Archive for Balak

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:

Leave a Comment

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.

Leave a Comment

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.

Leave a Comment

« Newer Posts