Parshat Balak (Numbers 22:2 – 25:9)
The People of Israel were supposed to have crossed through the country of Moav, ruled by Balak the king, on the way to the Holy Land. But Balak feels uneasy with the idea that the Jews would go through his territory, and perhaps even wreak havoc on the way, so he decides to prevent them from entering.
However, instead of confronting them with conventional weaponry, he decides to recruit one of the greatest prophets of the day, Bilam, whom he hires to curse the Jewish people. Despite Bilam’s attempts to curse the people from various lookout points, God turns every intended cursing site into a blessing.
Only a handful of portions in the Torah are named for people. We find that in three cases, portions are named for non-Jews: Noah, Yitro and Balak. The first two men were dignified and deserving of this honor. The Torah remarks that Noah was a complete and righteous person, and that Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law, came to the Israelite camp in the desert after being inspired by what God had done to save the Jewish people. He also merited to see his recommendation to Moshe to delegate authority accepted and implemented.
Yet Parshat Balak is named for an evil king who wanted to destroy the Jewish people – a sort of ancient Ayatollah. It stands to reason that the Jews were revolted by the man and his ways. Why, then, did the Torah find it appropriate to name the portion after him?
A deeper reading into the portion reveals that the same Bilam who tried to curse Israel ultimately blessed it, and those blessings became timeless spiritual heirlooms of the Jewish people. One of Bilam’s best-known expressions is “How goodly are your tents, Yaakov, your homes, Yisrael” (Bamidbar / Numbers 24:5). We would be hard-pressed to find a siddur that doesn’t begin the morning prayer service with this verse, and many synagogues have even decked their walls with illustrations of this same verse.
Bilam expresses his great amazement at the tents of Yaakov and the homes of Yisrael. What are these tents and homes? Our rabbis interpreted this verse as hinting to batei midrash and synagogues, or to regular houses whose openings are situated in a way that preserves the privacy of those who dwell within.
In another verse, Bilam says:
A star has gone forth from Yaakov, and a staff will arise from Yisrael.
– Bamidbar / Numbers 24:17
This verse is symbolic of the Bar-Kochba Revolt, and more than anything else, it expresses the belief in Israel’s resurgence after a long exile.
I had always asked myself how we could have ever needed those from outside the tribe to tell us the good things about ourselves, things that the Jews themselves never mustered enough courage to say. Do we need someone else to tell us what happens in the batei midrash throughout the time we have been united as a nation? Have we grown blind, unable to see our nation’s wonderful spiritual creations, which were capable of blossoming in the dire conditions of life in north Africa and eastern Europe?
And with regard to the “star” that went forth from Yaakov – are we not witnessing an unprecedented wonder, namely, the rebirth of a nation from the ashes after two thousand years of exile? Do we need any more evidence to be convinced that the country in which we take such pride today is the realization of a dream dreamed by countless generations? Do we still need a “Bilam” to remind us of this miracle?
It could be that those who are engulfed in the tribulations of everyday life and are powerless to escape it are also unable to see all of the goodness that exists in their lives, and in us. That is why we need someone from outside to come and give us a wake-up call.
Those sitting in the beit hamidrash aren’t always appreciative of what transpires on the national level, while those at the helm of the nation may disregard the heavenly melodies emerging from the batei midrash. Perhaps this is why we need someone from outside – even if that person is hostile toward us – to show us our reflection in the mirror. Balak was evil, and he tried his best to harm us. But his conduct taught us to reflect on ourselves in a way that enabled us see matters in a new light.
We could come up with an array of solutions for the issue of the ultra-Orthodox in Israel serving in the IDF. The source of the conflict lies in one group’s clear indignation with what the other group is doing. One group doesn’t recognize the importance of “your homes, Yisrael”, and therefore scorns Torah study. The other group doesn’t truly respect the State of Israel and its institutions, and therefore, it doesn’t attach any value to sharing the burden of the country’s obligations.
Only when we escape this bubble and take in the full picture that Bilam, the client of Balak, drew for us – the world of Torah combined with national sovereignty – will we grasp the importance of these forces and find a true and just resolution.
[Translated from the Hebrew by Ilan Yavor]
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