Balak is a fascinating Torah portion. Centering around Bilaam, the only non-Jewish prophet said to be on the level of Moses, this is the only place in all of the Torah that switches perspective from the point of view of the Jews (or God) to someone else for almost the entire parsha. Then on top of that it ends 4 parshas of the Jews screwing up; Shelach – sin of the spies, Korach – the rebellion against Moses, Chukas – Moses hitting the rock, and now Balak – Moavfest 1270 BCE! (circa). If that weren’t enough, Balak is always read just before the fast of Tammuz which begins the infamous 3 weeks, the most foreboding period in the Jewish calendar.
So given that Balak is always tied to this difficult time and the oddities of the parsha, what might the Torah be trying to tell us before embarking into this time of unease?
Balak, the king of Moav, seeing how the Jews have easily conquered the surrounding nations knows he’s gonna need some divine help. He seeks out prophet-for-hire, Bilaam, in hopes that he will curse the Jews, spiritually weakening them. Bilaam asks God for guidance, and God blatantly tells him, “No.” But when Balak increases his offer, Bilaam goes back and asks God again. The answer is still no, but God let’s him go with Balak anyway.
What follows is a series of attempts by Bilaam to curse the Jews, but every time blessing comes from his mouth instead. So in the end, Bilaam and Balak devise a plan to send the Moav women into the Jews’ camp to entice the men, ending in the disaster they were hoping for.
Look At It Another Way
As I pointed out before, the Torah potion is told from Bilaam’s point of view. But that’s not the only reference to perspective in the parsha. Below are just a few more.
• When Bilaam first talks to God, God asks him “Who are these men with you?” (Bamidbar 22:9) as if God, the Being with an omniscient perspective, didn’t already know the men were sent by Balak.
• When Bilaam is on his way to curse the Jews, his donkey sees an angel ready to kill while Bilaam is oblivious to it.
• Each time Bilaam is unsuccessful at cursing the Jews, rather than giving up, he looks for another place to curse them from. “Come with me to another place from where you will see them.” (Bamidbar 23:13)
•Bilaam is referred to as the “the man of the open-socketted eye” (Bamidbar 24:3) which Rashi and Targum Onkelos conclude either he was missing an eye or was blinded. Either way, with only one good eye a person lacks depth perception.
• One of the praises of Bilaam’s blessings is “How goodly are your tents, Yaakov, your dwelling places…” (Bamidbar 24:5) as the Jews’ tent openings faced away from each other allowing for privacy aka limited perspective.
Each one of these examples could be a blog post in and of themselves. But I’m just going to go through a few.
Out of Context
When Bilaam and Balak travel to different locations in additional attempt to curse the Jews, the Torah specifically make a point to note that Bilam won’t be able to see all the Jews at once. “But you will see only part of them, without seeing them all, and curse them for me from there.” (Bamidbar 23:13) Why would it matter how much of the Jewish people Bilaam can see?
It’s easy to criticize and demonize when we cherry pick. Yes, if you only focus on Bernie Madoff, Harvey Weinstein, or a BBC headline about Israel, you might come to a pretty unfavorable view of the Jewish people. But that requires turning a blind eye to the curing of polio, drip irrigation, dozens of Nobel prize winners, modern values of human life, etc. If we are to be authentic in our criticisms we can’t look at things out of context. We have to be sure we’re looking at the whole picture.
See No Evil
At one point Bilaam almost gives up after the words of God flow from his mouth, “[God] does not see evildoers in Yaakov; and He has seen no transgressions in Yisrael…” (Bamidbar 23:21) As I mentioned above, we’ve just gone through three parshas of the Jews transgressing. And not just little mess ups, they get barred from the land of Israel to die in the desert. Even Moses doesn’t escape from it. How can God say He sees no transgressions in the Jews?
I think it is obvious that if a stranger went to your mother and asked if you had any flaws, assuming your mother is halfway sane, she will likely say you’re a perfect angel. But if you call your mom, you’re likely to get hours of unsolicited advice on things you’re screwing up. When it comes to relationships that we are invested in, criticism should only come from a place of caring. If we want to address our own flaws, God (or a parent) will see them clearly and help us with them. But when it comes to looking at other people, as an outsider, we should see them in the best possible light.
Education Vs Punishment
Lastly, as we go into the 3 weeks, we should be aware it is a time of mourning and lamentation as we remember the loss of the Temple, we fast, and we decrease our joy. Tensions are at their highest and there is a history (both ancient and modern) of misfortune during this time. If God did, in fact, get angry this would be the time. So I believe that we read Balak as a way to orient a proper perspective.
The way we do that is by understanding the difference between education and punishment. Suffering can be either a source of growth or a detriment. If the suffering is a consequence that is corrective, with the intension that you learn from it, it is education. But if the consequence is simply a direct response to an action, it’s not about the person learning but about restoring order (“you break it, you buy it”), that’s punishment. The American criminal justice system is clearly more concerned with punishment than it is about true correction.
But when we are dealing with God, the ultimate judge, it is always educational. So as we go through this time of unease, it is essential to maintain the perspective that even though things may get difficult, Hashem loves us, views us as a whole, and ultimately wants to teach us to be our best selves. With that perspective in mind, we just might be able to take what seems bad and turn it into good.