Weekly Reading Insights:
Balak 5779

Overview of the Weekly Reading

To be read on Shabbat Balak - 10 Tamuz 5779 /July 13

Torah: Numbers 22:2-25:9
Haftorah: Michah 5:6-6:8 (mentions Billam, Balak, and their plots)
Pirkei Avot:  Chapter 5

Balak is the 7th Reading out of 10 in Numbers and it contains 5357 letters, in 1455 words, in 104 verses

Overview: Parshat Balak opens with Balak, king of Moab, hiring Balaam, the gentile prophet, to curse the Jews. Despite Balaam's numerous sacrifices and attempts to curse the Jews, all he succeeds in doing is blessing the Jews! When Balaam and Balak realize the futility of trying to curse the Jews, they decide to try to cause the Jews to sin and thus arouse G-d's anger toward them. The parsha concludes telling how many of the Jews sinned with the Moabite women, worshipped their idolatry, and were punished subsequently with a plague. One of the tribal princes even sinned publicly, but was killed by Pinchas, the grandson of Aaron, whose act of zealousness simultaneously staved the plague

An essay from
Rabbi Shaul Yosef Leiter, director of Ascent

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This week's Torah portion is called Balak. The Jewish people are on their way to Israel and approached the borders of the Moabite nation. Balak, the king of Moab is afraid the Jewish will overrun his country. He sends a contingent of ministers to hire Bilam, a non-Jewish sorcerer-prophet to curse the Jews. G-d, while permitting Bilam to go to meet Balak with the ministers, forbids him to curse the Jews. On his way, an angel with a sword blocks Bilam and his donkey's path. The Torah describes how Bilam, the greatest prophet of the non-Jews, an equal to Moshe in awareness of the Divine Will, does not see the angel, but his she-donkey does! After berating and repeatedly beating the she-donkey to move on, it finally speaks out, in complaint. Only then, and greatly embarrassed, does Bilam see the angel. Great story. But what do we need it for? One of the principles of the Torah is that G-d does not make miracles that are unnecessary. Why was this miracle - of the donkey speaking - necessary?

The Torah has seventy faces. Just as when a person is happy, he or she looks completely different than when they are sad, so also the Torah can be understood from seventy perspectives. Many of the Torah's commentators share their opinions about the speaking donkey. Maimonides (1138-1204) insists that the entire conversation between Bilam and the donkey and the sighting of the angel is all a prophetic vision, and never actually happened in reality. A main commentator on Maimonides, the Ralbag (Rabbi Levi ben Gershon 1288-1344), explains that he, Maimonides, chose this position because on a certain level, the whole idea that the donkey will see the angel before Bilam a prophet, is preposterous. Why couldn't Bilam see the angel immediately? Why have the donkey speak?

The Mishna, in Pirkei Avot (chapter 5, Mishna 6), written nearly 1,000 years before Maimonides, teaches that it did happen. "Ten things were created during twilight on the eve of the first Shabbos; they were… the mouth of (Bilam's) she-donkey." How do we resolve the disagreement between the Rambam and the Mishna?

Enter Nachmanides (1194-1270). On a verse in Bereishit (18:2) he writes, and Rabbi Isaac Abarbanel (1435-1508) agrees, that for seeing alone, prophetic ability is not required. Even a donkey can see an angel. You do not have to say that the donkey understood what it was seeing (please see the dialogue in the parsha - Bamidbar 22:21-35). The verses say that the donkey veered away from the drawn sword waving in front of it. According to them, why didn't Bilam see the angel? Their answer is that there is a certain negative force in the world called "damagers" (mazikin). The world is filled with positive forces and negative forces. If we were able to see all of these supranatural forces we would lose our ability to freely choose our actions. In general, they are hidden from the eyes of man. On the other hand, they are visible to animals who do not have free choice.

All of this is very interesting, but the question still remains - why did we need this miracle? And why was there a delay in Bilam being able to see the angel, since he anyway was going to see it? The explanation for this is in the Zohar (teachings of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai transcribed in the 2nd century) (Balak 206b). In Bilam's case, his actual ability to curse was through the donkey. It was not just a service animal, to carry him around. Rather his sorcery was only possible by using the donkey as a conduit. Therefore, the way to disrupt Bilam's ability to curse was by the donkey seeing the angel first, in a sense reversing their relationship.

There is actually a proof for this in the Talmud (Tractate Brachot 7a), that a number of methods were put into action to stop Bilam's ability to curse the Jewish people. One example given is that G-d held Himself back from getting angry during this entire period. Bilam had a special ability to empower his curses at the time that G-d would become angry. It was not enough just to show the angel to the donkey. G-d had to also participate so that Bilam could not produce his curses.

We have answered most of the issues except one. Why did the donkey have to be given the ability to speak? The answer to this question is also from the Zohar (vol. 2/209/b)," Rabbi Yossi said, The ministers that were accompanying Bilam made fun of him. When they returned to Balak they told him, 'You sent us to bring this fool?!? He is an incompetent both in deed and in word. He could not even control his own donkey'." Later on, the Zohar continues, "Rabbi Chiya says, 'If the angel did not speak, Bilam would not have stayed his hand. It was through the donkey speaking that Bilam knew his power was broken'."

Now we understand. Through the opening of the mouth of the donkey G-d was able to break Bilam's strength and stop his ability to curse the Jewish people. The Midrash Shimoni (765) agrees. "The ministers of Balak were amazed that for the first (and only) time they saw an amazing miracle". From here we see the importance of the miracle to nullify Bilam's initiative.
(Adapted from Igrot Kodesh of the Rebbe vol.2 pg. 267).

This happened during the Chassidic gathering (a farbrengen when the Lubavitcher Rebbe would speak before a group of 5,000 to 10,000 people) on Shabbat parshat Beshalach, 1969. Towards the end the Rebbe said that it says in the Torah portion, that the Jewish people left Egypt "with an upraised hand" as a sign of victory. This means that the Jewish people were not at all afraid of their enemies. The Rebbe continued that this is also the meaning of the words, Prozos tayshev Yerushalayim, that Jerusalem will be settled in a broad way, without any walls. That Jerusalem does not need protection or walls. Rather, "you will dwell with surety in your land". Then the Rebbe started to sing the song, Prozos tayshev Yerushalayim. The Rebbe stood up in his place and encouraged the singing with great joy. Again, before leaving the synagogue, he started singing again. And he sang it again before praying the evening prayers, All of the Rebbe's actions are measured. This was something special. Everyone understood that this was not a normal situation.
A few days later four battle planes from Syria entered Israel airspace in an attack to do much damage to the population. The IDF was able to bring down all four planes without any causalities.

Shabbat Shalom, Shaul

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For last year's essay by Rabbi Leiter on this week's Reading, see the archive.


Specifically, for an overview of the recommended articles in the columns:
Holy Zohar, Holy Ari, Mystic Classics, Chasidic Masters, Contemporary Kabbalists, and more,
click to Chukat

one sample:

Contemporary Kabbalists
Conquering the Impurity of Death

From the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe; adapted by Moshe Yaakov Wisnefsky

Death is the antithesis of holiness, for G d is the source of life and vitality. When confronted with the reality of death, we become exposed to the the truth that everything is decaying, dying, headed toward oblivion, and life seems futile and meaningless. The individual must undergo a purification process to cure his depression (real or potential) and reorient him back toward the enthusiasm and vitality of holiness

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