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For the first time in a while, the main characters of this parsha are not the people of Israel. We learn the story of Balak, king of Moav. Israel just destroyed the Amorites, who in the past, had defeated Moav. So Balak was worried - Israel conquered the nation that conquered them. Balak hoped that a curse would weaken Israel and make them easier to conquer - so he hires Bilaam, a non-Israelite prophet. His hopes are dashed when, every time Bilaam opens his mouth to curse Israel, he accidentally blesses them instead.
And while it’s an interesting story, we can’t help but wonder: why are we hearing this? I get that it’s relevant to Israel, but the Torah isn’t an all-inclusive history book. We never hear about the internal conversations and strategies of, say, Amalek. Why does the Torah tell us this story?
Join us as we explore the story of Balak and Bilaam this week on the Parsha Experiment.
Hi, I’m David Block, and welcome to the Parsha Experiment.
To understand why Balak and Bilaam are included in the Torah, let’s look at the beginning of this story more carefully, and as we go through it, ask yourself, does this remind us of any other story in the Torah?
וַיָּגָר מוֹאָב מִפְּנֵי הָעָם, מְאֹד - and Moav, Balak’s nation, feared Israel, כִּי רַב-הוּא - for they were many. וַיָּקָץ מוֹאָב, מִפְּנֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל - and Moav became repulsed by Israel. So Balak has a plan. He sends messengers to Bilaam, this prophet, with the following message: וְעַתָּה לְכָה-נָּא אָרָה-לִּי אֶת-הָעָם הַזֶּה - So, now, Bilaam, go and curse this nation, כִּי-עָצוּם הוּא מִמֶּנִּי - because they’re mightier than me. אוּלַי אוּכַל נַכֶּה-בּוֹ, וַאֲגָרְשֶׁנּוּ מִן-הָאָרֶץ - and perhaps that will enable us to strike them and expel them from the land.
So, Does Balak’s plan remind us of anything? Is there another time in which the leader of a nation feared Israel, because they were רב - many? Because Israel was עצום - mightier than they? And that fear turned to revulsion - ויקץ? And those fears convinced this leader to take steps to enable his own nation to fight with Israel?
Don’t these fears sound exactly like Pharaoh’s? Back in Egypt, before they were slaves, when Israel was living securely and peacefully as guests in Egypt, Pharaoh became suspicious, paranoid. הִנֵּה, עַם בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל - this nation of Israel רַב וְעָצוּם, מִמֶּנּוּ - they’re many and mighter than us! הָבָה נִתְחַכְּמָה, לוֹ - so let’s deal wisely with them. פֶּן-יִרְבֶּה, וְהָיָה כִּי-תִקְרֶאנָה מִלְחָמָה וְנוֹסַף גַּם-הוּא עַל-שֹׂנְאֵינוּ - lest they become even greater and when war comes, they’ll side with our enemies, וְנִלְחַם-בָּנוּ, וְעָלָה מִן-הָאָרֶץ - and they’ll fight with us, and leave the land. וַיָּקֻצוּ, מִפְּנֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל - and Egypt was repulsed by Israel.
Look at that - Balak’s fears are almost identical echos of Pharaoh’s! But our comparisons seem a little unfair to Balak, don’t they? Yes, Balak was a bad guy - but Pharaoh committed genocide! Cursing Israel is not the same thing as murder and slavery! But actually, the Torah is making a deeper comparison. Not about the actions of Pharaoh and Balak - but in their mindsets - the intentions behind their actions.
Look at Pharaoh. Why did he enslave and murder the Israelite people? Well, he saw the growing nation of Israel as a potential threat. הִנֵּה, עַם בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל--רַב וְעָצוּם, מִמֶּנּוּ. Behold, the people of Israel are too many and too mighty for us. There were getting to be too many of them, so he needed a way to make them vulnerable, to ensure control over them. Balak, like Pharaoh, also feared Israel, and needed to figure out how to weaken them, so that he too could ensure control over them. They were really trying to accomplish the same thing.
But when we talk about motivations of these two leaders, we can go even deeper than a fear of Israel’s size and strength. Let’s go back to Pharaoh. The first time Moses and Aaron visit Pharaoh, they say: כֹּה-אָמַר יְהוָה, אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל - Thus says God, שַׁלַּח אֶת-עַמִּי, וְיָחֹגּוּ לִי בַּמִּדְבָּר - let my people go to celebrate me in the desert. They don’t demand that Pharaoh free them on moral or political grounds. They don’t demand freedom at all. They ask him to let the people worship God for a few days, because God said so! And look how Pharaoh responds: מִי יְהוָה אֲשֶׁר אֶשְׁמַע בְּקֹלוֹ, לְשַׁלַּח אֶת-יִשְׂרָאֵל - who is this God that I should listen to Him and send the people? לֹא יָדַעְתִּי אֶת-יְהוָה - I don’t know this God, וְגַם אֶת-יִשְׂרָאֵל לֹא אֲשַׁלֵּחַ - and I also won’t send out the people. Freeing the people is secondary… first and foremost, Pharoah denies God! This is a theological conversation! Moses’ request was about Pharaoh’s enslavement was not just about the practical benefits of having slaves… it was his way of denying God.
And we know this is true, because when God decided to take Israel out with plagues, He addressed precisely that denial of God! God didn’t need plagues in order to free the people from Egypt, he could have whisked them out on magic carpets. The plagues, the miracles, were all about educating Pharaoh and Egypt that God is God: וְיָדְעוּ מִצְרַיִם כִּי-אֲנִי יְהוָה, בִּנְטֹתִי אֶת-יָדִי עַל-מִצְרָיִם - And Egypt will know that I’m God when I stretch out My hand against them. And Pharaoh continuously rejected that idea, wanting to enslave the Israelites until the bitter end, even when his advisors, and his nation, wanted him to just let go. Because, fundamentally, this was all a battle of control. God tried to show Pharaoh that He, God, is in control… but by holding onto Israel, Pharaoh tried to assert his own power… to live in the illusion of his own control and he denied God.
And Balak? Unlike Pharaoh, Balak didn’t deny God. He knew that Israel had a God, and he knew of that God’s superior might. He just saw this Israelite nation of amateur fighters destroy Emor, the very nation that previously defeated Balak’s own nation. And, after Bilaam meets with God, וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ בָּלָק, מַה-דִּבֶּר יְהוָה - Balak asked: Nu, what did God say? He knew, unequivocally, about God. So, unlike, Pharoah, Balak was operating within the God framework.
And yet, Balak thought he could use Bilaam to beat God in battle! After one of the failed attempts at cursing Israel, Balak said to Bilaam: לְכָה-נָּא אֶקָּחֲךָ, אֶל-מָקוֹם אַחֵר - Come, I’ll take you to another place, אוּלַי יִישַׁר בְּעֵינֵי הָאֱלֹהִים, וְקַבֹּתוֹ לִי מִשָּׁם - perhaps it’ll be pleasing in God’s eyes and you can curse them from there. That might sound ridiculous to us: God’s not going to suddenly allow you to go against His will, by changing where you’re physically standing. But it highlights exactly Balak’s motivation. Even when recognizing God, he refused to cede control, and kept attempting to use Bilaam to manipulate the circumstances and maneuver it towards his desired results. Yes, he believes in God, but he’s trying to control God!
And while Bilaam went along with Balak’s game, he knew the truth. He told Balak, מָה אֶקֹּב, לֹא קַבֹּה אֵל; - how can I curse those whom God hasn’t cursed? וּמָה אֶזְעֹם, לֹא זָעַם יְהוָה - I can’t conjure up Divine wrath if God isn’t angry! Balak, it doesn’t work like that. We can’t control God.
And, now look at what God Himself tells them during their second attempt to curse Israel. קוּם בָּלָק וּשְׁמָע - Get up, Balak, and hear this: לֹא אִישׁ אֵל וִיכַזֵּב - God is not a man that he should waver. וּבֶן-אָדָם וְיִתְנֶחָם - He’s not a mortal that he should change His mind! Exactly! I’m not like a human being who changes his mind, who can be manipulated, who can be controlled. Learn that lesson: I’m in control, God says. Not you.
So, while Pharaoh’s and Balak’s tactics were different, these parallels show us that, at their core, they were trying to do precisely the same thing - maintain their power, live in the illusion of their own control. Both were unwilling to become vulnerable by admitting that only God is really in control. And in both scenarios, God has to show them - I’m in control, not you. Pharaoh, you won’t see me at all? So I’ll bring these plagues until you have no choice but to see me. Balak, you know about Me, but you think you can control Me? So I’ll put words of praise into Bilaam’s mouth, instead of curses, and you’ll see who’s really in control.
And now it makes perfect sense why the Torah includes this story about Balak, and Moav’s internal strategies. Because over the last number of parshas, we saw that Israel’s struggle with God was precisely what Balak’s struggle is here. Israel knew God, but they didn’t want to give up control, to become vulnerable and exposed. But, in last week’s parsha, something changed. The new generation of Israelites begin to learn the message that their parents never did: They recognize God, and they give up control to Him! And when they do, Israel’s relationship with God is repaired. They are finally ready to assume their role as God’s people. The people are now spiritually ready to pick up the mantle, as the nation chosen by God to be the ממלכת כהנים - kingdom of priests… a people who models God’s morality and values to the other nations of the world.
And now that they have mended their relationship with God and accepted upon themselves the responsibility of the chosen nation, we jump right into the story of Balak, another nation. Will Moav look at Israel as a model of morality and Godliness? Will other nations be able to learn from the chosen nation, to let go of control and trust in God?
Teaching that lesson to Moav through Israel is the driving force of much of what God says in this week’s parsha: כִּי לֹא-נַחַשׁ בְּיַעֲקֹב, וְלֹא-קֶסֶם בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל - there is no enchanting in Jacob, no divining in Israel. As Rashi explains, that means there are no diviners among Israel. Unlike Balak and Bilaam, Israel doesn’t try to manipulate God, to control Him. They put their trust entirely in God’s hands. And the question is: Balak, can you look at Israel and learn that lesson?
The story of Balak isn’t random. It’s a story of a nation’s struggle to internalize God’s message. To be willing to cede control and to trust God. And, most importantly, it’s a story that highlights Israel’s national mission. Israel isn’t only meant to internalize the message of control and trust in God for themselves. They’re meant to model it to the rest of the world. To teach everyone that, when one trusts in God completely, God never abandons you. You’re never alone.
Join us next week, on the Parsha Experiment.
1. The Parsha Experiment - Bereishit: Is The Torah One Big Story?
2. The Parsha Experiment - Noach: The Failure of Humanity
3. The Parsha Experiment - Lech Lecha: Was Abraham The First Wandering Jew?
4. The Parsha Experiment - Vayeira: the Power of Abraham's Influence
5. The Parsha Experiment - Chayei Sarah: Find Me A Find, Catch Me A Catch!
6. The Parsha Experiment - Toldot: All's Well That Ends Well
7. The Parsha Experiment - Vayeitzei: To Deceive Or Not To Deceive, That Is The Question
8. The Parsha Experiment - Vayishlach: Difficult Conversations
9. The Parsha Experiment - Vayeishev: Harlots & Coats & Goats, Oh My!
10. The Parsha Experiment - Miketz: Hello From The Other Side
11. The Parsha Experiment - Vayigash: A Speech That Turns The Tide
12. The Parsha Experiment - Shmot - Every Saga Has A Beginning: Meeting Moses
13. The Parsha Experiment - Va'era: The Exodus and Babe Ruth
14. The Parsha Experiment - Bo: The Flight of the Firstborn Nation
15. The Parsha Experiment - Beshalach: Are We An Ungrateful Nation?
16. The Parsha Experiment - Yitro: Does God Care About ME?
17. The Parsha Experiment - Mishpatim: Can Laws Be Meaningful?
18. The Parsha Experiment - Terumah: Is God Talking To Me Through The Laws of the Mishkan?
19. The Parsha Experiment - Tetzaveh: The Hidden Secrets In The Walls Of The Mishkan
20. The Parsha Experiment - Ki Tisa: Will God Always Forgive Me?
21. The Parsha Experiment - Vayakhel: How Can I Take A Step Towards God?
22. The Parsha Experiment - Pekudei: God Choosing Man, Man Choosing God
23. The Parsha Experiment - Vayikra: How To Read the Book of Vayikra
24. The Parsha Experiment - Tzav: How Can I Confront Sacrifices?
25. The Parsha Experiment - Shemini: Is There Meaning Behind The Laws of Kashrut?
26. The Parsha Experiment - Tazria: What do Tumah and Tahara Mean Today? Part I
27. The Parsha Experiment - Metzora: What Do Tumah And Tahara Mean Today? Part II
28. The Parsha Experiment - Acharei Mot: How Do Yom Kippur Rituals Save Us From Sins?
29. The Parsha Experiment - Kedoshim: How Can We Achieve Holiness?
30. The Parsha Experiment - Emor: Holiness In Space and Time
31. The Parsha Experiment - Behar: A Spiritual Economy
32. The Parsha Experiment - Bechukotai: The Epic Conclusion To Leviticus
33. The Parsha Experiment - Bamidbar: How Can We Transmit God's Values?
34. The Parsha Experiment - Naso: Adding Godliness To Our Lives
35. The Parsha Experiment - Beha'alotecha: Can I Be Vulnerable With God?
36. The Parsha Experiment - Shelach: How Can I Trust God When I Don't See Him?
37. The Parsha Experiment - Korach: Rejecting Israel's Leaders
38. The Parsha Experiment - Chukat: A Turning Point In Israel's Relationship With God
39. The Parsha Experiment - Balak: What Is Israel's National Mission?
40. The Parsha Experiment - Pinchas: Intimacy and Holiness
41. The Parsha Experiment - Matot-Masei: Israel's Psychological Journey
42. The Parsha Experiment - Devarim: Finding Inspiration From Our Past
43. The Parsha Experiment - Va'etchanan: Building An Intimate Relationship With God
44. The Parsha Experiment - Eikev: Appreciating Our Creators
45. The Parsha Experiment - Re'eh: Why Would Anyone Want to Worship Idols?
46. The Parsha Experiment - Shoftim: Is This Just A Boring Parsha?
47. The Parsha Experiment - Ki Teitzei: Is There Spiritual Guidance Within Our Legal System?
48. The Parsha Experiment - Ki Tavo: How To Make Sense Of The Terrible Curses
49. The Parsha Experiment - Nitzavim: How To Make Sense Of The Terrible Curses II
50. The Parsha Experiment - Vayeilech: The Inspiring Conclusion To The Torah
51. The Parsha Experiment - Ha'azinu-V'Zot Habracha: The Inspiring Conclusion To The Torah - Part 2
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