Torah Readings for Saturday, June 22, 2013
Balak22:2-25:9 Bamidbar (Numbers)
Balak is the seventh sedrah in Bamidbar. It takes its name from the first word in the sedrah, “Balak, son of Zippor, saw all that
to the Amorites.” (22:2). Balak is the
name of the King of the Moabites. Balak
divides into two parts. Most of the
sedrah (22:2-24:25) is taken up with the Story of Balaam. Some commentators contend that this section
of Bamidbar was originally a separate book of the Torah, which would have meant
that the Torah would have consisted of seven books. The last nine verses of the sedrah start the
story of Pinchas, the grandson of Aaron. Israel
The Story of Balaam (22:2-24:25). I have always found this story to be a mystery, especially when you get to the part about the talking ass. There appear to be several differing views about its importance. Plaut talks about this portion with almost reverential awe while the editors of Etz Hayim refer to it as containing “what may be the only comic passage in the Torah.” In Torah Studies, a compilation of Rabbi Schneerson’s talks on the weekly readings, the editors do not mention the Story of Balaam, focusing instead on the episode involving Pinchas, which comes at the end of the sedrah. I have relied heavily on the Plaut Chumash and the writings of Rabbi Telushkin in preparing this section. The sedrah opens with the Israelites camped “on the steppes of
.” Balak, the King of Moab, is frightened by
this mass of intruders and sends for the prophet Balaam to help him fend off
the invaders. According to tradition,
those who Balaam blesses remain blessed and those who he curses are cursed
forever. Balak does not ask Balaam to
bless Moab . Rather he wants him to come and curse the
Israelites. Balaam hears the voice of
God, and turns down Balak’s first offer.
This is not the first time that we have seen God revealing himself to
non-Jews. After all, He is the God of
the entire Universe. But the second
time, God relents and lets Balaam accept Balak’s offer. Balak saddles his ass and heads for Moab . But the donkey balks at her mission. (Yes, this wise, talking animal is a
female. Is this a continuation of the
feminist theme we saw when God told Abraham to listen to Sarah?) The ass sees an armed angel standing in the
road and tries to turn aside. This
angers Balaam who begins beating the animal.
Then the ass speaks, reminding Balaam of her loyalty, at which point God
reveals the angel to Balaam. The angel
admonishes Balaam for beating his ass, telling him that if it had not been for
her, Balaam would have been slain right there on the road. For those of you who are bothered by
super-natural events like this, relax.
According to Midrash, this talking ass was one of the things created on
the evening of the Sixth Day of Creation.
In other words, the talking donkey does not violate the laws of nature;
it was pre-programmed to appear at this moment.
Balaam arrives at Ir-Moab, the capital city of Moab ’s kingdom. Balak has to be one of the most disappointed
employers in history. He is paying for
curses on his enemies and instead he hears blessings on the Israelites. Balaam views the Israelite camp from three
vantage points and each time he utters blessings upon them. In his own defense, Balaam tells Balak that
he can only utter the words that God puts in his mouth. The angered Balak sends Balaam packing without
paying him. At this point, as if to add
insult to injury, the departing Balaam speaks for a fourth and final time. This time he predicts that Balak will
eventually triumph over Israel . There are obvious messages in the story. In allowing Balaam to go to Balak when he is
asked for a second time, God is allowing man to exercise free will. The fact that God puts the blessings in
Balaam’s mouth is a reminder that while men may speak words of blessing all
blessings come from God. Balaam’s
willingness to sell his prophetic powers for material gain shows the difference
between a real and false prophet. To
paraphrase the Mishnah, he who profits from the crown of the Torah shall surely
Pinchas (25:1-9). Pinchas is the name of next week’s sedrah. However, we meet him for the first time at the end of Balak. The events in these last nine sentences of the sedrah provide the antecedents to the events we will be reading about next week. Having failed to defeat the Israelites with curses, the Moabites send their women to the Israelites in an attempt to seduce them. God orders Moshe to have the “ringleaders impaled.” Moshe then calls upon the leaders of the Israelites to carry out God’s command. Just at this moment an unnamed Israelite (we will find out who he is next week) approaches Moshe with his “woman” and heads for his tent to enjoy her pleasures. Pinchas, the son of Eleazar the Kohein Gadol and grandson of Aaron, is so outraged that he grabs a spear, enters the tent and stabs them both in the belly. The sedrah ends by telling us that this stopped the plague that had broken out. The plague had claimed the lives of 24,000 Israelites. We must wait until we read Pinchas next week to fully understand the import of these events.
CommandmentsThere are none in this sedrah.
PrayerAs we have seen before, the Torah is a source for many of our prayers. The Mah Tovu, the prayer recited when entering the synagogue for morning prayers, comes from the mouth of Balaam (24:5). You may recognize the traditional English translation for its opening verse, “How goodly are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling places O House of Israel.”
Separate and ApartOne of the recurring themes of the Torah is the special role of the Jew in the world. We are the people of the Covenant. We are the people of whom God has said I will make you a holy (separate) people. I will make you a nation of priests. Now the words of Balaam drive this point home again, “There is a people that dwells apart, not reckoned among the nations.” There are those who seek the walls of the Ghetto to keep us apart from other nations because they are afraid that we will assimilate and lose our identity. There are those who would place us behind Ghetto walls to keep us from “contaminating” other nations. There are those Jews who bridle at this concept of separateness for a variety of reasons and reject this as anachronistic chauvinism. And then there are those who would say that the challenge for modern Jews is to live in the world while maintaining a strong, positive sense of our own identity.
Genesis ConnectionThis sedrah contains at least two connections to Bereshit. First, they both contain talking animals - the snake in Bereshit and the donkey in Balak. Secondly, we see God asking questions for which He should have known the answer. In Bereshit He asks Cain, “Where is your brother, Abel?” In Balak He asks Balaam, “Who are the people who came to you?” Since God obviously knew the answers, why ask the questions? Because, according to some commentators, this is so we will know that confession is the beginning of repentance.
The Power of WordsJews and Judaism are all about words and language. After all, we are known as The People of the Book. This sedrah is filled with reminders of the power of speech. Balak knew that he could not defeat the Israelites with armed might so he tried to use the power of negative speech (curses) to destroy us. The donkey spoke in an attempt to save her master. This proves that we should listen even to the humblest of creatures because they might have a message worth hearing.
What’s in a Name?Balak is one of only six weekly portions that takes its appellation from a person’s name. The others are Noah, Cha’Yay Sarah, Yitro, Korach, and Pinchas. What do “a righteous man in his time,” Abraham’s wife, Moses’ father-in-law, a rebel leader, the King of the Moabites and a killer turned High Priest have in common? Why are these six people memorialized for all times? Why do their names appear every year on Jewish calendars around the world? Is this one of those questions that “Rashi’s five year old could answer” or one of those that would elicit commentary from those engaged in Torah study? Since nothing is placed in the Torah for no reason, there must be one. The question is what is the reason?
The Universal GodThere are those who contend that the God of the Israelites was essentially a tribal or a national deity. Many of them believe that the concept of the God of the Israelites as a Universal God is a later manifestation formulated in the time of the literary prophets and the Babylonian Exile. The sedrah of Balak challenges that assumption. The God of the Israelites speaks to both Balak, King of the Moabites and Balaam. Balaam says, “What the Lord says, that I must say.” Balak tells him, “I was going to reward you richly, but the Lord has denied you the reward.” At the beginning of the Torah, God speaks with all people i.e., Adam, Eve, Cain, Noah. As the tale progresses, He establishes a special relationship with the Israelites, but that does not mean He is not the God of all the World. As the narrative of the Torah is coming to a close with these chapters of Bamidbar, it is almost as if the author, in this sedrah, is reminding us that God does indeed speak to all people, not just the Jewish people.
Balak and the 17th of TammuzBalak reminds us of the importance of words. In America, whether it is bullying or the coarsening of our public discourse, we are painfully aware of the harm that speech can do. A few days after we read this Torah portion, we observe the 17th of Tammuz. Since most American Jews do not refrain from food and drink on the 17th of Tammuz maybe we could refrain from Lashon Hara on this minor fast day. To paraphrase the old Chasidic tale, we will show as much concern for what comes out of our mouths as we show for what we put in our mouths.
Methods of DestructionThere have been a myriad of methods used to try and wipe out the Jews. In the Torah we have already read about Laban, Pharaoh and the Amalekites using drowning, starvation and physical force to destroy the Israelites. But this week we read what might be the first account of psychological warfare or “black-ops” to wipe out the Jewish people. The attempts to use “curses” and appeals to the supernatural smacks of ancient man’s attempts to use “mind games” to destroy his opponents.
The Man: The name Micah is actually an abbreviation of the name “Micaiah” which means “who is like unto God.” Micah is one of the Twelve Minor Prophets. While he may be minor in terms of length (fifteen pages in the Jewish Publication Society’s English translation, The Prophets) he is certainly a major figure when it comes to the complexity of his preachings, the boldness of his teachings and the majesty of his language. Consider the following famous statements, all of which are found in this slender work. “For out of
shall go forth the law, And the word of
the Lord from Zion ”
(4:2). “And they shall beat their swords
in plowshares, And their spears into pruninghooks; Nation shall not lift up
sword against nation, Neither shall they learn war any more” (4:3). “They shall sit every man under his vine and
under his fig-tree; And none shall make them afraid” (4:4). “It hath been told thee, O man what is good,
And what the Lord doth require of thee: Only to do justly, and to love mercy and to
walk humbly with thy God” (6:8). Jerusalem
Based on information in the text, we know that Micah preached during the reign of three Judean Kings, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah. This means he lived at the end of the eighth century B.C.E. and the beginning of the seventh century B.C.E. He lived during the last days of the
Kingdom and a period in which the Southern Kingdom was threatened
with foreign conquest. He was a younger
contemporary of Isaiah. Some statements
including one cited above are found in the writings of both men. Nobody is sure if one is quoting the other or
they are both referencing an even older source that has been lost to us. Micah lived at a time of wealth and social
upheaval. Judean society was moving away
from an agrarian egalitarianism model to a more urban model with increasing
gaps between the rich and the poor. He
decried the abuse of power by the wealthy and their exploitation of the
masses. He warned the people that this
behavior would bring exile and destruction.
He told them that possessing the holy city of would not protect them. He mixed this harsh message of immediate
punishment with a message of ultimate redemption. God would not forget us. He would forgive us and redeem us. “Who is a God like unto Thee, that pardoneth
the iniquity, And passeth by the transgression of the remnant of His
heritage? He retaineth not His anger
forever, Because He delighteth in mercy.
He will again have compassion upon his; He will subdue our iniquities;
And Thou wilt cast all their sins into the depths of the sea. Thou wilt show faithfulness to Jacob, mercy
to Abraham, As Thou hast sworn unto our fathers from the days of old” (-20). Jerusalem
The Message: As Goldman points out in his commentary on this prophet, the Book of Micah can be divided into three parts. Micah opens with a message devoted almost exclusively to denouncing sin and proclaiming impending punishment. He then shifts to a message almost totally devoted to “words of hope and cheer.” The haftarah is taken from the third section where he mixes the two elements. He opens by addressing the “remnant of Jacob,” an obvious reference to punishment and exile. But then he reminds the people of God’s past beneficence. Surely, God who has been good to us in the past will be good to us in the future. As the editors of Etz Hayim point out, this leads the people to ask in what manner they should approach the Lord. Should they approach with mounds of sacrifices? No, not with sacrifices alone should they approach God. Instead the prophet tells them to approach Him in the way they already know is proper - with justice, mercy and humility (6:8). The classical English version of verse eight loses some of its meaning in the translation. As the notes in the Soncino edition point out, the prophet uses the word “justly” first because it is the lack of justice both in the legal and social sense of that term which will lead to the destruction of the nation. But justice is not enough. The people must love mercy. In Hebrew the word used is “chesed” which actually means acts of loving-kindness. “Chesed” is to be the basis of interaction with all human beings, regardless of their social station. Finally, the English reads “walk humbly” but in Hebrew the word “v-hah-tznayah” which though translated here as humbly actually has the connotation of “modesty or decency.” And of course modesty and decency have a multiplicity of meanings far beyond just being humble. There are those who have praised Micah for reducing the commandments to three items. But in following this list of three, the Israelites will be led to follow all 613 commandments.
Theme-Link: There are at least two connections between the sedrah and the haftarah. The sedrah tells the story of Balak and Balaam. In reminding the people of “God’s gracious acts” Micah reminds his contemporaries of this episode. Furthermore, Balaam speaks the words “mah tovu” as in the famous “Goodly are your tents O Jacob?” Micah uses the same term “mah tov” in the famous words of 6:8.
Micah and George Washington: Sometime during the 7th and 8th centuries BCE, Micah gave us a vision of the peaceful life that we could expect “in the end of days.” “They shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig-tree; And none shall make them afraid.” Thousands of years later, in 1879, President George Washington wrote to the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island, in part to reassure the Jews of their acceptance in the new republic. Echoing the words of the Jewish prophet he wrote “May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants - while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.” Whether he meant to or not, Washington was telling the Jewish population that the messianic vision of peace and justice could be realized the United States of America under its newly adopted constitutional form of government.
Copyright; June, 2013; Mitchell A. Levin