This week’s haftarah is associated with the parashah because Micah recounts Balak’s plot against the children of Israel: “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 God.” (Micah 6:5) Micah wanted his people to know that Balak and Balaam sought their physical and spiritual demise, but that God foiled their plans. Each time Balaam, a prophet or sorcerer of considerable power, attempted to curse Israel and bring them down, God caused a blessing to come forth instead.
Balaam’s blessings so resonated with the sages that they actually debated including his words in the recitation of the Shema which we recite each day: “Rabbi Abahu bar Zutrati said in the name of Rabbi Yehudah ben Zvida: They (earlier sages) wanted to include the section of Balak [namely, Balaam’s blessings] in the Shema’, but they did not do so because it would have been too great a burden for the congregation. [The davening would be too long.] Why [then did they want to insert it]? Because it contains the words, ‘God who brought them out of Egypt.’ (Numbers 23:22) [The sages responded:] If that was the reason then let us say the section regarding the prohibition of usury (Lev. 25:35-38) or the section discussing the just use of weights (Lev. 19:23-27) which also mention the exodus from Egypt [instead]? Rather, Rabbi Yose ben Avin offered an alternative reason: [It is] because it contains the verse, ‘He couched, he lay down as a lion, and as a lioness; who shall rouse him up?’ (Numbers 24:9) [This “poetic” verse reminded these sages of the verses “when you rise up and when you lie down” found in two of the passages of the Shema.] [The sages responded:] Then, let us say this one verse and no more [so that the prayer service will not be too long]? He responded:] We have a tradition that every section which our master, Moses, has divided off [made into distinctive paragraphs] we may divide off, but that which our master, Moses, has not divided off, we may not divide off.” (adapted from Berachot 12b)
In other words, if Balaam’s prophecy had not so long, we might have found ourselves reciting it every morning and night to remind us of the redemption from Egypt and/or the obligation to recite the Shema twice daily!
Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter (the 2nd Gerer Rebbe,19th-20th century Poland), also known as the Sfat Emet, offered up a deeper rationale for including Balaam’s words in the Shema. He asserted that Balaam, Israel’s enemy, taught us an important “Jewish” lesson. Our lives are not directed by nature or time: “Lo, there is no magic in Jacob, no divining in Israel” (Numbers 23:23). The essence of this Torah message is that we have the ability to shape our own lives and destinies and should not live as if they are controlled by fate. How we act and what we do determines what our lives will look like and how we live is testimony to the mission God granted us.
As God’s agents, it is our duty to master and overcome the natural order to survive and thrive. In this role, we testify to the world that God indeed is the Creator and Master of nature. Balaam’s blessings, then, according to the Sefat Emet, remind us of our partnership with God. And this message, in itself, would have been enough to include it in the Shema. (See Sefat Emet, Balak 5654-5; Yeshivat Or Etzion ed. p. 252)