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Parashat Balak 5779 — 07/20/2019

Bamidbar 22:2-25:9

Curses! Foiled Again!

Bil’am is hired by Balak, king of Moab, to curse the Jewish people. Gd first tells Bil’am that he should not go, because the people are blessed, and that his curses will have no effect, nor is his blessing necessary. When Balak, and Bil’am, persist, Gd permits Bil’am to go, but with the proviso that he will say only what Gd puts in his mouth, which of course turns out to be blessings. Balak sends Bil’am packing, but not before Bil’am advises him to have the Moabite women seduce the Jewish men into immorality and idolatry. R. Goldin notes that this entire incident takes place out of sight and, presumably, out of mind of the Jewish people. Had Gd not had Moshe put it in the Torah, we would have been blissfully unaware of the entire incident. What, then, is Torah trying to tell us? What is the nature of a blessing or curse? How could a reprobate like Bil’am have such power? And what does the lurid coda of the parashah have to do with its main story?

First, what kind of a prophet was Bil’am? R. Goldin quotes Nechama Liebowitz (1905-1997) who distinguishes between Bil’am and the prophets of Israel in two ways:

  • Bil’am sought out prophecy, by means of animal offerings, meant to propitiate Gd, as explicitly stated in the text, and through sorcery, as implied in the text. The prophets of Israel often ran away from prophecy and its demands, and do not seek it out. (I might point out that in Biblical times there were “schools of prophets” which at the very least strove to prepare people to receive prophecy.)
  • The prophets of Israel spoke in Gd’s name; Bil’am speaks in his own name, although he prefaces his prophecies by saying that he could only speak what Gd had put in his mouth.

Maimonides (1135-1204) describes prophecy as an experience of the transcendent, which the prophet’s imaginative faculty projects into words and descriptions that can be grasped by the limited human mind. In order to experience the transcendent, the mind must be allowed to become silent, yet awake. This is done by closing off the gateways by which the mind is projected outward, so it can effortlessly go within itself, until it transcends its own activity, i.e. the thinking process. Repeated experience of the transcendent trains the mind to maintain this level of absolute silence, even during activity, and I think it is this level of refinement that is necessary for prophecy. For if, as Rambam states, prophecy is the experience of the transcendent, and the action of the imaginative faculty to transform this experience into words and images that convey a sense of that (ineffable) experience, then it would seem that both the experience of the transcendent and the imaginative faculty, which is an active principle, must coexist.

Being able to maintain the experience of the transcendent along with the active mind requires a refined, supple, flexible mind and nervous system. Such a state is cultivated by periodically going inward, instead of projecting the mind outward all the time. Bil’am, who was steeped in materiality, was not such a person! How did he attain to prophecy?! I think anyone who’s ever driven an old clunker knows the answer. Generally it just clunks along, but sometimes, maybe for a mile or two, it just runs smoothly. In the same way, Bil’am may have purified himself to some degree, perhaps by using some of the techniques taught in the “schools of prophets,” so that he could occasionally catch a glimpse of the transcendent, but in a cloudy, distorted way. Perhaps that also sheds some light on how, a mere 40 days after Gd’s Revelation at Mt. Sinai, the Israelites were dancing around the golden calf.

But why would Gd give Bil’am prophesy? In truth, we could ask that question about any prophet. There were literally hundreds of thousands of prophets in Israel during the era of prophesy, but only a very few left any literary legacy. The answer our Sages give is generally that Gd does what is necessary to keep His plan for the perfection of creation moving along. It is the need of the time. Apparently Gd needed blessings to come to Israel specifically from their enemies, and rebuke from their leaders. Getting curses from your enemies and flattery from your leaders is no trick!

One last question: how is it that a human being is able to bless or to curse at all? Clearly all blessings come from Gd, Who is the source of blessings and wholeness. Even in the case of Birkat Kohanim (the Priestly Blessings) Gd tells the Kohanim to “put [His] Name on the people and [He] will bless them.” Nonetheless, we are created in Gd’s image, and one of Gd’s most important characteristics is His creating via speech.

As we have seen, Gd’s “speech” is the fundamental vibrations of Creation, the patterns of vibration that form the various forms and phenomena in creation. These vibrations, as we have discussed, can be expressed in the form of human speech, specifically, according to our esoteric tradition, the Hebrew language. Now Gd’s speech comes from within His essence. Our speech comes from different levels, according to our level of consciousness. If one’s consciousness is very refined, thought and speech can be projected from a very subtle level, and can produce its results with great power and efficiency. Bil’am apparently had enough refinement that his words could indeed create effects, but also enough dross that his thoughts were distorted and negative – he could curse, but not bless, at least not without having Gd put the blessing in his mouth.

The takeaway for us is – let us fill out mouths with blessings at every opportunity! Let us bless Gd for all the good that He’s given us, and let us bless each other as we make our way together through the world.
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Commentary by Steve Sufian

Parashat Balak

In this parshah, we are reminded that Gd is always protecting us, blessing us. By doing our best to follow His Will, this Protection and Blessing becomes clearer and more livable in our daily life. Balaam, though requested by Balak, king of Moab, to curse Israel could only speak what Gd gave him to speak and that was blessings for Israel. Although Balaam was forced to give a blessing, he would have been happier to curse and tried to find ways to do so.

From our side we can be armored in purity and receive and give only Blessings by behaving like Moses who served Gd with all his heart and soul in leading Israel to high spiritual consciousness and to the physical Promised Land, or we can behave like Balaam, always holding something back so we can make a personal profit if at all possible.

According to Jewish legend, Balaam was made a prophet so that the non-Jewish nations could not say, “If we only had our own prophet, like Moses, we could also have served Gd well.”  But Gd abandoned him and he lost his status as a prophet after his advice to Balak to set up the conditions of harlotry and idolatry that would tempt a people too weak to resist — despite the blessing they had so recently received.

This parshah shows us that we need to be alert:
We really need to be following the straight path and we cannot forget that our good life is a gift from Gd for being good people; we cannot sharply depart from the Path of Virtue. Hardly a moment after Gd blessed Israel through words he put into the prophet Balaam’s mouth, the people are sinning with harlots from Midian and worshipping their gods — abandoning Wholeness for partiality.

Key in the blessings of this parshah are the words, “Ma Tovu ohalecha Yaakov mishkanotecha Yisroel”: “How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob, thy dwelling places, O Israel.”  This is the prayer we recite when we enter the synagogue. And these words Gd put into Balaam’s mouth instead of the curse that Balak, king of Moab, wanted Bilaam to speak.

Balak means “Destroyer”; Balak, the king of Moab, sends messengers asking Balaam (his name means “no nation,” he does not serve a nation, a whole: he is a prophet that can be hired by individuals to bless or curse) to curse Israel as they pass through Moab.

Balaam replies that he can only speak what Gd puts in his mouth to speak and try though Balak does and try though Balaam does, Gd puts only a blessing for Israel in Balaam’s mouth.

This is the comforting side of this parshah. The warning side is the sinning with harlots and worshipping their idols, actions which result in a plague and Moses ordering each of the judges in the community to slay two wrong-doers to stop the plague.

The parshah ends with Pinchas, grandson of Aaron, slaying an Israeli prince along with the harlot he took into his tent in full view of the community.

Though we can hardly take such action today to end plagues and immorality in our community, in the world, we can do our best to live good, pure lives so that our community, our world, is blessed by Gd flowing through us and everyone feels comforted by this Blessing.

Our congregation is helping to create a world in which Gd’s Presence is becoming more visible (perhaps not in the mainstream news) but in everyday life and setting up the conditions so, as Rabbi Tuvia Bolton likes to say when ending his commentary on the weekly parshah:

“Moshiach Now!”

Baruch HaShem