There is a special opinion, which the Talmud quotes in Tractate Bava Batra 14b: “Who wrote the Scriptures? – Moses wrote his own book and the portion of Bilaam.” If we start counting according to this opinion, the five books of the Torah are actually seven: Bereshit, Shemot, Vaikra, Bamidbar chapters 1-21, the story of Bilaam which the Torah records in Bamidbar chapters 22-24, Bamidbar chapters 25 to its end, and Devarim.
The story of Bilaam makes the bulk of this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Balak. The tale of Bilaam (or Balaam, as tradition sometimes calls him) is one of those intriguing passages of the Torah that appear simple and straightforward on the surface, yet are complex when studied in detail. There is prose and poetry in the story. There is prophesy and the expectation of magic. There is money involved, and glory, and disappointment. We even make acquaintance with a talking donkey, able to see what people cannot.
The plot itself is rather simple. The Jewish people are at the gates of the Promised Land. King Balak of Moab, witness to all the Jewish triumphs against the bigger and stronger nations of the area, decides to hire Bilaam, a pagan prophet, to curse the Jewish people. With a reluctant permission from G-d, Bilaam goes with the emissaries of Balak and tries repeatedly but unsuccessfully to utter a curse. Instead, in the end, he issues a famous blessing that has made its way even in our daily prayers: ”Ma tovu ohalecha Yaakov, mishkenotecha Yisrael!” – ”How good are your tents, o Jacob, your dwelling places, o Israel!” (24:5)
But when we look closely at the details of the story, a whole new world of inferences, symbols and peculiar connections opens before our very eyes… Let’s explore it together!
The first is the connection – or, better said, connections in the plural – which the Torah makes with the Book of Genesis. Although it is placed in the midst of the Book of Bamidbar, the story of Bilaam abounds in Bereshit references.
For example, Bilaam tries to be like Abraham, and the Torah uses the same language as in the story of the Binding of Isaac: “Vaiakom Bilaam baboker va’yachvosh et atono” – “Balaam arose early in the morning and saddled his donkey.” (22:21).
Also, the talking donkey of our parasha constitutes the second and only other instance in the Torah of an animal speaking, the first instance being when the serpent addresses Eve in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:1).
But the connections with the Book of Genesis go much deeper…
In chapter 22 verse 9, Hashem appears for the first time to Bilaam, immediately after the first set of envoys from King Balak arrive at his home: “G‑d came to Balaam and said: What do these emissaries want of you?” The language is parallel to that of the Book of Genesis, in the stories of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel and Abraham and Sarah. Curiously enough, in all these stories, the verse in question is always the 9th verse of the respective chapter. And – more importantly – in all these stories, G-d asks a rhetorical question to which He already knows the answer: ”Aieka? Where are you?”, He asks Adam in Genesis 3:9; “Where is Abel your brother?”, He inquires of Cain in Genesis 4:9; “Where is your wife Sarah?”, He asks Abraham in Genesis 18:9. In our parasha, the question is not one of location (“where”), but one of direction and purpose: “Where are you going? What do these people want with you?” (Numbers 22:9)
In all these cases, this question is only the trigger, and the continuation is always the same: exile. With Adam and Eve, G-d is about to punish them with exile from the Garden of Eden for having eaten of the Tree of Knowledge. With Cain and Abel, we are about to discover Cain’s punishment of exile for having murdered his brother Abel. With Abraham and Sarah, we are about to discover G-d’s promise to bring about the birth of Yitzchak (Isaac), which – following the opinion of many commentators – marks the beginning of the 400 years of exile for Abraham and his descendants in a “land not their own”, according to G-d’s promise in Genesis 15:13.
Here too, in our parasha, Bilaam is about to undergo a deep and painful personal exile. First, we are told of high expectations, as King Balak tells Bilaam through his emissaries: “I know that he whom you bless is indeed blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed” (22:6). We learn about the wealth and honor being promised, presumably accompanied in Bilaam’s mind by a high status and a luxurious life at Balak’s court.
And then things start falling apart with every step along the way. First – in order to even attempt to become a hero of might and magic – Bilaam must leave the comfort of his home and go with the emissaries of Balak. As the Torah tells us, this in itself is an endeavor that G-d despises and is quickly to point out to him: “Do not go with them and do not curse that people, for they are blessed”, he tells Bilaam in 22:12. Then, a mere few verses later, G-d softens a bit, but makes it crystal clear Who is really in control here: “If these envoys come to invite you, you may go with them, but whatever I command you, that you shall do.” (22:20)
Along the way, Bilaam’s next taste of exile is when he is ridiculed by his own talking donkey, able to see G-d’s angel when the great prophet Bilaam is blind and mute. Then he builds seven altars and offers sacrifices, only to discover that they are built and used in vain: his mouth just cannot bring itself to utter the fatal curse. Then Bilaam moves from place to place, trying to find a vantage point from where to sneak in at least a smaller, perhaps less fatal but still harm-inflicting curse. In the end – after a journey of failures and disappointments – the Torah puts a definitive end to Bilaam’s quest for evil glory by stating simply: “Then Bilaam set out on his journey back home.” (24:25) Broken, his reputation destroyed, his dreams of power and wealth shattered, Bilaam returns to his home with a simple life lesson: “Man proposes and G-d disposes.” Or, as they say in Yiddish: “Der mentsh trakht und G-t lakht.”
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Of course, if it were only for the personal exile, the story of Bilaam might not have been as interesting… But the four oracles in the story, the four instances in which the Torah switches from prose to poetry in a mixture of reality and fortune-telling, take matters one level higher. The prophecies here contain references to the entire history of the Jewish nation. Bilaam talks about the promises G-d made to Jacob, about the Exodus from Egypt, about the forty years in the desert, about the battles G-d fought with Israel’s enemies of their behalf and – even more interesting – makes mention of Israel’s ultimate future.
In a few verses in the middle of the fourth and final of Bilaam’s oracles, the Torah tells us the following:
I see it, but not now. I view it, but it is not near. A star rises from Jacob. And a scepter has shot forth from Israel, and he shall strike down the sides of Moab, and undermine all the children of Seth. Edom shall be a conquest and Seir shall be a conquest of his enemies, and Israel will be triumphant. — Numbers 24:17-18
Multiple interpretations were offered for these verses. They vary based on the commentator, the historical period of the commentary, as well as the focus of the interpretation.
For example, Ibn Ezra and others see in the verse “A star rises from Jacob” a reference to King David and his royal dynasty. Onkelos (the famous translation of the Torah into Aramaic), as well as Ramban (Nachmanides) see here a prophecy about the arrival of not only David, but also – from his lineage – the Mashiach, marking what we pray for every day: the establishment of G-d’s Kingdom in Israel and the whole world. The Midrash on Megillat Eicha – the famous Lamentation of the prophet Yeremiahu (Jeremiah) which we will read in only a few weeks on Tisha Be’Av – takes the verse in our parasha to mean a reference made by Rabbi Akiva to the rebellion of Bar Kochba, in the time of the Romans. In other words, a verse about three important concepts: the role of royalty, our quest to fight oppression and tyranny, and G-d’s ultimate redemption, the Messianic Era.
And then, of course, is the mentioning by Bilaam of all those foreign nations: Moab, Seth, Edom, Seir, Ir and – the Torah continues in the subsequent verses – Amalek, Cain, Ashur, Eber and the Kenites and Kittites. All – with the exception of Seth who is a symbol of mankind as a whole (Seth was the third son of Adam and Eve, from which all humans descend) – are historical enemies of the Jewish people. But there is a lot more to the story than meets the eye, more specifically because of the way in which they became our enemies…
Moab is so bad that the Torah tells us in Devarim 23:4 to never allow a male Moabite to enter the Jewish people by conversion, “even in the tenth generation”. The reason is made apparent at the end of this week’s parasha: “While Israel settled in Shittim, the people defiled themselves by being promiscuous with Moabite women.” (25:1) The Midrash tells us that – in their zeal to corrupt and destroy – the Moabites send even their royal princesses to seduce Jews into immorality and idolatry. Such a reprehensible behaviour – where the destruction of the other is more important than respecting yourself and keeping away from self-defilement – was indicative of sinat chinam, a boundless and reasonless hatred, later embodied by anti-Semitism, persecutions and the Shoah. It was this hatred that disqualified the Moabites from ever joining the Jewish nation. (Strangely enough, Ruth the Moabite, a female, is the exception to the rule, as the Torah only made reference in its prohibition to male Moabites, which the Torah hold responsible for maintaining the societal morality at the time, in the context of a patriarchal society.)
With Amalek, the message is even easier to recognize. Throughout the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy, on multiple occasions, the Torah reminds us of Amalek’s evil and commands us to wipe out its memory and legacy, for “attacking the weak at the end of the convoy” and for “not fearing G-d”.
Cain – another name mentioned by Bilaam – is the universal human symbol of evil. He is the author of the first murder in history, perpetrated when G-d favours his brother’s sacrifice over his own. He is also the first to be so callous as to not care at all for his own brother, Abel, about whom he inquires: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 3:9). Cain is the incarnation of the dictums: “Every man for himself” and “The end justifies the means”, which are the complete opposite of the Jewish view of “Kol Israel arevim ze laze” – “Every Jew is responsible for one another” and “Ein mitzvah ha’ba be’aveira” – “A good deed fulfilled through a transgression is null and void.”
Edom, Seir and Ir are all – in the interpretation of Rashi and the Midrash – a symbol of Rome, the culture that always valued idolatry and promiscuity over monotheism and chastity.
And Ashur (Assyria), the Kenites, the Kittites and Eber are all symbols of Israel’s enemies in the times before entering the Land of Israel under the leadership of Joshua. They are the nations that stood against – in the most literal manner – G-d’s plan of giving the Promised Land to the Jewish nation.
About all these nations, Bilaam’s prophecy declares that their ultimate fate is to fall before the Jews. In essence, the prophecy is the history of the Jewish people, intertwined with their destiny as G-d’s chosen people, “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” Israel’s destiny – in the hands of G-d as opposed to the hands of mortal kings – transpires in this prophecy as one of fulfillment and endurance.
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We cannot thus be surprised that the two chapters of our week’s parasha have been imagined by the Talmud as a standalone book of the Torah. A summary of our history and destiny, a story of action and faith, of symbolism and connections, of promises and deceptions… A story of G-d’s ultimate goal: rebalancing the world through diminishing and rebuking of evil, corroborated with uplifting and encouraging the good, the spirituality, the morality and the strong attachment – both as individuals and as a nation – to G-d’s message for all humankind.
In today’s world, when values get so easily corrupted, when the lines between right and wrong are often blurred beyond recognition, the message of Parashat Balak is that we have to make our choices. Almost 3,500 years ago, Bilaam made his choice and lost everything. It is our duty today to choose the winning side, a side of morality, spirituality and devotion to G-d and his Torah. It is our duty to choose the destiny that was given us, one of acknowledging and living G-d’s blessings every day, every minute. It is our task to continue to walk – as our ancestors have walked in the past – the often difficult but always rewarding mesilat yesharim – the path of the upright. Or, to quote the very opening chapter of the true Mesilat Yesharim, The Path of the Upright, in the words of the Ramchal, Rabbi Chaim Moshe Luzzato:
The foundation of saintliness and the root of perfection in the service of God lie in a man’s coming to see clearly and to recognize as a truth, the nature of his duty in the world, and the end towards which he should direct his vision and his aspiration in all of his labors, all the days of his life. — Mesilat Yesharim
— Offered at Beth Zion Congregation, Cote St-Luc, QC