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Parashat Balak 5777 — 07/08/2017

Parashat Balak 5777 — 07/08/2017

Bamidbar  22:2-25:9

While on the surface, the whole incident of Balak and Bilaam recounts the actions of particular individuals, it is clear that there is a deeper level, perhaps one might say an archetypal story, beyond the specific incidents.  I believe that Ramchal approaches our parashah, and indeed all of Torah, from this level.

… and Moav was greatly afraid of the nation because they were great … And Moav was disgusted in the face of B’nei Yisrael.  (22:3)

The verse opens by referring to B’nei Yisrael as “the nation” and concludes by referring to them as B’nei Yisrael.  The reference to “the nation” refers to the physical nation, while “B’nei Yisrael” refers to the spiritual root of B’nei Yisrael which rested on the physical nation.  Moav greatly feared B’nei Yisrael’s spiritual root and that it had the capacity to subjugate all the aspects of tumah in which Moav was rooted.

Clearly, Moav and Midian stand for some very primary forces, forces that oppose what Israel stands for.  In fact, Ramchal indicates that the combination of the two create a new negative force:

On a deeper level, Moav descended from Lot who was associated with the “left side” of tumah, while Midian descended from Yishma’el rooted on the “right side” of tumah.  Their intent was to merge right and left creating a sense of “perfection” in the world of tumah, creating a force which could overpower B’nei Yisrael.

There are several interesting ideas here.  First, why is Lot identified with the “left side” and Yishma’el with the “right side”?  This is something I can only speculate on.  Both Lot and Yishma’el are associated with Avraham Avinu.  Yishma’el of course is Avraham’s son by Hagar, Sarah’s maidservant.  Lot is Avraham’s nephew, whom he adopted upon the death of his brother Haran.  So Yishma’el is closer to the progenitor of Israel than is Lot, although Lot’s line will make a detour back into the heart of Israel several generations hence, when Ruth the Moabite woman marries Boaz and gives birth to the line that will result in King David and eventually, Mashiach.

We read in Genesis how Yishma’el is evicted from the family home and becomes a “wild ass of a man.”  Nevertheless, when Avraham dies, we find that “Yitzchak and Yishma’el his sons” bury him (25:9).  From the fact that Yishma’el acknowledges Yitzchak’s precedence, the Sages conclude that Yishma’el repented.  Lot, on the other hand, separates from Avraham, choosing to “go left” to Sodom and barely escapes its destruction.  When he and his two daughters escape to the mountains, the daughters believe they are the last people left on earth, seduce their father, and give birth to Moav and Ammon.  We have discussed in earlier essays that these dubious origins of Mashiach (through Moav via Ruth) are meant to “fool the Satan.”  Here, I simply want to suggest that, compared to Yishma’el, Moav can easily be assessed as coming from the “left side” of tumah, and Yishma’el from the “right side.”  Nevertheless, both come from tumah.

The other concept I want to examine is the idea that Moav and Midian sought to create a kind of “perfection in the world of tumah.”  They sought to do this by combining the “left side” and the “right side.”  This idea of combining the right side and left side to create something more perfect is quite common in Jewish thought; it is at the basis of the Tree of Life imagery in Kabbalah.  In the seven “lower sefirot” the top three, chesed, gevurah and tiferet form this structure.

As we have seen from the very beginning of our year with Ramchal, chesed is associated with the “right side” (of kedusha, of course) and gevurah (din) is associated with the “left side.”  Chesed is associated with male energy, flowing, rushing, impetuous; while din is associated with female energy, quiet, steady, giving form and structure to the flow of male energy.  The combination of the two, when properly balanced, the flow not too much and the boundaries not too rigid, gives rise to tiferet – beauty, harmony, perfect integration.  This perfect integration is able to reflect the perfectly integrated state of the transcendental basis of all life.

I think this is what Ramchal is saying here: the same process is going on, on the side of tumah.  And if this process were to be successful, it would in fact pose a very formidable challenge.  Scripture, however, indicates that in fact, the process of integration on the side of tumah was not successful.  When the envoys first approach Bilaam to hire him, they are described as the “elders of Moav and the elders of Midian” (22:7).  Bilaam tells them to stay overnight and that he would report back what Gd would tell him.  The verse continues, “… and the leaders of Moav stayed with Bilaam” (v. 8).  The Rabbis had a tradition that the Midianites were aware that if Bilaam needed to consult with Gd overnight, that he would not be successful, so they simply left, taking with them the possibility of joining the left and right sides of tumah.

Since tumah is the force of dis-integration, it is not surprising that an attempt at integration on the side of tumah would fail.  Perhaps this is another example of the self-limiting nature of evil.  Before we get too complacent, however, we should remind ourselves that evil can do a considerable amount of damage before it limits itself – Bilaam may have failed to curse the Israelites, but he did catalyze the disastrous breach of morality that led to 24,000 deaths at the end of the parashah.  The best way to battle tumah is to align our individual awareness with the transcendental source of kedusha, and by so doing integrate our own mind, body, emotions and spirit into a structure that most perfectly reflects that kedusha.  This will enable us to deal gracefully with any challenge the tumah may present us.


Reflections on This Week’s Torah Portion

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. Bilaam, 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 Bilaam was forced to give a blessing, he would have been happier to curse and tried to find ways to do so. Similarly, for us today, challenges can turn into opportunities when we open ourselves to the Wholeness that is Gd.

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 Bilaam, always holding something back so we can make a personal profit if at all possible. According to Jewish legend, Bilaam 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 seems to have withdraw the prophet status from Bilaam after Bilaam advised Balak to send Midian harlots to Israel to entice a people too weak to resist – despite the blessing they had so recently received.

This parshah shows us that we need to be alert to avoid temptations and distractions.

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 Bilaam’s mouth, the people are sinning with harlots from Midian and worshiping their gods – abandoning Wholeness for partiality.

Key to earning 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 syanagogue. And these words Gd put into Bilaam’s mouth instead of the curse that Balak, king of Moab, wanted Bilaam to speak.

Our tents, our dwelling places are established in the purity of our hearts. “Home is where the heart is.”  When we feel at home in our heart, we feel at home in our physical dwelling places and others feel at home with us: our tents and dwelling places are goodly.

Balak challenges this purity by seeking to have Gd curse Israel.

Balak means “Destroyer”; Balak, the king of Moab, sends messengers asking Bilaam (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.

Bilaam replies that he can only speak what Gd puts in his mouth to speak and try though Balak does and try though Bilaam does, Gd puts only a blessing for Israel in Bilaam’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 88,000 judges in the community to slay two wrong-doers to stop the plague. But the plague doesn’t stop until Pinchas, grand-son of Aaron, slays an Israeli prince along with the harlot he took into his tent in full view of the community. Then the plague ends.

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.

Our congegration can and is creating 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 for Messiah establishing Gd’s Presence on Earth so, as Rabbi Tuvia Bolton likes to say when ending his commentary on the weekly parshah:

“Moshiach Now!”

Baruch HaShem