Archive for Balak

Balak: A Better Way

Copyright 2016 Neal Joseph Loevinger 

Torah Portion: Balak
Pinchas the son of Eleazar the son of Aharon the kohen saw this, arose from the congregation, and took a spear in his hand. . . (Bamidbar/Numbers 25:9)
Hello again! It’s good to be back with a Torah commentary, but today, I actually don’t have much commentary. The Torah sages who crafted our liturgy clearly have something to say about this week’s portion, but me, not so much.  
Let me explain. The Torah portion, Balak, is mostly not about the eponymous king of Moav, but about his hired sorcerer Bilaam, he of the famous talking donkey. Bilaam tries to curse Israel, doesn’t really succeed, and in the end predicts Israel’s victory. The portion ends, however, with a much darker story, that of the death sentence pronounced upon the Israelite followers of Baal-Peor, portrayed as one of the gods of the Moabites, whose women had tempted Israelite men into this particular form of idolatry. Pinchas, a priest and Moshe’s great-nephew, saw an Israelite man and a Moabite woman apparently flaunting their relationship right at the Tent of Meeting, and responded as above, by taking up his spear and impaling the both of them. 
The rabbis are stuck with the fact that Pinchas is, in the Torah text, praised by God for his actions (at the beginning of the next portion), so they tell us exactly how terrible and disgraceful the man and his Moabite lover really were, even imagining them engaged in physical relations right there in front of everybody in the holy place. There are all kinds of commentaries about how the zealotry of Pinchas was holy and righteous, how it lead to miracles and saved the people, how it was exactly the right response to terrible idolatry.
And yet. . . there’s the haftarah chosen for Balak, which reminds the people to remember how God saved them from Bilaam’s curse. This selection from the prophet Micah also enjoins the people to respond not with extraordinary ritual devotion, but instead to remake themselves morally, to express gratitude and fealty to God through becoming Godly in their qualities: 
“The Holy One has told you, O people, what is good, and what the Lord requires of you: Only to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk modestly with your God . . .” (Micah 6:8). 
Concluding the haftarah with this verse is also a response to the violent zealotry of Pinchas and his ilk in every generation. That’s why I don’t need to say much in response to Pinchas or anyone else who would presume to love God by hating people; the prophet Micah and the rabbis who chose his words simply say, there is a better way, and nothing more need be added. 
Shabbat Shalom, 
The views expressed are my own and do not reflect that of Vassar Brothers Medical Center or Health-Quest.

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Balak: Hatred Twists the Soul

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Balak

In the morning Bilaam arose, saddled his she-donkey and went with the Moabite dignitaries. ” (Bamidbar/ Numbers 22:21) 

Good afternoon! Many of you know the story of Bilaam, the sorcerer hired by Balak, the king of Moav, to put a curse on the Israelites as they traveled through the land. (If you don’t know the story, or how it turns out, there’s a summary here.) While the text of the Torah seems to portray Bilaam as motivated more by greed than animus, the ancient rabbis clearly thought he wanted to curse Israel out of ill-will towards them. 

In fact, our old friend Rashi quotes an earlier text on the verse above, noting (by way of comparison to our father Avraham) that “getting up in the morning” seems to connote a special zeal for the task at hand. Rashi also notes that Bilaam saddled his donkey  himself, and comments that “hatred spoils the standard,” meaning, he was so consumed by hatred for the Jews that he disregarded the protocol due a man of his rank and saddled his own donkey, rather than having a servant do it for him. 

Now, I don’t have a servant to saddle my donkey (ok, truth be told, I don’t have a donkey either), but I’ve seen many times how resentment and negativity causes people to act in ways unbecoming their dignity. In fact, I might even propose that remembering that you and I and every person is created in the Divine Image is a way to regain the composure and thoughtfulness which resentment “spoils,” to use Rashi’s image. If we remember not only that the person or people towards whom we have anger, frustration or ill-will are children of God, but so are we, then perhaps a desire to live on that spiritual level will enable us to re-center and remember that anger and hatred rarely solve our problems, nor leave us feeling any better. How should we behave? Not like Bilaam, who gave up his dignity out of hatred, but like Aaron, who spent his live seeking peace and pursuing it. 

Shabbat Shalom, 


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Balak: Moshe’s Tears

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Balak 

Good morning! 

Our Torah portion this week has two famous stories; the shorter one may be harder to understand than the longer one. First, we have the story of Balak and Bilaam, the former being the king of Moab who hires Bilaam, a sorcerer, to put a curse on the Israelites. Of course, it doesn’t work out that way, and Bilaam ends up blessing Israel instead, but at the end of the chapter, the narrative turns ominous once again: 

“While Israel was staying at Shittim, the people profaned themselves by whoring with the Moabite women, who invited the people to the sacrifices for their god. . .  Thus Israel attached itself to Baal-peor, and the Lord was incensed with Israel. . . . . Just then one of the Israelites came and brought a Midianite woman over to his companions, in the sight of Moses and of the whole Israelite community who were weeping at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. “ (Bamidbar/ Numbers 25:1-6, abridged.) 

It’s a bloody story, with Moshe receiving orders to have the idolaters killed, with the end result that Pinchas, one of the priests, publicly slays a Moabite woman and her Israelite paramour. 

For today, let’s leave to one side the apparent endorsement of religious violence after the Israelites started worshiping the idol Baal-peor. That’s an important topic, and we’ll return to it in future years. For now, let’s just take it at face value that the Israelite men were doing a bad thing according to the norms of the day, and ask a different question: why did this episode cause Moshe to weep along with the other Israelites? After all, he didn’t cry after the Israelites built the Golden Calf, and he didn’t cry when the spies came back with despair over entering the Land, and he didn’t cry when Korach raised his rebellion. 

Now, please note, the Hebrew is ambiguous and it’s possible that only the Israelites were weeping at the Tent of Meeting when the idolatry and immorality came out into the open- but that’s not the way our tradition seems to read this. Many commentators assume that Moshe was weeping, and base themselves on a midrash, or commentary, pertaining to the sin of the man who cavorted with the Moabite woman. 

In this rabbinic expansion of the narrative, Zimri (the man with the Moabite woman), asks Moshe how it is that he can condemn intermarriage with the Moabite women, given that Tzipporah, Moshe’s wife, is herself a Midianite. Not only that, but we just learned in the first few verses of the Torah portion that the nations of Midian and Moab were collaborators in trying to curse Israel- so how can Moshe condemn in others what he himself has done? The midrash says that when asked this cutting question, Moshe forgot the relevant laws, and so  he and the people weep- apparently more for Moshe’s waning powers of leadership than for the actual problem in front of them.

This midrash leaves to the imagination why, exactly, Moshe forgot the law; perhaps he was overwhelmed by the accusation of hypocrisy, or perhaps on a deeper level he wondered if indeed such a charge was true. Perhaps he was simply exhausted from the realization that 40 years after the Golden Calf, the people still didn’t understand what it meant to turn from idols; after all, most leaders begin with big dreams but eventually realize that human nature reasserts itself against all ambitions to create perfected societies. Perhaps the people cried because they saw Moshe vulnerable and ineffective, nearing the end of his term of office, and the thought of traveling on without him evoked fear and anxiety- or perhaps they cried because Moshe’s paralysis was the surest sign of a deep and painful division in their community.

To me, the image of Moshe and the people weeping together during the crisis at Shittim also reveals that Moshe finally trusted the people- at least the ones by the Tent of Meeting- more than he knew. To weep together is to surrender the strict hierarchy of leader and follower or prophet and ordinary people; weeping together suggests that Moshe and the people joined their hearts in sorrow when recognizing the tragic divisiveness among the people. It is a mark of Moshe’s greatness that at this crucial moment, after decades of being the man with the all the answers, Moshe cries when he realizes that no one person can know it all, remember every law, have every answer, and offer guidance for every problem. After decades leading the people, he was still learning humility, and in that image of growth and learning over a long lifetime, provides an example for us all.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Balak: Good Tents

Copyright 2010 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Balak

This week the Moabite king Balak hires Bilaam to put a curse on the Israelites. Bilaam’s mission, interrupted by an angel and a talking donkey, ends when his planned curse turns into a blessing for the camp of Israel.

Hello from the humid but not unpleasant Hudson Valley! This week we learn that curses can be turned into blessings: when Bilaam goes to a mountain to curse the Israelites below, he instead blesses and praises them:

“How fair are your tents, O Jacob,
Your dwellings, O Israel!
Like palm-groves that stretch out,
Like gardens beside a river,
Like aloes planted by the Lord,
Like cedars beside the water;
Their boughs drip with moisture,
Their roots have abundant water . . . . ”     (Bamidbar/Numbers 24:5-7)

Commentators have asked what the big deal is with nice tents and dwellings: Rashi quotes an earlier texts which says that Bilaam saw all the tents of the Israelites arranged for maximum privacy, which made the camp itself “good,” in the sense of morally and socially upright. Hirsch, on the other hand, thinks that the tents and dwellings are the houses of prayer and study which Israel establishes, and this interpretation, while anachronistic, fits with the liturgical use of the first line, above, at the beginning of the morning prayer service. That is- if the “tents” and “dwelling places” are really our synagogues and schools, then it makes perfect sense, when entering the synagogue for morning prayers, to say, hey, this is a good thing, I’m grateful to be here. (That is something that Mr. Not-So-Morning-Person writing this needs to remember!)

On the other hand, Rashi’s interpretation, based on earlier sources, also gives us something to think about, because Rashi seems to say that the Bilaam blessed the camp of Israel because they were praiseworthy- that is, it wasn’t just that God opened Bilaam’s mouth in a certain way, but he was also moved by what he saw before him. In other words, if you want to be blessed, act in ways that bring blessing upon yourself ! This, too, is a powerful kavanna, or focus, before our morning spiritual disciplines, because it reframes the petitions we make, turning them into opportunities to think about the goodness and peace that we create (or don’t) as we go about the day.

Mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov. . . . . “How good are your tents, Jacob!,” can be a call to gratitude, if we follow Rashi, or a call to make ourselves worthy of blessing, if we follow Hirsch, but in either case, it’s also worth noting that these words, in the first few pages of our prayerbook, are spoken by one of the famous non-Israelites of the Torah. Perhaps those who turned this verse from scripture into prayer also wanted us to realizing something about the universality of spiritual experiences: being moved to utter a blessing upon seeing wondrous goodness is something for which anyone might hope. We pray a Jewish liturgy- that’s our heritage, our path, and our discipline- but prayer itself doesn’t belong to one religion or spiritual path. It is the “universal port” to connect to our Source- and perhaps that’s one of the most important lessons this brief verse teaches us bright and early in the morning.

Shabbat Shalom,


P.S.- for an interesting exploration of the history of the “Mah tovu” prayer, go here, and for a guide to pronouncing it and a melody which fits the words, go here.

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Chukat-Balak: Two Kinds of Memories

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Chukat/Balak

This week we have a double Torah portion, Chukat-Balak, and so we read the
hafarah for Balak, from the book of Micah. This collection of prophecies can be
a bit confusing, as it’s not exactly clear which historical events form the
context for the preaching, but for today, it’s enough to know that the basic
idea of the book is that God has sent troubles to Israel, in the form of
surrounding enemies, as recompense for their sins- but Israel will ultimately be
redeemed and restored. The part which forms this week’s haftarah specifically
mentions the king Balak, who, as related in this week’s Torah portion, hired
Bilaam to curse the Israelites and stop their advance. So Micah tells the people
to remember how God saved them from Balak, so they may again turn to God, and
this is the connection between the Torah portion and the haftarah:

“My people,
Remember what Balak king of Moab
Plotted against you,
And how Balaam son of Beor
Responded to him.
[Recall your passage]
From Shittim to Gilgal–
And you will recognize
The gracious acts of the Lord.” (Micah 6:5)

OK, so far, so good, even if the idea of “God will send enemies to punish
Israel” is a difficult and problematic concept- we’ll unpack that more another
day. Let’s turn instead to another interesting detail in the verse above: the
prophet’s exhortation that the people should remember all that God did for them
from “Shittim to Gilgal.” Astute subscribers will remember that we discussed
Gilgal just last week- it’s the place where the Israelites first camped after
arriving in the Land, and the place where Shaul was affirmed as the first king
of the united monarchy. However, Gilgal is also mentioned in later texts as a
place of sin and wickedness (see Hosea 4:15 and 9:15, for example, among other

Similarly, Shittim has both positive and not-so-positive historical associations
: in the book of Bamidbar [Numbers], it’s the place where Joshua was affirmed as
leader after Moshe, but it’s also the place where the Israelite men sinned with
Moabite women. (Cf Numbers 25-27.) It’s where Joshua sent spies out in the
beginning of the conquest of the land, as well. (Josh. 2)

So it’s not clear what Micah means when he tells the people to remember what God
did for them “from Shittim to Gilgal.” Does he mean that God sends leaders to
Israel, and Israel accepts them, as they did with Shaul at Gilgal and Joshua at
Shittim- thus implying that the people have a history of celebration and
blessing? Or does he mean that despite Israel’s sins at Gilgal and Shittim, God
will never forsake the people? To put it another way, are we supposed to
remember the good things that happened at these places- so that Israel will be
inspired to return to the spirit which prevailed at those times- or are we
supposed to remember the bad things that happened at these places, so Israel
will be chastened and humbled by Divine grace despite our noodnik behavior?

Well, as it turns out, great Torah commentators haven’t figured this one out
either. Hirsch, for his part, favors the latter interpretation- it’s about
Divine grace and patience in the face of Israel’s not-so-illustrious history.
Fishbane, however, in the Etz Hayim commentary, sees this geographical reference
as a “synopsis of place of divine beneficence,” citing the transformation of
Bilaam’s curse into a prayer and the people’s acceptance of Shaul as king. To be
fair, these interpretations are not contradictory- it’s a matter of emphasis.

Yet perhaps the prophet is being more subtle than first reading might suggest.
Maybe it’s precisely because both Gilgal and Shittim are places of complex
memory that they serve as shorthand for the richness and complexity of a deep
and long-standing relationship, whether it be between a people and its Source or
even on a much smaller scale, a community, family, or friends. In any long
relationship, there is love and there is disappointment; there is the memory of
celebration and the memory of tension, and so perhaps renewal requires a more
holistic introspection. Israel both celebrated and sinned at Shittim and Gilgal-
so to move forward into the future, Israel must remember its ideals and
commitments, to be called back to them, as well as remembering how the covenant
stood firm despite Israel’s mistakes and misdeeds.

Seen this way, Shittim to Gilgal isn’t about two places, it’s about two kinds of
memories: memories that call us back to who we truly are, and memories of the
good that has been bestowed on us. Taken together, they lead to healing,
humility and forgiveness, and that’s truly hopeful.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Balak: Seeing With Eyes Unveiled

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Balak

The good news is that this week we’re
reading about everybody’s favorite sorcerer-for-hire, Balaam, who was
convinced by the king Balak to go and put a curse on the Israelites,
whom Balak feared would defeat his nation. Balaam goes on the mission,
but not before his donkey is derailed by an angel whom the animal sees
and the seer doesn’t- more on that theme later. Finally, when Balaam
does make it up to the mountaintop to behold the camp of the
Israelites, what comes out of his mouth is a great blessing, and not a
curse at all:

“Now Balaam, seeing that it was good in God’s eyes to bless Israel,
did not, as on previous occasions, go in search of omens, but turned
his face toward the wilderness. As Balaam lifted up his eyes and saw
Israel encamped tribe by tribe, the spirit of God came upon him.
Taking up his theme, he said:

‘Word of Balaam son of Beor,
Word of the man whose eye is true,
Word of him who hears God’s speech,
Who beholds visions from the Almighty,
Who has fallen down, but with has eyes unveiled:
How fair are your tents, O Jacob,
Your dwellings, O Israel! . . . . ‘ ” (Bamidbar/ Numbers 24:1-5- my
modification of the JPS translation)

My translation makes more clear what’s obvious in the Hebrew, which is
that the theme of “eyes” and seeing is the dominant metaphor of the
passage. Rabbi S.R. Hirsch thinks that Balaam is being haughty in
reporting himself as one who “beholds visions” and has his “eyes
unveiled”, and compares him unfavorably to other prophets who were
perhaps more modest. Rashi think that when Balaam says that he is
“fallen down” (or prostrate, in the JPS translation) it means that God
only appears to him when he his lying down- that is, when he is
asleep, he has dream-visions.

While there is plenty of reason to be critical of Balaam, one could
also offer a more favorable reading of this passage, taking it in the
context of the earlier story, when he failed to see an angel with a
sword right in front of him, which his faithful donkey perceived
perfectly clearly. Perhaps Balaam was chastened and humbled in finding
out that a donkey could see things that he- a man of great fame- could
not, and perhaps this led him to see the world in new ways.

To me, the key phrase is the one in the beginning of chapter 24, which
tells us that Balaam saw what was good in the eyes of the Lord- to
bless Israel rather than curse it. He then “lifts up his eyes,” sees
the Israelites, and reports that he sees clearly- he is “has fallen
down, but has eyes unveiled.” To put it in different words, perhaps a
newly humbled Balaam, no longer believing solely in his own wisdom,
sees the world through God’s “eyes,”- that is, from a perspective of
hesed, lovingkindness, rather than conflict, which was the purpose of
his journey. Seeing the world through the prism of love and justice-
which is what I believe the Torah teaches us to do- is itself a
humbling experience, as the gratification of the self is de-centered
and the imperative of gemilut hassadim, acts of loving-kindness, takes
its place.

This, to me, is the meaning of “fallen down with eyes unveiled;” it
means to achieve the clarity that comes only with humility, with the
realization that there is a higher purpose and greater wisdom in the
world than one’s own. To see the world through the “eyes of the Lord”
means to thoroughly integrate into the self the spiritual values of
our tradition, such that where other see conflict, we see the
possibility of reconciliation; where others see the opportunity for
taking, we see instead the possibility of giving; where others speak
curses, we instead speak only words of blessing and peace.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Chukkat/Balak: Opportunities, Gained and Lost

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Chukkat/Balak

Hope you had a happy Fourth of July- if you’re in the USA, then I hope
you had a happy holiday, and if not, well, I hope your Fourth was
equally good going about your regular day, even without the excitement
of barbecues and fireworks. The excitement continues, of course, in
the double Torah portion this week, Chukat-Balak, which includes
rebellions, plagues, sorcerers, battles, negotiations, blessings,
curses, and most poignantly, the deaths of Miriam and Aharon. The
generation of the Exodus is dying out, and the next generation will be
ready to enter the Land, under new leadership.

Moshe is told to take his brother and nephew (Aharon’s son Eleazar) up
a mountain, where the garments of the High Priest will be taken off
Aharon and put on his son. Rashi and others comment that it is a great
comfort to Aharon that he will see his son dressed as High Priest, but
nevertheless, Aharon dies on the mountain, and Moshe and Eleazar come
back to the people:

“When Moshe and Eleazar came down from the mountain, the whole
community knew that Aharon had breathed his last. All the house of
Israel bewailed Aharon thirty days.” (Bamidbar/ Numbers 20: 28-29)

R. Samson Raphael Hirsch notes a tradition that Aharon was mourned
even more than Moshe: the text in Devarim/ Deuteronomy 34:8 says
simply that “the Israelites bewailed Moses in the steppes of Moab for
thirty days,” but here, the Torah is very clear that ALL the “house of
Israel” mourned for Aharon. Rashi says that “all” refers to both the
men and the women; he bases himself on a famous midrash that Aharon
was a pursuer of peace, who made peace between husbands and wives
(among others.)

However, Hirsch also comments on an irony in the image of the entire
Israelite nation mourning its beloved High Priest- only a few verses
before, when they ran out of water, the people were rioting and
rebelling against the very man they are now crying for! The text is
explicit about this:

“The community was without water, and they gathered themselves against
Moses and Aaron. . . . ” (Bamidbar 20:2)

In Hirsch’s interpretation, the people loved Aharon, and their grief
for him was the more genuine emotion; their anger was only a passing
feeling based on temporary conditions or frustrations. That’s
certainly plausible- we’ve all spoken unkind words to our loved ones
when we’re exasperated or exhausted by other problems. However, it’s
also possible that the intensity of the communal grief is deeply
connected to their earlier outburst of frustration. Perhaps the
difference between the death of Moshe and the death of Aharon is that
Moshe blessed the people before he died, whereas Aharon’s final
interaction with the community is one of contention, in which the
people demand water and he and Moshe “strike the rock” in anger in
order to give it to them.

This turns Hirsch’s and Rashi’s interpretation around, to a certain
degree: perhaps the Torah adds an extra word to denote the pain the
Israelites felt upon losing Aharon not only because he was a beloved
man of peace, but because they had unfinished reconciliation to do
after the strife in the wilderness. To take the comparison further: at
the end of his life, Moshe gave his blessing, and the people received
it, but Aharon, whose explicit job description included blessing the
people, simply went up the mountain without having a chance to take
his leave. (Verse 27 says that the three men went up the mountain in
front of the entire community, but there is no indication that the
people knew what was going to happen.)

In this reading, the pain of the people comes not only from losing
Aharon, but from losing their chance to reconcile with him and make
their peace. Having officiated at hundreds of funerals, this makes
sense to me; while there is no such thing as “closure” (I’d like to
ban that word!), having a chance to say goodbye, with words and
rituals of transition and blessing, often brings great comfort to both
the dying and the soon-to-be bereaved.

Of course, the real challenge comes from knowing that any of us could
be “called to the mountain” at any time, making t’shuvah and
reconciliation a constant spiritual imperative. It’s quite simple,
really: if you want to be at peace with your loved ones, you have to
make peace with your loved ones! The people bewailed Aharon, but I
believe they also bewailed their lost opportunity to ask forgiveness
and express their love. Such opportunities can be fleeting, and are
precious beyond measure.

Shabbat Shalom,


PS- as per usual, the full text of the parsha is here along with some

and a summary and other commentaries are here:

BUT, here’s something new and fun- I found a Torah commentary blog
which has many interesting thoughts on the parshiot, from modern,
classic, and Hasidic perspectives:

check it out and tell me what you think.

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Balak: The Tragedy of Partial Truth

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Balak

Shalom Friends, you may have noted a small change in the
email settings, above. Please delete
rabbineal@…” from your address book, and put in
the new email address above: “rabbineal@…“.

With that bit of housekeeping out of the way, let’s study Torah.

This week’s portion, Balak, is almost entirely the narrative of
Balak, the king of the Moabites (roughly where central Jordan is
now), and his “hired gun” Bilaam, who is portrayed as a sorcerer
or pagan priest of some sort. Balak hears that the Israelites have
defeated the Amorites, and he’s alarmed. Our parsha begins:

” Balak son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the
Amorites. Moab was alarmed because that people was so
numerous. Moab dreaded the Israelites, and Moab said to the
elders of Midian, `Now this horde will lick clean all that is about
us as an ox licks up the grass of the field.’ ” (Bamidbar/
Numbers 22:2-4)

So Balak hires Bilaam to put a curse on the Israelites, to even
the odds. Unfortunately for Balak, the Holy One doesn’t allow
Bilaam to curse the Israelites, and after a series of warnings and
misadventures, Bilaam eventually blesses the Israelites in their
camp below.

On the face of it, Balak’s “dread” of the Israelites headed toward
him on their sojourn through the wilderness is justified, for the
Israelites did, in fact, defeat the Amorites, just as they had
defeated the peoples of Bashan and Arad and various other
armies along their way. (Much of this happens in the previous
parsha, in Bamidbar chapter 21.)

On the other hand, what Balak “saw” was only part of the story;
what he didn’t know- or chose not to find out- was that the
Israelites had entreated the Amorites for peaceful passage
through their land. Just a few verses before Balak’s decision to
hire Bilaam, we read:

“And Israel sent messengers to Sihon king of the Amorites,

`Let us pass through your land: we will not turn into the fields, or
into the vineyards; we will not drink of the waters of the well, but
we will go along by the king’s highway, until we pass through
your borders.’

But Sihon would not allow Israel to pass through his border;
instead, Sihon gathered all his people together, and went out
against Israel into the wilderness. He came to Jahaz, and fought
against Israel. ” (Bamidbar/Numbers 21:21-23)

What a tragedy! Israel wanted to pass through the land of the
Amorites without incident, and was forced into a battle they
(presumably) didn’t want. Then, knowing only the military history,
Balak decides that Israel is a hostile people and treats them as
a threat, not ever realizing that their intentions were peaceful and
that they just wanted to pass through Moab on their way to the
land of Israel.

Tragedy built upon tragedy, a needless conflict born of suspicion
and fear. How often are these events replayed among people
who see in others only a threat, and never learn about the better
intentions of those they attack? All too many times, we hear
things through the grapevine and assume the worst about
others, leading us to cynically regard the motivations of those we
may barely know. This tendency- to hear only the bad and make
assumptions based on partial knowledge- is one of the reasons
the ancient rabbis so strongly condemned “lashon hara,” or
gossip, which can corrode trust and community when half-truths
are treated as dire warnings.

What’s the alternative? In the words of one modern teacher of
human relations, “seek first to understand.” If, at times of
potential or actual conflict, we seek to understand the other
party’s motivations, their perspective, their passions and their
understanding of the truth, then perhaps we would fear less and
fight less. The ancient kings Sihon and Balak closed their
borders out of fear; we, instead, close our hearts, shutting out
the possibility of relationship and community.

True, some people do seek harm, and in one memorable
phrase, “there’s no mitzvah to be a sucker.” Still, all too often,
what we believe about others is only part of the story, and we end
up basing our actions on the wrong impressions. Seeking the
whole truth might show us new things about our loved ones,
friends, and neighbors, and bring peace to the world.

with blessings for a bountiful summer,


PS- as always, you can read the full text of the portion and
haftarah here:

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Balak 5761

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 5761 and can be found in its archives.

Balak (Numbers 22:2- 25:9)


This week’s parashah is mostly the story of Balak, the king of the nation Moav. He hires the prophet Bilaam to curse the Israelites, whom he perceives as a threat. Bilaam then discovers that the power of blessing and cursing 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 is doing. [ed. It is here we have the second talking animal of the Bible!] Finally, Bilaam blesses Israel with a famous blessing that is now part of the daily morning service. At the end of the parashah, the Israelites get in trouble by worshipping a foreign deity.


“Bilaam said to the angel of the Lord, ‘I have sinned. I did not realize you were standing in the road to oppose me. Now if you are displeased, I will go back.’ ” (Numbers 22:34)


Balak really wants Bilaam to curse the Israelites, but Bilaam senses that this is not what God wants him to do. After Balak’s men pressure and cajole him, God tells Bilaam he can go to meet Balak, but he must only do what God tells him. Still, God seems to be angry that Bilaam has chosen this path, and sends an angel with a drawn sword to block his way. The donkey sees the angel, and refuses to proceed, but Bilaam thinks the donkey is disobeying him. Finally, God allows Bilaam to perceive the angel, and then Bilaam pleads ignorance- he wouldn’t have tried to move on if he had known there was an angel blocking his way!


A Hasidic commentator points out that if Bilaam really didn’t know about the angel, how could he have “sinned” in trying to move along?

    “I have sinned. . .” This is surprising! If he didn’t know, what was the sin? The answer is that there are times when not knowing is itself the sin. For example, if a child strikes a parent, he can’t justify it by saying he didn’t know it was forbidden to strike one’s parents. A captain of the guard of the king cannot say that he didn’t know who the king was! This is the case of a prophet and an angel- if the prophet says that he didn’t know that the angel was stationed before him, that’s the sin. This is what Bilaam said: “I sinned, because I didn’t know- as a prophet, I should have known that the angel stood before me- not knowing was the sin itself.” (From Itturei Torah, translation mine.)

We could further point out that Bilaam went with God’s apparent permission, even though he knew that Balak’s goals were destructive. He chose to go anyway- that’s what having free moral choice means. Even though Bilaam knew it wasn’t a good thing, God let him go, with the warning to make the right choices in the end. So then we get back to our original question: what was the sin, if he really didn’t know the angel was there?

I think this midrash implies that Bilaam really did know, on some semiconscious level, that it was not good to head out to meet Balak. Bilaam did a very common thing: he overruled his own conscience, and chose not to see, not to understand, the problematic nature of his chosen path. It’s literally a path in the story, but I think the road or path here symbolizes the set of decisions he’s making. He didn’t want to see the angel, so he didn’t.

The idea that not knowing can itself be a chet, or falling short of the mark, is a powerful challenge. What are we not seeing that we choose not to see? Do we use Bilaam’s excuse- “I didn’t know”- when our friends and family need our help and support? Do we say “I didn’t see” when we step over the homeless on our way to work, or when we encounter the effects of any other problem in our community? Choosing not to see is something we all do at times- even a prophet can sometimes fail to see the angel in front of him. The good news is that we are created with a spark of the Divine within, and we can have our eyes opened at any time.

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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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