Balak 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Balak

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5760 and can be found in its archives.

Balak (Numbers 22:2- 25:9)


This week’s parasha is almost all one long story, of Balak, the king of the nation Moav, and his hired prophet Bilaam (plus a rather unusual donkey.) Balak decides that Israel is a threat to his kingdom, so he hires Bilaam to curse them; Bilaam then discovers that the power of blessing and cursing comes is God’s alone. On his way to curse Israel, his donkey stops, for an angel blocks the way, but Bilaam can’t perceive what his animal does. Finally, Bilaam blesses Israel with a famous blessing. At the end of the parasha, the Israelites get in trouble by worshipping a foreign deity.


“How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel! Like valleys they spread out, like gardens beside a river, like aloes planted by the LORD, like cedars beside the waters. Water will flow from their buckets; their seed will have abundant water. . . . ” (Numbers 24:5-7)


Bilaam, the hired prophet, tries to curse Israel, but a blessing comes out of his mouth instead, for all blessings come from God, and nobody can bless or curse except if God wishes it. Standing on a mountain over the Israelite camp, Bilaam praises Israel before predicting that Israel will prevail over its enemies. The words of Bilaam’s blessing, beginning with Ma Tovu [How goodly. . .], are a beloved part of the synagogue liturgy.


Even though Bilaam’s blessing of Israel was apparently God’s direct wish, some later commentators are still suspicious of Bilaam’s motives. A Chasidic commentator, Yaakov Yosef of Polnoye, goes so far as to compare Bilaam, the “non-Jewish” prophet, with the more famous prophets of the Bible, like Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and so on. “Our” prophets didn’t praise Israel very much- they were constantly reproving the people and challenging them to improve their behavior! So Yaakov Yosef asks:

    What is the difference between a true prophet and a false one? the true prophet can be identified in most cases by their scoldings. They point out the blemishes and defects and want to break the measure. The false prophet flatters the people with sweet talk and sees none of the low land. “Peace, peace, everything’s fine, and there’s no need for correction.” [Cf. Jeremiah 6:14, 8:11] 

    But true prophets, genuine lovers of the people, they scold. Bilaam, however, does not sing from any great love of Israel, even though he has many songs and praises for Israel. On the contrary, he intends to entice Israel so that they will not do anything, so that they will no longer yearn to ascend higher and higher up the ladder. [He wants them to think that] they are absolutely perfect; they are blessed with every good quality. And just this is the difference between him and the prophets of Israel.

This interpretation of Bilaam’s blessing is found in Sparks Beneath the Surface, a collection of Chasidic teachings on the weekly Torah portion with a commentary from the contemporary liberal rabbis Lawrence Kushner and Kerry Olitsky. They point out what the essence of prophecy is for Yaakov Yosef:

    . . . the key is in the nature of the message itself. Tough love. If a prophet merely bestows compliments on Israel, we can know that such a prophet is false for he does not encourage Israel to reach higher. To do so, a true prophet scolds. He wants the people to reach higher, to ascend the rungs of the ladder toward heaven.

Note, please, that this discussion of prophecy does not have anything to do with predicting the future, as the contemporary slang use of the word would have it. As Abraham Joshua Heschel put it, prophecy is not about predicting the future, it’s about speaking the word of God, no matter what the consequences. From this perspective, we understand the mission of the prophets is helping the people reach their true potential; someone like Bilaam, the “false prophet,” encourages the people to be self-satisfied and complacent.

Now, one could legitimately object that perhaps scolding and rebuking isn’t the best way to get someone to strive harder for improvement. One could also point out that it’s not always so obvious what other people need to do for their personal growth and self-improvement; in fact, part of anybody’s maturation process is learning to become less judgmental and presumptuous in relationships!

However, for the purposes of understanding the nature of Bilaam’s “blessing,” let’s merely propose that someone who offers only blessings, with no challenge to “ascend the rungs” ever higher, is not necessarily acting in the most loving way. The contemporary psychologist M. Scott Peck, in his famous work on the psychology of spiritual growth called The Road Less Traveled, explicitly connected the very definition of love with the idea of being attentive to the growth of others:

    I have defined love as the will to extend oneself for the purpose of nurturing one’s own and another’s spiritual growth. Genuine love is volitional rather than emotional. The person who truly loves does so because of a decision to love. This person has made a commitment to be loving whether or not the loving feeling is present. . . . True love is not a feeling by which we are overwhelmed. It is a committed, thoughtful decision. (The Road Less Traveled, p. 119.)

Extending oneself for the purpose of nurturing the spiritual growth of others is about as concise a characterization of the Hebrew prophets as I can imagine. Loving others in this manner isn’t always comfortable or easy, but this was the difference between the saccharine words of Bilaam* and the constant pleadings of Moshe, urging the people to become the faithful partners with God he knew they could be.

*in this interpretation-there are others who see Bilaam’s words as true reflections of God’s blessing.

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