Balak - Weekly Torah Portion


“My people, remember now What Balak king of Moab counseled And what Balaam son of Beor answered him, And from Shittim to Gilgal, So that you might know the righteous acts of the Lord. With what shall I come to the Lord And bow myself before the God on high? Shall I come to Him with burnt offerings, With yearling calves? Does the Lord take delight in thousands of rams, In ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I present my firstborn for my rebellious acts, The fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has told you, O man, what is good; And what does the Lord require of you But to do justice, to love kindness, And to walk humbly with your God?” These are the concluding words that we read from the Haftarah this Shabbat. “To do justice, to love kindness, And to walk humbly with your God”, words that have become practically a slogan, are associated back to the man who was sent to curse and instead gave blessings. We shall return to this thought.

Surely there is no need to repeat the story about Balak, Balaam, the donkey and the Israelites that “camped in the plains of Moab beyond the Jordan opposite Jericho.” Of Balaam blessings probably the most memorable of all was his last one, “How fair are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel! Like valleys that stretch out, Like gardens beside the river, Like aloes planted by the Lord, Like cedars beside the waters. Water will flow from his buckets, And his seed will be by many waters, And his king shall be higher than Agag, And his kingdom shall be exalted. God brings him out of Egypt, He is for him like the horns of the wild ox. He will devour the nations who are his adversaries, And will crush their bones in pieces, And shatter them with his arrows. He couches, he lies down as a lion, And as a lion, who dares rouse him? Blessed is everyone who blesses you, And cursed is everyone who curses you.” It would have been simply wonderful if the reading for this Shabbat would have ended with these words. However, something will creep in and will change our view from the beautiful sight seen by Balaam to the reality of the people.

“While Israel remained at Shittim, the people began to play the harlot with the daughters of Moab. For they invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. So Israel joined themselves to Baal of Peor, and the Lord was angry against Israel. The Lord said to Moses, ‘Take all the leaders of the people and execute them in broad daylight before the Lord, so that the fierce anger of the Lord may turn away from Israel.’ So Moses said to the judges of Israel, ‘Each of you slay his men who have joined themselves to Baal of Peor.’ Then behold, one of the sons of Israel came and brought to his relatives a Midianite woman, in the sight of Moses and in the sight of all the congregation of the sons of Israel, while they were weeping at the doorway of the tent of meeting. When Phinehas the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he arose from the midst of the congregation and took a spear in his hand, and he went after the man of Israel into the tent and pierced both of them through, the man of Israel and the woman, through the body. So the plague on the sons of Israel was checked. Those who died by the plague were 24,000.”

Balaam saw fine dwellings, cedars planted near flowing water, a people who is blessed. Then, taking a closer look one can see what is really happening there. One can see those who are not conducting themselves morally, small and big, and is morally deteriorating. They do not keep themselves apart from the value represented by Balak and Balaam but rather become more like them; and there is a price to pay when that happens.

When the prophet Micha asks, “With what shall I come to the Lord And bow myself before the God on high? Shall I come to Him with burnt offerings, With yearling calves? Does the Lord take delight in thousands of rams, In ten thousand rivers of oil?” he makes reference to the altars built by Balak on orders from Balaam. “Then Balaam said to Balak, ‘Build seven altars for me here, and prepare seven bulls and seven rams for me here.’ Balak did just as Balaam had spoken, and Balak and Balaam offered up a bull and a ram on each altar. Then Balaam said to Balak, ‘Stand beside your burnt offering, and I will go; perhaps the Lord will come to meet me, and whatever He shows me I will tell you.’ So he went to a bare hill.” The prophet explains that this did not work for them because this is simply not the right way of conduct. The Prophet offers to explain “what is good; And what does the Lord require of you”. Here it gets lost in translation because the word טוב (Tov) in Hebrew is translated once as fair and then as good but this is actually a direction connection between the famous blessing in these words of the prophet. Humbleness, kindness and justice. These words should be read over and over again, then and today. Unfortunately, we have to read them louder and louder, because it seems that those who sit on the thrown of governments today stopped listening to the words, they assume that they are not directed towards them. This is not the case. The sacrifice of offerings are equal to the gifts, the benefits and other perks of government provided to those who think that simply because they were appointed or elected to high offices it means that they deserve more than others. It simply does not hold true. Micha with a few simple but resonating over generations speaks the truth. To be humble, to be kind and to do justice. These are the corner stones to true success, to a sense of satisfaction, and the foundation for a nation’s longevity.

Shabbat Shalom and wishes for good health to all.

Reuven Marko, 3 July 2020, 12 Tamuz, 5780

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