Parashat Balak: Prophet or magician?

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This week’s portion of Torah tells us about Balak ben Zipor, a Moabite king who was afraid that the Jewish nation would camp next to his land. He knew his chances of defeating the Israelites in battle were slim, so he looked for unconventional solutions. He sent people far east to bring Bilaam ben Be’or, who was known as a man whose blessings and curses have come true, from Aram Naharayim.

Bilaam asks God if he should go with Balak’s men and God forbids him. Balak then sends a second delegation, more numerous, more important which promises him everything he wants. Bilaam again asks God for permission and this time God allows him to go with Balak’s representatives, as long as he does what God wants.

Bilaam saddles his donkey and accompanies the men of the Moabite king. God is irritated by this and sends an angel to delay Bilaam three times. Bilaam does not see the angel, but his donkey sees him and tries to escape. On the third attempt, Bilaam gets angry with the donkey and hits it again and again. And then the donkey opens its mouth and talks to Bilaam! The donkey protests against the beatings, while Bilaam claims that it is the donkey who mistreats him.

So God opens his eyes and he sees the angel. The angel tells him that he should continue to Balak but only say what God wants him to say. Bilaam tries to curse the Jewish people three times from three different places, but all that comes out of his mouth are blessings.

By examining this event, we reveal the character of Bilaam, as well as the message hidden in this story. Indeed, Bilaam was a prophet and had great spiritual powers, but he was not connected to the will of God.

This trait of Bilaam comes up again and again. When Balak’s people approached him, he knew that Hashem was the God of Israel and that he did not want them to be cursed, but he was still waiting to ask God if he should go. The same thing happened with the second delegation. When God saw that Bilaam really wanted to go to Moab, He allowed him to go on condition that he spoke only God’s words. But Bilaam went there in the hope that God’s will would change and that he would eventually be able to curse Israel.

This is also the message given by the donkey: you’ve been riding me day after day for years. I have been faithful to you. But as soon as something happens that you don’t like, do you hit me? Have you wondered why I behave like this? Have you tried to understand me?

In his prophecies about Israel, Bilaam says of himself, “he who hears the words of God and perceives the thoughts of the Most High” (Numbers 24:16).

The Talmud says about this: “It is clear that Bilaam did not know the spirit of his animal, then he would know the spirit of the Most High? Rather, it teaches that he was able to determine the hour at which the Holy One, Blessed be He, is angry ”(Tractate Brachot 7: 1).

The wise point out the void expressed in the words of the donkey. Bilaam was unable to understand the reprimand of the animal he was riding. Could such a person understand God? They respond that Bilaam knew how to determine the time of day when God was angry, and at that time he tried to curse Israel. Bilaam was not connected to God in his prophecy, but rather was trying to harness the power of God for his needs.

We can learn something about suitability and our relationship with God. We should aim for a connection that strives to understand God’s will and understand where we can accommodate that will, rather than a connection that strives to harness the Creator for our needs. We can extrapolate from this to an understanding of marriage or any relationship with others. We shouldn’t see others just from our own perspective or try to take advantage of the relationship for our own needs. We must strive to understand others, try to understand the motivations behind the unusual behaviors and sincerely connect with them.

The writer is the rabbi of the Western Wall and the Holy Places.


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