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Parashat Balak 5778 — 06/30/2018

Parashat Balak 5778 — 06/30/2018

Bamidbar 22:2-25:9

Gd came to Bil’am at night and said to him, “If these men have come to call for you, arise and go with them, but the word I speak to you – that you shall do.” (22:20)

We have pointed out the multiple ironies in the story of Bil’am and his donkey and his quest to curse the Jewish people. A man who is going to destroy a nation with the power of his speech gets into an argument with his donkey – and loses! A prophet who is supposed to know Gd’s Mind cannot see an angel, which his donkey does see. All of this plays out in front of the emissaries of Balak, king of Moav, who have been sent to hire this man to destroy Israel. What confidence they must have had in Bil’am’s power!  But what, actually, is the source of Bil’am’s power?  Why would Gd have been worried about Bil’am’s power to curse?  Why was Balak so angry when a blessing came out?  Is a blessing (or a curse) a statement of fact, or does it create a new reality?

Abarbanel first quotes Ibn Ezra (Spain, 1089-1157), who ascribes no power at all to Bil’am. However, Gd was concerned that any punishment he would have to mete out to the nation would be erroneously ascribed to Bil’am’s curses rather than to Israel’s sins.  Abarbanel rejects the first part of Ibn Ezra’s explanation, quoting from Yehoshua (24:9-10) that had Gd not reversed the curses they indeed would have taken effect: but I refused to listen to Bil’am and he blessed you; thus I rescued you from his power.  Nonetheless, Abarbanel does acknowledge that Gd was concerned about what others may thing of the curses:

If Gd had allowed Bil’am to curse the Jewish people, the nations of the world would have trusted his curse, girded themselves for warfare, and been confident of success.
This is why Gd intervened and prevented Bil’am from cursing them at all: all the nations would realize that the success of the Jewish people came directly from Gd, and they would no longer have the courage to stand against them.

Let’s deal with the effectiveness of the curses. Both Ibn Ezra and Rambam take a rationalistic approach, essentially dismissing the idea that mere words can have a global impact, even the words of a prophet. Abarbanel, on the other hand, lived after the appearance of the Zohar (in 13th century Spain), and appears to take a subtler approach to the issue. The Zohar tells us that the sounds of the Hebrew language are the instantiations in physical sound of the subtlest vibratory impulses of creation, and that Hebrew words and Hebrew grammar display the way these impulses combine to structure all the manifest forms and phenomena of creation. Thus Gd created with His speech, and the implication is that we, who are created in Gd’s image, have some of that ability also, if we can think and speak from a fine enough level.

There is a fascinating allusion to this concept at the end of Parashat Naso (I heard this from R. Frand). The very last verse of the parashah (7:89) reads: And when Moshe came into the Tent of Meeting to speak with Him, he heard the Voice speaking to him from above the Ark-cover …  I have bolded the words “speaking to him” because the word “speaking” is vocalized in an odd way: midaber instead of m’daber. The difference is only one dot below the mem instead of two, but it’s not correct according to the normal rules of Hebrew grammar. (By the way, this difference does not appear in the Torah scrolls, which are written without any vowels at all. Besides the traditions governing the way a Torah scroll is written, there is a tradition, dating from Mt. Sinai, how it is to be read as well.) Rashi comments that midaber is to be understood as mitdaber, which is a reflexive form: the Voice was “speaking to itself.” Just in case someone missed the point, Rashi clarifies: the glory of Above spoke thus, speaking itself to itself, and Moshe heard it on his own.

How are we to understand this? What does it mean that Gd was speaking to Himself? Gd created the universe with His speech – And Gd said ‘let there be light’ and there was light. That speech then was the fundamental vibrations that structure creation, and, according to our tradition, Torah is the complete blueprint of creation – the total structure of creation is contained within the sequence of words / sounds in the Torah. Thus it appears that when Gd was communicating Torah to Moshe, the Torah was, as it were, reverberating within Gd and Moshe had his awareness stationed at a level where he, and apparently only he, could “hear” the sounds.

Among the very last words in the Torah is the statement that there never arose in Israel a prophet like Moshe. The Rabbis comment that there may not have arisen in Israel a prophet like Moshe, but among the nations of the world there did arise such a prophet – Bil’am!! Now we can understand how Bil’am’s curses could have and would have taken effect. If Bil’am were able to maintain his awareness at the level at which Torah is cognized, then his speech, like Gd’s speech, would be materialized.  Unfortunately for Bil’am, and fortunately for us, it doesn’t appear to be possible to be on this most powerful level of awareness and violate Gd’s Will. Therefore when Bil’am told Balak’s emissaries that he could come to curse, but could only say what Gd would put in his mouth, he wasn’t just whistling Dixie. For his words to have had an effect, they would have to have come from the very finest level of awareness. But to be on that level means to “hear Gd speaking to Himself” – in other words, what he would hear would only be blessing, and that is all he would be able to express.

I have long believed that evil is self-limiting. If a force is becoming more powerful, it is because it is drawing its strength from these deeper levels of awareness, and at these levels the forces of purity and holiness dominate. May we soon see the day when the whole world will be operating from the transcendental level of life, where all differences are harmonized.

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 liveable in our daily life. 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.

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 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 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 Bilaam’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 Bilaam’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 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.

The parshah ends with Pinchas, grand-son 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, no one is threatened by us, no one seeks to tempt us into wrong doing.

Our congregation 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, so, as Rabbi Tuvia Bolton likes to say when ending his commentary on the weekly parshah:

“Moshiach Now!”

Baruch HaShem