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D'var on Balak and Implications for Bet Din

12 Jul 2022 2:47 PM | Deborah Schmidt (Administrator)

Rabbi Janet Madden delivered at July 12, 2022 Governors' Meeting

Of the six Torah portions named after central characters--Noach, Sarah, Yitro, Korach, Balak and Pinchas—Parshat Balak is perhaps the most perplexing: why do we have a parsha named for a Moabite who plots the destruction of B’nei Israel?

The previous parsha, Chukot, concludes with the Israelites on the move, marching towards the land that has been promised them, having already defeated two kings in the Transjordan: Sihon, king of the Amorites, and Og, king of Bashan.

Parshat Balak opens with the introduction of the prince of Moav. Balak deeply—and rightly—fears the approaching Israelites, who are now encamped just across the Jordan. So Balak comes up with a devious plan appropriate to the meaning of his name: “Devastator.” He sends messengers to the territory of the Euphrates, to his kinsman Balaam, son of Beor. The call for help informs Balaam that there is a people that has come up from Egypt and is so numerous that “it hides the earth from view.” Balak assures Balaam that he will be well compensated if he will “put a curse upon this people for me…perhaps I can thus defeat them and drive them out of the land. For I know that whomever you bless is blessed indeed, and whomever you curse is cursed.”

Balaam’s name tells us that he is not “of the people”— perhaps he is uniquely set apart by his powers of prophecy and divination. And Balak is a true believer in the powers of Balaam. Although initially, Balaam refuses Balak’s offer, since he has been Divinely warned against taking up this task, by the third time that Balak appeals to him, substantially raising the promised compensation, and perhaps appealing to his ego, Balaam accepts the commission. And that is when it becomes clear both to Balaam and the Moabite dignitaries who accompany him that Balaam’s powers are indeed paltry compared to the powerful and protective Divine Presence that guides and shields the Israelites. Balaam’s expedition to curse the Israelites escalates in a series of three supernatural, surreal events during which the G-d of Israel takes over Balaam’s hearing, sight and speech: first, he hears the words of chastisement of his donkey, then he is able to see the presence of a potentially murderous Angelic Messenger and, finally, as he has already told Balak, his power of speech is shaped by the Divine: he blesses rather than curses the Israelites.

I wish that I could say that the dramatic events of this parsha bring us to the moment when, moved by these miraculous events, Balack and Baalam are moved to join B’nei israel. For at each high place where he is expected to speak a curse, Balaam instead speaks a blessing, not only acknowledging that “The Lord their God is with them” but also saying of himself

May I die the death of the upright,

May my fate be like theirs!

And, of course, he also pronounces the beautiful words that we pray in our morning liturgy:

“How fair are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwelling, O Israel” (Num. 24:5).

But, unlike those who come before this bet din, in spite of these praises, Balaam does not become another Yitro, casting his lot with the Israelites.

The Rabbis, playing on the name Balaam, call him "Belo'Am" (without people; that is, without a share with the people in the world to come) and "Billa' 'Am" (one that ruined a people), a reference to his role in the Heresy of Peor. Tractate Sanhedrin imagines him as blind in one eye and lame in one foot—metaphors for his perceptual and moral failings—and states that he had no portion in Olam HaBa.

But what about Balak? In full disclosure here, I am a lover of midrash and it is my joy to follow the breadcrumb trails laid down in Torah. And I know that in sacred texts, as in real life, we humans see only a part of the story. We never know how things will unfold in a future that we will not live to see. And so it is with the deep connection between this parsha named for Balak and the work of this Bet Din.

While joining B’nei Israel is not the choice of Balaam or Balak, Midrash Ruth Rabbah tells us not only that Ruth and Orpah were sisters, but that both were daughters of Eglon, the king of Moab. And Eglon was the son of Balak. That is, Balak was Ruth’s grandfather, and as we know, moving further into the generations from our archetype for those who choose to join the Jewish people, from Oved, the son of Ruth and Boaz, Oved the great-grandson of Balak, comes Jesse and then David. And Solomon, for that matter.

The lesson of this pasha, for me, is that it is inevitable that some will hate us and want to destroy us and some will acknowledge the power and beauty of our tradition. And, from the most unexpected places, in times and ways that we cannot imagine, some will choose to join the Jewish people. In the sacred process of finding their spiritual home, these people will not merely recite, with full hearts, the beautiful words:

“How fair are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwelling, O Israel” (Num. 24:5).

They will take up residence within the tent of our Jewish community. And we are so richly blessed by their choice.

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