Weekly Reading Insights

Balak 5762

Overview of the Weekly Reading: Balak
To be read on the Shabbat of 12 Tammuz, 5762 (June 22)

Torah: Numbers 22:2-25:9
Haftorah: Michah 5:6-6:8 (mentions Billam, Balak, and their plots)
Pirkei Avot: Chapter Six, (Chapter Five outside of Israel)

Stats: Balak contains 0 positive mitzvot and 0 prohibitive mitzvot. Among the Weekly Readings,
ranks 34 out of 54 in number of verses, 33 in number of words, and 35 in number of letters

Parshat Balak opens with Balak, king of Moab, hiring Balaam, the gentile prophet, to curse the Jews. Despite Balaam's numerous sacrifices and attempts to curse the Jews, all he succeeds in doing is blessing the Jews! When Balaam and Balak realize the futility of trying to curse the Jews, they decide to try to cause the Jews to sin and thus arouse G-d's anger toward them. The parsha concludes telling how many of the Jews sinned with the Moabite women, worshipped their idolatry, and were punished subsequently with a plague. One of the tribal princes even sinned publicly, but was killed by Pinchas, the grandson of Aaron, whose act of zealousness simultaneously staved the plague.


"He has not beheld any wrong in Jacob, nor has he seen evil in Israel: The L-rd his G-d is with him, and the glory of the king dwells among him." (23:21)

It states in the holy Zohar that "The Holy One, Blessed Be He, the Torah and Israel are one." The same way one cannot pick G-d or His Torah apart by saying, "This particular verse of the Torah doesn't appeal to me," so too, should we approach our fellow Jew, treating him with respect and acknowledging his importance to the Jewish People as a whole."

(Rabbi Yitzchak of Vorka)



Selected with permission from the five-volume English edition of Ohr HaChaim: the Torah Commentary of Rabbi Chaim Ben Attar, as translated and annotated by Eliyahu Munk.
The holy Rabbi Chayim ben Moses Attar was born in Sale, Western Morocco, on the Atlantic in 1696. His immortal commentary on the Five Books Of Moses, Or Hachayim, was printed in Venice in 1741, while the author was on his way to the Holy Land. He acquired a reputation as a miracle worker, hence his title "the holy," although some apply this title only to his Torah commentary.

"G-d put words in Bileam's mouth, etc." (23:5)

Although most commentators have already treated this verse exhaustively, they have also left some room for our comments.

G-d wanted to use this opportunity to reveal part of the future and to mention the wonderful things that would happen to Israel at that time. He was particularly interested that this future be revealed to the Gentile nations by their own prophet.
This is why He chose Bileam as His instrument to predict both Israel's eventual greatness and the other nations eventual downfall at the hands of Israel. When the Gentile nations would be able to note that one of their own had predicted all this it would impress them all the more.

Due to the negative spiritual influences Bileam had surrounded himself with, the Holy Spirit which would enable him to foretell the future could not come to rest on him; not only this, but the words of G-d themselves are inherently sacred and not entrusted to a member of an impure nation. This is why G-d had to resort to a special stratagem so that the words of holiness would not be spoken in impure surroundings.

G-d constructed a barrier between the power of the speaker and the words he spoke, and the "mouth of the pig." This is what the Torah means when it writes: "G-d put a thing, inside Bileam's mouth." The thing was the artificial barrier between G-d's holy words and Bileam's mouth. In this way Bileam's mouth was converted into a domain all by itself, divorced form Bileam the person.

When the Torah continued "and so you shall speak," (ve ko tedaber) the meaning is that with the help of this barrier in his mouth Bileam would be able to speak the words of G-d. The Zohar volume three page 210 writes that the word ko (and so) is an allusion to something sacred. Students of the Kabbala will understand what I mean.

An essay from Rabbi Shaul Yosef Leiter


Balak is the name of a non-Jewish king who attempted to destroy the Jewish people. How can the Torah name a portion after such an evil person? The Lubavitcher Rebbe points out that the answer lies in what is written in the Talmud (Sotah 47a). There it says that Balak, the king of Moab, was the ancestor of Ruth the Moabite, who was the ancestor of King David, and from whom eventually will come the Mashiach (speedily in our days!).
Thus, Balak represents the transformation of darkness to light: the metamorphosis of the idolatrous kingdom of Moab to the sacred kingdom of David and Mashiach. Just as Balak was transformed from evil to good, darkness to light, we too are reminded that if we make the effort, every obstacle can be overcome and the light revealed.

Similarly, we see that the portion speaks mostly about the non-Jewish prophet, Balaam, whom Balak had hired to curse the Jews. Since this is so, why is the portion named after Balak and not after Balaam, the main antagonist? The simple answer is that Balak was the initiator who hired Balaam in the first place. This same truth can be applied to ourselves. It is sometimes easy for us to discount our impact on others. "What they do is their problem," we excuse ourselves. "After all, we only gave them a little bit of advice!" This portion teaches us that we must be very careful even with a small bit of advice. As the Sh'lah points out, Balak used the words "Ara li"- "curse for me." This can also be translated as 'curse me'. Because of his careless speech, this is in fact what actually occurred--Balak himself was cursed.

Balak sends a message to Balaam asking him to curse this large nation that had come out of Egypt. Why? Because they are "greater" than me (Num. 22:6). The Sh'lah explains a deeper dimension of these words. The phrase can be read like this: "Their greatness comes from me!" What is the greatness of the Jewish people that derives from Balak? King David and Mashiach, who descended from Balak himself! This too connects to our previous point.

After accepting Balak's commission to try to curse the Jewish people, Balaam travels by donkey to meet with Balak. On the way an angel, armed with a sword, blocks the road; however, the angel is visible only to Balaam's donkey, and not to Balaam himself. Balaam's leg is crushed (ibid. 22:25) as the donkey struggles to protect them both. Finally, when Balaam complains to his donkey for its intransigence, the donkey opens his mouth and begins to speak (ibid. 22:28). The Oneg Shabbat comments that the world thought that the power of Moses was his faculty of speech, his ability to mesmerize the Jewish people and even G-d. Balaam, who was renowned for his magical oratorical abilities, was therefore called upon to counter Moses and the Jews. What did G-d do? He demonstrated that if some are so infatuated with Balaam and his speaking ability, well, then even a donkey can speak.....
The Kli Yakar sums it up nicely. So as not to be proud of his prophetic ability, Balaam was warned not to speak about the Jews without permission. He was supposed to take a lesson from his donkey. His donkey certainly did not deserve to see an angel or to speak; nevertheless, it did, because it was important for the Jewish people and G-d's grand plan. Similarly, Balaam's prophetic ability was granted only because it was purposeful for the Jewish people.

Although the Almighty warned Balaam that he may not even speak without G-d's permission, Balaam repeatedly tries to curse the Jewish people, but to Balak's dismay, only blessings are uttered. "How goodly are your tents Jacob, and your dwelling places Israel" (ibid. 24:5). Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi writes that the different words used to describe the Jewish people in this verse are appropriate. 'Yaacov' (Jacob), which is connected to the word 'ekev' or heel, alludes to a person who works on his feet all day to make a living . On the other hand, the letters that compose 'Yisrael' (Israel), can be rearranged as 'li rosh' 'a head for me.'
This refers to a person who is always learning Torah, which requires constant use of his head. Essentially his trade is Torah study. For the above reasons, 'tents' are more appropriately associated with Jacob. When a working person studies, it is not his full time occupation, so his living space is a just a tent, a temporary accommodation. Whereas concerning a full time learner, the phrase "dwelling places" applies, for this is his true and permanent abode. The previous Lubavitcher Rebbe adds our times, the final days of the exile, is a time when extreme self sacrifice is required in order to overcome the obstacles that confront us. Yet despite the hardships, we are bidden to maintain a true Jewish lifestyle. And since both lifestyles, learning Torah and working, are mentioned in the same verse, this teaches us that both endeavors are equally difficult, and therefore equally praiseworthy.


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