Slonimer Rebbe (20th century Jerusalem) asks why of all the events that Micah could have cited, did he choose the story of Balaam for this purpose. He sees in the story of Balaam as a source of existential meaning intended to be relevant to the faith life of all future generations.
Barezovsky explains that the Zohar (13th century Spanish mystical commentary) views this story hyperbolically as the worst event ever to befall the children of Israel, since Balaam’s intention was to eternally curse the Jewish people. God, however, prevented this and transformed Balaam’s curses into blessings. This outcome led Barezovsky to seek to determine what it is that distinguishes blessings from curses, and to project this understanding onto the Balaam story.
To be blessed, he asserts, is to be connected to God (devekut) while to be cursed is to have that connection broken. Balaam, in his desire to curse Israel, sought to destroy this connection between God and Israel. To accomplish his goal, he attempted to destroy Israel’s moral life and in doing so, their connection to God. On a Jewish existential level, this would be the ultimate curse. God, of course, foiled Balaam’s dastardly attempt to destroy the people’s link to the Divine. )See Netivot Shalom Parshat Balak – Ami Z’chor Na)
What Barazovsky has done is to transform the Balaam story into an allegory about the life of the modern Jew. Balaam is no longer just a character from the ancient past. He represents those forces which would strip the Jew of his or her connectedness to the Jewish tradition and as a consequence, God. God, however, will not let this happen. He will provide the requisite strength to overcome these inimical forces. How? According to Berezovsky, the remedy is to have steadfast faith in God. If one has faith, God will never be far away.