Numbers in [brackets] are the mitzva-count according to the Sefer HaChinuch. Other counts vary.
First Aliya -11 p’sukim (22:2-12)
Balak was a weaker king than his neighbors in the region. The defeat of the others instilled fear in Balak’s heart, and he realized that waging a conventional war against Israel would be futile. His plan (following research of the matter) was to enlist Bil’am to “bless” the People of Israel. To this end, Balak sends a delegationto Bil’am in Midyan. Bil’am invites the envoys to spend the night so that he (Bil’am) can be spoken to by G-d. G-d does “appear” to Bil’am and asks him who these people are. Bil’am tells G-d and G-d warns Bil’am not to go with the delegation, nor to curse the People, because “they are blessed”.[sdt] How come Balak, a sworn enemy of Israel, rates having a sedra named after him? Commentaries suggest that Balak was an “honest enemy” of Israel. His antagonism was based on his fear of Israel; his intentions and actions were clear-cut. We have been plagued by many enemies throughout history who have hidden behind asmile, a mask of friendship, a handshake or a hug, only to try to stab us in the back. Dear uncle/grandfather Lavan, is perhaps the prime model of the “sneaky” enemy. Balak’s straight-forward hatred is something we can appreciate.
Balak is one of 3 sedras that begin with the second pasuk of a perek. 22 sedras all together (of 54) don’t begin at the beginning of a chapter. ChaZa”L apparently had different ideas about where things began and ended compared with the non-Jewish chapter designators. A thought.[sdt] Commentaries point out that Moav and Midyan were bitter enemies. Nonetheless, they put their differences aside and united to fight against Israel. This shows the power of anti-Semitism in this world. But it also must teach us another lesson. That we too must be prepared to set aside that which divides the Jewish Peopleinto fragments, so that we can fight our common enemy with greater strength. This is not to suggest that we must ignore, overlook, or forgive these differences. But we have to know when we should put our religious-secular battles “on hold”, in order to be united against the enemies of the Jewish People. We must work together- Ashkenazim & S’faradim, National Religious and Haredi, left and right, religious and secular, to strengthen our position against those who would take parts of Eretz Yisrael from us, divide our capital, endanger our lives, both physically and spiritually. Our enemies are prepared to set aside their differences; so must we be.
Second Aliya – 8 p’sukim (22:13-20)
In the morning, Bil’am (reluctantly) dispatches Balak’s messengers with his refusal. Balak sends a larger and more prestigious delegation to Bil’am, with offers of great honor and wealth if Bil’am would only agree to Balak’s request. Bil’am again refuses, but does invite the new delegation to spend the night. This timeG-d permits Bil’am to accompany the Moabites, but warns him not to do anything other than what G-d tells him. (Commentaries draw from this the notion: “In the direction a person is inclined, there he is lead” – the proverbial “rope with which to hang himself”.)[sdt] Why was Bil’am to be punished for going with Balak’s delegation, when G-d permitted him to go? Certainly, a person is held account able for violations of G-d’s prohibitions, but are we also responsible for things which are not specifically prohibited, although it is reasonable to assume that G-d does not want us todo them? The answer is YES. This is one of the concepts we actually derive from the episode of Bil’am. The Torah gives us a very good idea of what HaShem wants of us. Many sins are spelled out very clearly – in fact, there is a notion of “one will not be punished unless expressly warned”; yet we are warned that G-d willbe angry, so to speak, if we do things that we (should) know are contrary to His wishes. This is something that exists in human relationships too. Parents, for example, expect children to behave a certain way, even without being specifically told. We are not programmed robots; we are human beings with the ability to reason.
In the straight reading of the Chumash, it seems that Bil’am is truly a man of G-d who only wants to do what G-d wants him to do. Tradition describes him differently, as one who knows that he is totally in G-d’s control but tries to fight it at every step of the way. What a blow to Bil’am’s ego to be thought of so highlyamong people, yet to know that G-d calls every shot.
Third Aliya -18 p’sukim (22:21-38)
Bil’am arises in the morning, saddles his donkey (by himself), and goes with the Moav officers.[SDT] The implication in the pasuk is that Bil’am went with a great deal of enthusiasm to “hopefully” curse the People of Israel. Contrast this with Avraham’s enthusiasm re the Akeida. In a sense, one can be judged by others by what one does by himself, and brignt & early in the morning.
G-d is “angry” with Bil’am for going (even though He permitted it) and sends an angel in an attempt to dissuade him from continuing. The Torah recounts that on three separate occasions – symbolically, in increasingly narrower passages – the donkey sees the angel blocking the way, but Bil’am does not. Bil’am strikes thedonkey each time, until G-d gives the power of speech to the donkey, who admonishes Bil’am for his deeds. Then G-d permits Bil’am to see the angel and Bil’am acknowledges his sin. He offers to return, but the angel allows him to proceed, with the warning not to say anything “unauthorized”.[SDT] We learn in Pirkei Avot, that the “mouth of the donkey” was one of 10 special items that were created in the instant before G-d rested from further creation on Shabbat. What does that mean? Commentaries explain that not only the “natural world” was created during the Six Days of Creation, but the world of miraclesabove nature as well. We get a sense of completeness of G-d’s Creation. It’s like having a full, deluxe, complete tool box. Anything a job calls for, the right tool is there. Then a very particular job need be done. This calls for a specialty tool, a custom-designed tool. Yes! The tool kit has that too. And every unusual tool ever to be needed. That is the thoroughnessof G-d’s Creation. Furthermore, we have here a major representation of the principle, SOF MA’ASEH B’MACHSHAVA T’CHILA – what eventually happens, was in G-d’s thoughts at the beginning. Anything less would be less than perfect.
Balak goes out to greet Bil’am, who tells Balak that he is powerless to act on his own and must say only what G-d “puts in his mouth”. (This is the significance of the “mouth of the donkey” – viz. that it is G-d Who grants the gift of speech; one should not be arrogant about his usual ability to speak well, to think loftythoughts, or to perceive spiritual concepts. Because sometimes you can and sometimes you can’t… and a donkey can!)
The favored weapon of the nations of the world is the sword. The “weapon” of the Jewish People is “the power of speech” (prayer, divrei Torah, etc.). Bil’am arrogantly lays “his weapon” aside and attempted to harm the People of Israel with their (our) own weapon. G-d, so to speak, went against Bil’am with his abandonedweapon – the angel’s drawn sword. And ultimately, the Torah tells us, Bil’am fell by the sword. – Rashi
Fourth Aliya – 15 p’sukim (22:39-23:12)
Balak makes sacrifices on the occasion, and Bil’am orders 7 altars to be built for special offerings. (All that is done is highly significant – e.g. the Torah records that our 3 Patriarchs offered seven korbanot at various times. Bil’am hoped to “neutralize” the effect of those sacrifices in G-d’s eyes by offering sevensacrifices of his own.)
After meditation, Bil’am “speaks” about the People of Israel. He does not curse them, but rather beautifully describes the uniqueness of Israel. Balak is upset, but Bil’am reminds him that he (Bil’am) can only transmit that which G-d wants him to.[SDT] Bil’am spoke of Israel as a nation that dwells apart from other nations. The word in the verse (23:9), HEN (spelled HEY-NUN), meaning “it is” or “they are” (a nation apart…), contains a symbolic hint towards this idea of being distinct and apart from others. The letters of the Alef-bet can be paired to produce roundnumber pairs as follows: ALEF & TET total 10, BET & CHET, GIMMEL & ZAYIN, etc. The only letter without a partner is HEY. YUD & TZADI total 100, KAF & PEY total 100, LAMED & AYIN, etc. The unpaired letter in this sequence is NUN. HEY-NUN represents the “apartness” of Israel – HEN AM L’VADAD YISHKON – we are unique amongthe nations of the world, and we must preserve that uniqueness by remaining true to Torah, faithful to HaShem, and distinct from the other nations. Our uniqueness is our key to success.
It is sad that a Bil’am can see this when he looks at the People of Israel, yet many of our own people can not see this, nor do they want it. They want to be like everyone else. That is a major source of grief for us.
Fifth Aliya – 14 p’sukim (23:13-26)
Balak takes Bil’am to a different vantage point, in the hopes that he will be able to curse the People this time. Once again, seven altars are built and sacrifices offered. Once again, Bil’am meditates and then utters magnificent descriptions of the Nation of Israel. He tells Balak that the People of Israel have a specialrelationship with G-d and that G-d has blessed them and it is impossible to reverse that blessing. When Balak asks Bil’am not to keep blessing the People, Bil’am repeats that he is powerless to say something of his own. (This must be very difficult for someone who is considered the epitome of arrogance.)[SDT] Rashi says that Balak chose Rosh HaPisga as a place from where Bil’am might succeed in cursing the people, because he foresaw that Moshe would die there. Rashi makes the point that Balak knew this about the place but Bil’am did not.
Sixth Aliya -17 p’sukim (23:27-24:13)
Balak suggests yet a different vantage point from which to observe Israel; maybe G-d will permit them to be cursed. Notice that the first time Bil’am “failed”,
Balak merely suggested a change of location and vantage point. but the second time, he acknowledges that G-d is in charge.
Bil’am again asks for 7 altars to be built, and a bull and a ram to be offered on each. This time, Bil’am does not meditate in his usual manner, expecting similar results, namely that blessings will emerge from him – and he really wants to curse Israel.
Balak takes Bil’am to Rosh HaP’or. Having seen in a vision that Israel will soon fall at P’or, Balak mistakingly assumes that the cursing from there would be successful (Rashi).
Onkeles indicates that Bil’am was “reminding” G-d of the Golden Calf, so that He would allow the People to be cursed. However, when he saw the multitude encamped in such a special manner, he was endowed with “Ruach HaKodesh” and he blessed the People of Israel a third time. Balak had “had enough”, spoke harshly to Bil’am,and “sent him packing”.
Seventh Aliya – 21 p’sukim (24:14-25:9)
Before Bil’am takes leave of Balak, Bil’am prophesies about the other nations in the region. Bil’am’s final advice, his attempts to curse the People having failed, is to entice the People to idolatry and immoral behavior which will turn G-d Himself against them. This plan works, as 24,000 perish in a plague following theorgiastic worship of Baal Pe’or. Only the bold action of Pinchas b. Elazar b. Aharon HaKohen in defending G-d’s honor, manages to stop the devastating plague.[sdt] This final lesson of the sedra must be learned well by us today. What Balak and Bil’am discovered is that if Israel is in G-d’s favor, it will be invincible from outside attack. No nation can succeed against Israel, when we are “on good terms” with G- d. If we, however, incur G-d’s anger, by being unfaithful to Him,by disregarding Torah and mitzvot, then we are extremely vulnerable to our enemies. And they might not even have to actually fight against us – we can, G-d forbid, destroy ourselves. This was true more than 3000 years ago; it is no less true today.
One a certain level, Parshat Balak is extremely simple and straightforward, with an extremely powerful message – because of that simplicity. For 95 p’sukim, we feel the protection of G-d as Balak and Bil’am fail time and again in what almost looks like a comical farce. The Gemara says that Bil’am was in some ways superiorto Moshe Rabeinu, that when he was around, G-d was extra vigilant in protecting us. For those 95 p’sukim, we beam with pride at the grudging admiration of a unique nation as expressed by Bil’am. And then comes the last 9 p’sukim of the sedra. Bil’am went back home. So did Balak. No danger anymore. WHAM! We did it to ourselves. G-d protected us from Bil’am by giving him his words. By not letting him speak on his own.And then we turned around and betrayed G-d. Only 24,000 fatalities, because of the bold action of Pinchas. The sedra is shouting its message to us. All we have to do is listen to it.
Last 3 p’sukim are reread for Maftir.
Haftara -17 p’sukim – Micha 5:6-6:8
Micha’s prophecies include the state- of-affairs that finds Israel dispersed among the nations of the world, the promise of the end of war and restoration of Israel to its Land, and the “settling of accounts” between G-d and the other nations, and G-d and Israel. This portion contains a reference to the advice of Balakand Bil’am’s response to it – thus the appropriate choice of this portion as the haftara for Parshat Balak. Note the “credit” to Balak for the advice that caused the failing of Israel as opposed to the implication from the Torah that it was Bil’am’s idea. Interesting note: The prophet refers to the leaders of the Peopleof the Exodus as Moshe, Aharon, and MIRIAM.
The haftara ends with the famous encapsulation of our responsibilities to G-d: “What does G-d demand of us, ONLY to behave justly, love chesed, and walk modestly (humbly) before G-d.” This is the formula for the greatest protection we can have from the Balaks and Bil’ams of the world.