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Balak.  July 20, 2019

Rabbi Richard Plavin

Parasha is stand alone story with three main characters – all of whom are not Israelites. Balak, Bilaam and the most well known of the three, the donkey.

Balak is the King of Moab. He is a monarch, a political leader, in the Middle East, and it appears that he was not unlike so many of his ilk to this very day. His fondest wish is the destruction of the Jewish people. He reaches out to the leaders and people of a neighboring nation, Midian, and suggests that they form an alliance to wipe out this nation that has come out of Egypt.

Bilaam was a sorcerer, some sort of ancient magician or soothsayer. Many people would refer to him as a prophet among the gentiles. I can’t call him a prophet because I have too much respect for the prophets of Israel, the likes of Jeremiah and Isaiah, to dignify Bilaam with that title. And here is the crucial difference: the great prophets of Israel spend most of their time criticizing the Jews in an attempt to improve them. In contrast, Bilaam praises us.

The third protagonist I mentioned is the donkey. Of the three, the donkey is clearly the brightest. I say that the donkey was the brightest of the three protagonists because it was only the donkey who could see what was really going on. Both Balak and Bilaam totally misunderstood.

Balak thought that he had to fear the Israelites; that they were coming to conquer his land. Of course, they only needed to pass through. Their destination was the Promised Land, Canaan, the Land of Israel and they had no interest in causing any harm to the Moabites.

Bilaam thought that he had some supernatural powers that could be used and be very effective, if he were paid sufficiently. So, when Balak made the offer so high it became an offer he could not refuse, he sallied off on his donkey and tried his best to incapacitate the Israelites so that the army of Midian could wipe them out. He learned that his power was limited by God and he could only say the words God permitted. God told him that this was the case before he set out on his mission, but he had to learn from experience.

You know how the story unfolds. Bilaam says some wonderful and memorable things. The line you will immediately recognize is at the beginning of chapter 24: 5 How goodly are your tents, Jacob,

and your dwellings, Israel!

Mah tove ohalecha Yaakov, mishknotecha Yisrael. How goodly are your tents, Jacob, and your dwellings, Israel!

Bilaam was not quoting the Siddur! Of course, this is the original source of the beautiful line we are supposed to recite upon entering a synagogue.

Another oft quoted line from Bilaam is just a bit earlier in our text. 23:9. In that soliliqy he says
“hen, am livadad yishkone”  Behold, this is a people that dwells alone and will not be reckoned among the nations.

That description put into Bilaam’s mouth has proven to be so sadly true. Has any nation in the world been so singled out as our Jewish nation. From ancient times to this very day, the people Israel has been treated unlike any other. I don’t have to recited examples, but I will just mention that no other nation is criticized for declaring which of its cities is its capital. No other people has been told that the legitimacy of having your own homeland is a matter of debate.

Interestingly, Balak 3200 years ago was much like many Arab leaders today. He knew that Bilaam had the power of both blessing and cursing – or at least so he thought before this incident.

Back in chapter 22, Balak says to Bilaam:

Please come now therefore, and curse this people for me; for they are too mighty for me. Perhaps I shall prevail, that we may strike them, and that I may drive them out of the land; for I know that he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed.”

He knows, or at least thinks, that Bilaam has the power to both bless and curse. He could have hired him to come bless the people of Moab. He could have said, Bless my people to be so great and prosperous that they won’t be afraid of a little nation like Israel. But that didn’t occur to him. Instead, he hires Bilaam to curse the Israelites so that his army can wipe they out. He is more interested in harming Israel than in helping his own people.

The lesson here is so contemporary in several ways. First, the issue of blessing or cursing. What would the Arab world look like today if for the last 40 years its leaders had said: Look at Israel. It is so successful. Let’s go and form an alliance with them so that we too can be blessed with success. Let’s give our people – the men and the women - the freedoms and education that are enjoyed in Israel and then we can all enjoy the fruits of peace.

Wow! What a blessing that would have been!

Again, imagine what Gaza and its people could be like today. What if since 2005, when Israel pulled out its Jewish residents and army and the world sent in untold amounts of humanitarian aide, what if all that money went into schools, housing, education and hospitals instead to into rockets, terror tunnels and incendiary kite bombs. Gaza would be a paradise.  If only…

And here is another lesson. Balak looked out and saw the Israelite people, a great caravan of a million strong, and instead of saying come enjoy our country. Spend you money in our shops. Eat in our restaurants. Enjoy our hotels. And then you can go on to the promised land. Instead, he wasted a fortune on a mediocre sorcerer to curse them. He saw this caravan of immigrants and was afraid.

Does he remind you of any political leader today?

What it our government chose to spend less money on fencing and detention centers and more money on improving the lives of people in Guatemala and Honduras? What if? I truly don’t know if my thinking is correct, but I am certainly not proud of America when I see the way we are treating and mistreating the people who come to our southern border.

So let’s enjoy this story in the Torah. It has only been around for 2500 years so maybe the world can still learn from it.


Sermon given by Rabbi Richard Plavin at Beth Sholom B’nai Israel on Saturday, July 20, 2019.

Sat, July 2 2022 3 Tammuz 5782