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In this week's video, Rabbi Fohrman explores a mysterious mishnah, in which our Sages compare Abraham and his students, to Balaam, the prophet of this week's parsha, and his students. Where do they get this odd comparison, and what is the meaning we are meant to learn from it?
Hi I am Rabbi David Fohrman and welcome to Parsha Balak.
So the sages of [Hebrew 00:05] tell us something puzzling, they contrast two biblical figures that you would never think of contrasting and in their words, [Hebrew 00:12] anyone who possesses these three qualities, [Hebrew 00:17], is from the students of Abraham. [Hebrew 00:21], but anyone who possess these three other qualities, [Hebrew 00:25], are from the disciples Belem.
Belem and Abraham, Belem of course is the star of this week’s Parsha. He is the non-Jewish prophet who’s hired by Balak, the King of [Hebrew 00:37] to try to defend his land against invasion by the Israelites. Balak doesn’t want Belem to build a Sherman tanks or fly an M-16 machine guns, he is looking for spiritual protection, he wants Belem to curse the Jewish people and somehow allow Balak to get the upper hand against them in the war. Belem is a spiritual mercenary of sorts, a prophet for hire but why of all people, would we think of contrasting Belem and Abraham?
The sages continue and tell us [Hebrew 01:06], someone with a generous eye and a humble spirit, they are disciples of Abraham, [Hebrew 01:14], someone possess a narrow spirit, a [Hebrew 01:19], disposition, these are the disciples of Belem. Why would the sages see Belem that way and why would they contrast among of all people, with Abraham? Where were they beginning that from?
The sages here and elsewhere are pretty hard, on Belem. Belem is often categorized as Belem [Hebrew 01:35], the evil one and yet, a quick look of the text doesn’t seem to yield such great evil in Belem. He seems like a pretty nice guy. I mean it’s true he is a prophet for hire and he is willing to do harm to the Jews, if Balak ends up being one of his clients but he tells Balak over and over again, I am just going to say what God puts in my mouth. [Hebrew 01:55], I cannot contravene God’s word and either in a great way or in a little way and in fact, it is true. Belem never says anything that God doesn’t tell him to say. So why the sages are so hard on him, why does he deserved to be called ‘Belem [Hebrew 02:11]’?
These two questions, where does it lurk Belem’s great evil and why contrast him to Abraham? Something I would like to explore with you, in this week’s Parsha.
Okay, so our first indication that Belem and Abraham might be linked in some way comes at the very beginning of the text, when Balak first propositions Belem and asks him to go curse these people, [Hebrew 02:35]. He says, I know that anyone that you bless will be blessed, those who you curse will be cursed. What does that remind you of? Let’s play our favorite little game here, where have we heard these words before? ‘Those who you bless, will be blessed, those who you curse will be cursed’. When God first reveals himself to Abraham, we also hear about blessings and curses, [Hebrew 03:00], God tells Abraham, ‘And I will bless those who bless you’, [Hebrew 03:04], ‘And I will curse those who curse you’. Sounds pretty similar although they are not exactly the same, they are in fact opposites or inverses of one another. Belem is active, ‘Those who you curse will be cursed’. In Abraham’s case, he is passive, he is not doing anything, the people are doing it to him. Those who curse Abraham, will be cursed, those who bless him will be blessed.
So, we have on the one hand, kind of language which seems to link these two men and yet, they do seem to be the inverse of each other.
And now, look at what we actually find in this [Hebrew 03:39] tells us that Abraham and Belem represent two kinds of people that are the inverse of one another. But this isn’t the only link between these two men. The links actually run much deeper than just this. Let’s keep on reading. Belem sets out on his trip with Balak, the king of [Hebrew 03:57]. Belem wakes up early in the morning, [Hebrew 04:01], and settles his donkey.What does that remind you of? Yeah, you have got it, that’s actually the way, the very climax of the Abraham saga began. The story of The Acadia, the biding of Isaac, [Hebrew 04:13], Abraham woke up early in the morning, [Hebrew 04:17], and he too, settles his donkey and both men, set out on a journey.
Now maybe you think that’s kind of coincidental but what about this, what’s the next thing that we hear with Abraham? After Abraham wakes up early in the morning and after he settles his donkey, the next thing we hear, [Hebrew 04:31], he takes two lambs with him. And now, Belem, [Hebrew 04:38], he is riding his donkey, [Hebrew 04:40], and two lambs are with him. Doesn’t seem so much like a coincidence anymore, does it? I mean it really seems like that there is something here. We continue reading this more and more parallels and I don’t have time enough to get into all of them here but think about the angle on the Acadia. God says, ‘take Isaac and sacrifice him’, the angel says, ‘no, don’t touch him’. Here too, God actually tells Belem ‘you can go’. Along comes the angel and says, ‘don’t go anywhere’. The angel once again, seems to stop Belem in his tracks. What’s the Torah saying?
We seemed to have answered one question but just created another. Yes, that’s which the sages say there’s a deep comparison between Belem and Abraham seems evident from the text itself. The Torah seems to be setting up these two men on going on in Acadia like journey and yet, what does it mean to say to Belem is on an Acadia like journey? He is not going to sacrifice anyone, what’s the text mean to tell us by creating these parallels and how does this help us understand what the sages tell us about the disciples of Abraham on the one hand and the disciples of Belem on the other?
I think the answer to these questions is that in some deep way that journey taken by Abraham and the journey taken by Belem is a similar journey. Even though, these two men approach that journey differently. Indeed, their approaches are the opposite of one another but the journey is the same journey.
What is the central challenge of the Acadia? In the Acadia Abraham hears the words he most does not want to hear from the almighty, ‘take a child, the one that you love and give him back to me’. Abraham would do anything not to hear those words. When God asks you to do something that you desperately do not want to do, what is your challenge? Many of us would say your challenge is, will you do it or not and yes, at one level, that’s of course is true but I think, there even maybe a deeper challenge faces us. It is not so much will I do it or not but will I admit to myself that this is truly what’s being asked of me. Will I allow myself to see things as they truly are or will I deceive myself about what God has asked of me? In that vein I want you to look for a moment with me, at what happens with Belem when he first asks God permission to go with Balak. God’s response to Belem is [Hebrew 07:03], ‘do not go with him’, [Hebrew 07:06], ‘do not curse this people’, [Hebrew 07:09], ‘because they are blessed’.
Now, will you say God has been clear about his intentions or not so clear? This is about as clear as it gets, I mean God says, ‘do not go, do not curse them, they are blessed’. There is really no room for argument here. What happens next, Belem wakes up in the morning, goes to the messenger’s of Balak and tells them [Hebrew 07:28], ‘Go home, it’s not going to work’, [Hebrew 07:30], ‘Because God has withheld himself from allowing me to go with you’.
Now, would you say, that is an accurate summery of what God said to Belem? It’s kind of accurate but not exactly so. Is it true that God has withheld himself for allowing Belem to go? Dad, didn’t let me go with you, that really what’s going on? It’s not what God said, God is saying, ‘This can’t work. God is not letting me go with you’, softens thing ever so much it creates implication that perhaps God could be persuaded. God is holding back, that’s really the sense of the word [Hebrew 08:08]. Same language when the wife of [Hebrew 08:11] is trying to seduce Joseph, [Hebrew 08:13] and Joseph withheld himself, there’s a struggle there. God struggling, he is just holding back. What happens next, [Hebrew 08:22], the messengers from Balak come back to the king and they say, [Hebrew 08:27], ‘Belem has withheld himself from coming with us’. Now, is that accurate or not so accurate? Well, on one hand it is kind of accurate, Belem was not going but look at it carefully. Did Belem say he is withholding himself? He didn’t even say that, he said God is withholding himself. It is like a game of broken telephone here, why are the messengers from Balak misrepresenting what Belem said or are they misrepresenting it?
In a deep kind of way the messengers understand the truth, it’s Belem who is withholding himself from going with you, that in Belem’s mind is not just about what God wants or doesn’t want. Belem is playing with the truth. It’s Belem who is showing us that God is withholding himself back, Belem is holding back. Must be we haven’t give Belem enough of what he wants yet which explains the next thing that happens. The king of [Hebrew 09:15] tries again. This time, [Hebrew 09:16], he sends messengers who are more honorable and greater than those before and he tells him, ‘please go’. [Hebrew 09:27], ‘I will honor you greatly, everything you ask of me I will do, just please, curse these people for me’. Belem’s response, [Hebrew 09:36], ‘if Balak would give me a whole house full of gold and silver, I couldn’t transgress that which God, my God asks of me’, [Hebrew 09:47], I couldn’t transgress it in a great way or even in a small way. Well, that’s very righteous of Belem but there are two things that I have to catch your eyes here. The first is, he is being a little too explicit about that house full of gold and silver, isn’t he? Even he would give me a whole house full of gold and silver, what do I really want here? I am looking for the house full of gold and silver. Which explains the next thing that happens, [Hebrew 10:09], ‘and now, wait here tonight’, [Hebrew 10:14], ‘let’s see what God will tell me again’. What did he means let’s see what God tell me again, he already explained very categorically, you should not go, what is there to ask God again for? So God comes to Belem and says, [Hebrew 10:26], ‘The people are calling you’, [Hebrew 10:29], ‘Go with them’, [Hebrew 10:31], ‘But you still have to say whatever I may tell you’. Strange, first God said, don’t go and then God saying go? Is God contradicting himself? And if God said go, then how come once Belem goes, [Hebrew 10:45], when Belem gets up to go, [Hebrew 10:50], the God becomes angry that Belem went and sends the angel to block him. Why you are angry, you said he could go.
There is a great principle that out sages speak of, [Hebrew 11:00], ‘And the place that you want to go, God will take you there’. God already said no, Belem comes back for another crack of the bad [?]. So what do you do, say no again? Then Belem will come back again. At a certain point, if you are God, you say, ‘Look, if you want to go, go but what’s your journey now? Your journey is, can you be honest enough to see what I really want. When are you going to open your eyes and that really is the great journey of the Acadia, will you open your eyes to the truth?
Abraham’s greatness lies not just in his willingness to act on God’s command but lies in his willingness to see God’s command for what it is. Do not lie to yourself about what you heard God say. Belem’s greatest evil here is that he is lying to himself. Belem’s self image is as a great servant of God, I cannot transgress what God has said even a little bit. I am a spiritual man but he is a prophet who lies to himself, who softens, changes what God has said, to ever since slightly, suit his own, unexpressed desires.
So the great question of the Acadia is this, will you look the truth in the eye, as painful as it is or will you distort it? At the end it is an issue of ego, if I understand who God is and I understand who I am then at some point yet to take yourself out of it. It says this is what I really heard and if you do that then you are a Abraham. That’s the humility that our sages were talking about and the disciples of Abraham but if you are not humble, if your sense of self is inflated, well, then I am not so interested in really hearing what God says. I mean, yeah, I will hear him but we can message things a little bit, right? This our sages tell us is actually great evil. At face value it seems that Belem is making slight adjustments to what God says but slight adjustments, the inserting of self into God’s words, the lying to yourself about what you heard, this is the making of true evil and in this lies the difference between Abraham and Belem.
1. V'Zot Habracha: Looking Towards the Future - Part 3/3
2. Ha'azinu: A Unique Nation - Part 2/3
3. Nitzavim-Vayeilech: Where's the Happy Ending? - Part 1/3
4. Ki Tavo: Answer
5. Ki Tavo: Question
6. Ki Teitzei: Answer
7. Ki Teitzei: Question
8. Shoftim: Epilogue 2
9. Shoftim: Epilogue 1
10. Shoftim: The Line Between Murder And Apathy
11. Re'eh: Jewish Slavery
12. Part II: Eikev: What Does It Mean To Be A Good Person?
13. Part I: Eikev: What Does It Mean To Be A Good Person?
14. Va'etchanan: Seeing Layers in the Ten Commandments
15. Devarim: What Does It Mean To Have Faith?
16. Masei: Why Is The End of Bamidbar So Anticlimactic? II
17. Matot: Why Is The End of Bamidbar So Anticlimactic?
18. Pinchas: What Does It Mean To Be Zealous For God?
19. Balak: Balaam, Prophet For Hire?
20. Chukat: Was Hitting the Rock So Horrible?
21. Korach: Can We Influence God?
22. Shelach: Is Hope Irrational?
23. Behaalotecha: A Guide For...Parenting? Part II
24. Naso: A Guide For...Parenting?
25. Bamidbar: Who Cares About Genealogy?
26. Bechukotai: Why Would God Curse His People?
27. Behar: Why Does Land Have To Rest?
28. Emor: Is There A Shabbat In Other Realms?
29. Kedoshim: How Can I Achieve True Love?
30. Acharei Mot: The (Surprising) Purpose of Yom Kippur
31. Metzora: Living Within the Community
32. Tazria: The Bizarre Purification of the Metzora
33. Shemini: Why Did God Reject Nadav and Avihu?
34. Tzav: What Does It Mean To Survive?
35. Vayikra: Can Leaders Make Mistakes?
36. Pekudei: A Giant Chiasm In Sefer Shmot
37. Vayakhel: What Does It Mean To Be Tzelem Elokim?
38. Ki Tisa: Moshe's Benevolent Chutzpah
39. Tetzaveh: Where Is God In a Physical World?
40. Terumah: Is There a Face Hiding in the Tabernacle?
41. Mishpatim: Female Servitude...Wait, What?
42. Yitro: The Marriage of God and Israel
43. Beshalach: What Does It Mean to Have Faith?
44. Bo: Did God Really Need Ten Plagues?
45. Va'era: Did God Take Away Pharaoh's Free Will?
46. Shmot: If Midrash is Real, Why Isn't It Peshat?
47. Vayechi: Who is Joseph's Real Father?
48. Vayigash: The Epic Confrontation Between Judah and Joseph
49. Miketz: Why Didn't Joseph Write Home?
50. Vayeishev: Who Really Sold Joseph?
51. Vayishlach: Becoming a Person of Integrity
52. Vayeitzei: Consequences of Yaakov's Deceit
53. Toldot: A Conversation For the Ages
54. Chayei Sarah: What Makes For A Successful Life?
55. Vayeira: Abraham's Struggle With Loyalty
56. Lech Lecha: Covenant With God
57. Bereishit: Does Man 'Acquire' Woman?
58. Noach: Why Did God Destroy the World?
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