Parashat Balak 2019- Have you been played? Lessons from a talking donkey
This week’s Parashah is Parashat Balak. We read about a really strange phenomena – a talking donkey! Really! I kid you not. What does a talking donkey have to do with Parashat Balak? A lot – lets delve in.
Parashat Balak In A Nutshell
- Balak hires the prophet Balaam to curse the Jewish People.
- Balaam and the talking donkey
- Balaam attempts to curse the Jewish People 3 times
- The Sin of Baal Peor
Parashat Balak begins with the evil schemes that were attempted by King Balak to destroy the Jewish People.
Balak and Balaam
Balak was the king of Moab – a nation which is found on the South East side of the Jordan River. The nation of Moab was descended from Lot, Avraham’s nephew. The Torah stated that the Jewish People were banned from attacking the land of Moab as it was promised to the descendants of Lot. Moab had no reason to be fearful of the Jewish People. Yet Balak employs the services of the non-Jewish Prophet, Balaam to curse the Jewish People.
The story describes the journey of Balaam to Balak. How Hashem first warns him not to curse the People and how Balaam refuses to listen. The strange story of a talking donkey who again tried to warn Balaam against cursing the Jewish People. In both cases, Balaam refuses to listen. He is so consumed by his hatred of the Jewish People, that he fails to hear the warnings.
When Balaam arrives, Balak takes him on a sightseeing trip:
וַיִּשְׁמַ֥ע בָּלָ֖ק כִּ֣י בָ֣א בִלְעָ֑ם וַיֵּצֵ֨א לִקְרָאת֜וֹ אֶל־עִ֣יר מוֹאָ֗ב אֲשֶׁר֙ עַל־גְּב֣וּל אַרְנֹ֔ן אֲשֶׁ֖ר בִּקְצֵ֥ה הַגְּבֽוּל׃
When Balak heard that Balaam was coming, he went out to meet him at Ir-Moab, which is on the Arnon border, at its farthest point.
(אל עיר מואב. אֶל מֶטְרוֹפּוֹלִין שֶׁלּוֹ — עִיר הַחֲשׁוּבָה שֶׁלּוֹ, לוֹמַר רְאֵה מָה אֵלּוּ מְבַקְשִׁים לַעֲקֹר (תנחומא
Ir Moab- The capital city of Moab. Says Balak to Balaam see what these people are planning to destroy! (Numbers 22:36 with Rashi) and later
וַיֵּ֥לֶךְ בִּלְעָ֖ם עִם־בָּלָ֑ק וַיָּבֹ֖אוּ קִרְיַ֥ת חֻצֽוֹת׃
Balaam went with Balak and they came to Kiriath-huzoth. (Numbers 22:39)
Rashi adds in a missing detail: קרית חצות. עִיר מְלֵאָה שְׁוָקִים, אֲנָשִׁים וָטַף בְּחוּצוֹתֶיהָ, לוֹמַר רְאֵה וְרַחֵם שֶׁלֹּא יֵעָקְרוּ אֵלּו:
Kiriath-huzoth: a city filled with markets, men women and children, in order to impress upon Balaam – see and have mercy on the innocent that these people wish to destroy”
Blessing and Curses
Balak shows Balaam what the Jewish People are planning to destroy. Balaam is moved by the plight of the poor Moabites and immediately goes to work, setting up altars and pleading with Hashem to curse the people. It is then that a strange event happens. Balaam opens his mouth and instead of cursing the Jewish People, he ends up blessing them! Not once but 3 times!
Balaam then changes his tune and says to Balak these people are a blessed people. They are not what you think. They bring blessings to the world, not curses.
This sentiment is expressed by Balaam when he opens the third curse with the words:
מַה־טֹּ֥בוּ אֹהָלֶ֖יךָ יַעֲקֹ֑ב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶ֖יךָ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃
How fair are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel! (Numbers 24:5)
Balaam is forced to admit that what he was being told by Balak, and what he had been brought up to believe, was simply not true.
Balaam at first was so consumed with his hatred of the Jewish people and what he had heard they were about to do to the poor Moabites, that even Hashem and a miraculous talking donkey could not convince him that he was wrong. It was only when he saw for himself that he finally accepted the truth.
Lessons Learned From Parashat Balak:
- Lashon Harah is dangerous. Balaam was a known anti-Semite and jumped to the conclusion that the Jews were at it again. (According to the Midrash, it was Balaam who advised Pharaoh to murder the Jewish boys. There too we see Pharaoh stoking up the crowd that the Jews would leave the country and join Egypt’s enemies. A libelous charge)
- Balak sucked Balaam into his plans by showing him all the potential sites that the Jews would destroy. Balaam was given an image that would affect and anger him to curse the Jews.
- He was so consumed by what he believed was a righteous cause, that he failed to listen to anyone’s advice.
- It was only when he saw the Jewish people that he realised his folly. That Balak had played him. The Jews were no threat at all. However, by that time, his reputation had been destroyed.
Parashat Balak teaches us about the problems of antisemitism. The twisted irrational hatred of the Jew consumes and causes so much damage.
There is, however, a second lesson that we need to take note of. At times we can act like a Balaam. We respond to an event based on hearsay. What we may be told about a person may not be true. Therefore, before we jump to conclusions, we need to pause and investigate for ourselves. We may find that we have been duped into believing something that may not be true and have said or destroyed a relationship or reputation.
Inspiring Words From My Mentor
I write these words, while in the study hall of Yeshivat Har Etzion looking out at the seat of my late mentor and teacher Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein. Once I went to discuss a complicated question with him. After listening to me, he refused to answer my question. His reasoning is well worth repeating.
He explained; that he was being asked to judge a case based on the information that I was providing. But how certain was I, that I had all the facts? Maybe there was something missing? As such he couldn’t answer my question.
His answer has remained with me to this day. Maybe if Balaam and the other anti- Semites would heed this advice, the world would be a safer place for us all.
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