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Sometimes We Need a Reminder 

Balaam is not a heroic figure in the Jewish tradition, but there is a bit of irony in saying that. Brought by Balak to curse the children of Israel, Balaam is bound by God’s mandate not to do so. Instead, each time he tries to curse them only words of praise spill from his lips. As strange as this situation might seem, his words of praise have played an inspirational role in the Jewish tradition. In fact, some of his most striking praise has found its way into siddur and is recited daily upon entering the Beit Knesset (the synagogue):

Mah Tovu Ohalekha Yaakov, Mishkenotekha Yisrael
How goodly are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel! (Numbers 24:5)

All said, the following Talmudic statement still strikes us as more than a bit odd:

Rabbi Abbahu ben Zutrati said [in the name of] Rabbi Yehudah bar Zevida: ‘They [the Sages] wanted to include the section on Balak in the reading of the Shema but did not because it would create a burden on the community.’ (Bavli Berakhot 12b)

In other words, these sages record that if the words of Balaam had not been exceedingly long (Rashi), they might have been included in the Shema, perhaps, even instead of the third paragraph on Tzitzit. The Yerushalmi, the Talmud of Eretz Yisrael, cites three possible reasons for the inclusion of the Balaam’s words:

Rabbi Huna said: “Because it has written in it: ‘’lying down’ and rising up’” [See the verse: ‘They crouch, they lie down like a lion, like the king of beasts, who dare rouse them?’ (Numbers 24:9) This verse is seen alluding to the requirement to recite the Shema both evening and morning.]

Rabbi Yossi the son of Rabbi Bun said: “Because it is written in them: ‘Going out [of Egypt] and ‘the kingship [of God’].” [The paragraph could then be seen as a reminder of the exodus from Egypt. This is one of the reasons the paragraph on tzitzit was included.]

Said Rabbi Elazar: Because this episode (the story of Balaam) is written about in the Torah, [as well as] in the Prophets (See Micah 6:5) and in the Writings (See Nehemiah 13:1-2). (Yerushalmi Berakhot 1:4, Leiden Manuscript – Sussman ed. 3c)

Ultimately this paragraph was not included in the recitation of the Shema, but it is nevertheless interesting that the sages showed no reticence in using the words of someone whose original intention was to curse the children of Israel, as a source for inspiration. Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak HaKohen Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of Israel and one of the seminal Jewish thinkers of the 20th century, took up this question:

The foundation of the Torah is the acceptance of the yoke of the kingdom of Heaven, namely, the Unity of God, and this idea goes hand in hand with the acceptance of God’s commandments,  for bringing forth the light of this Oneness can only be accomplished through carrying out the commandments… This is Israel’s strength…. And it is the mitzvot which establish Israel’s existence as a people before God… This points to the significance of Parshat Balak which speaks of the eternal nature of Israel [necessary for accomplishing htis purpose. (Adapted from Ein Ayah Berachot 12)

Sometimes it takes others to help us recognize our significance. Jews, being a minority, often fail to realize the importance of their own tradition ahd their purpose in the world and, at times, even feel it a burden to be aJew because it makes them different from everyone else. That is, until a Balaam comes along to remind us of our unique privilege and purpose.

About the Author
Mordechai Silverstein is a teacher of Torah who has lived in Jerusalem for over 30 years. He specializes in helping people build personalized Torah study programs.
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