Title: Parshas Balak
Medium: Water Color on Paper
Size: 22" x 17"
Framed or Unframed
text afixed to the back of the framed origional and which is provided
with each geclee copy, reads as follows:
“A Careful Look at Two Prophets and their Prophesies”
by Drew Kopf
May 19, 2013
Numbers 22:2 to 24:24,
Haftarah Balak, Micah 5:6 to 6:8
The word in Hebrew for “Prophet” is “Navi” which comes from the phrase “Niv Sefatayim” meaning “fruit of the lips” which focuses on a prophet’s role as a person of words. The Bible identifies fifty-five prophets of Israel forty-eight of whom were male, seven of whom were female and one gentile prophet named Balaam the son of B’Or a Midianite, who is a key, if not the key figure in Parshas Balak, the Torah portion named for the King of the Moabites.
Prophets were individuals who brought word from the L-rd to mankind. That there was a gentile prophet at all gives us pause to ponder why the L-rd would speak through anyone other than those who were Jewish; those who were His people. But clearly He did just that; through Balaam. (There are those who feel that Balaam came from a lineage that included other such gifted people who acted as sorcerers, soothsayers if not prophets). One reason given for the L-rd to have spoken through people other than Jews is so that gentiles would not be able to say, “If we had direct messages from the L-rd, then we would have been able to see what was right to do but, since we did not, we did what we could on our own and can not, therefore, be held responsible for any misjudgments we might have made.”
That might be just enough of a reason to stem one’s appetite for clarification of this matter. After all, when we speak of prophets, it is completely out of our league. Once one accepts the premise that prophets did what they did, Parshas Balak seems quite straight forward and to the point. We read about the concerns of Balak who was aware of how the Jews, led by Moses, had dealt most recently with the tribe of Amalek and how he wanted to know which nation would be next and if the Jews could be stopped before his own nation, Moab, might fall at their hands.
(Balak’s concern about what the Jews did to Amalek was actually rather disingenuous or at least paid no attention to what the Tribe of Amalek had done to the Jews, which was to have attacked their procession at its weakest point, the end, where there were literally no defenses; where the sick, the old and the disabled were located. That dastardly and cowardly attack earned Amalek the distinction of being the only people to become the object of a Mitzvah, a Commandment, i.e. to “Remember what Amalek did to you on the way as you came out of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 25:1) and a directive later to King Saul to wipe them out, every man woman and child).
The relationship between the Tribe of Amalek and the peoples of Balak and Balaam may even go deeper than that because at times Amalek is said to have been allied with the Moabites (Judges 3:13) and with the Midianites (Judges 6:3).
Balak was well aware of Moses, who had spent ten years in Median where he had gotten married to and had a son Gershom with Zipporah the daughter of Jethro the Priest of Median before leaving to return to Egypt to lead the Children of Israel to freedom. Apparently, there is even evidence that Balak himself had been from Midian and had only become King of the Moabites after a disaster involving the previous leadership and his having been at the right place and the right time. But, more pointedly, Balak was aware of what Moses had done when he returned to Egypt; the ten miraculous plagues, the freeing of an entire people numbering into the millions, who had been enslaved there for four centuries, and all while having prophesized each element of the Exodus in advance of the actual happenings; the most amazing acts of prophesy ever known. Events of such magnitude would be impossible to go unnoticed and would surely have been reported by the natural network of caravans and travelers who would have continued to transverse the trade routes between population centers.
Even though Balak’s name means “devastator” and he apparently had a distinctive leaning towards doing evil, it is understandable that he would have been interested in learning what the future had in store for him and the Moabites before he would commit to launching an attack against the Jews. His having approached Balaam, a man known as one who receives communications from the L-rd, makes sense and would be comparable to fighting fire with fire. After all, when one is up against a prophet as powerful as Moses had already proven to be, one would want something that would be considered comparable in one’s own corner.
When we study the way Balak approached Balaam to enlist his help it becomes all the more clear just how strong Balak’s strategic capabilities and a bent towards manipulation if not outright coercion were in the man. He first sends low level emissaries to request Balaam’s help in learning what is in store for them vis a vis the Jews. When his advances and requests get all but rebuffed, Balak ups the ante by sending higher ranking representatives with promises of significant reward and then again higher still after another refusal is made by Balaam. When he finally gets Balaam to seek out the word of the L-rd, which involves a serious of alters being built and a significant amount of sacrifices being offered by Balak, and the word coming back from Balaam’s overnight prophetic experience to the negative, i.e. that the Jews can not be cursed because, in fact, they have been blessed, Balak is unmoved and still resolved to find a way around the situation.
One might consider Balak to be the ultimate optimist, or down right stubborn but, perhaps more correctly, the strategist in him did not want to leave any stone unturned, when Balak approached Balaam again with a slightly different request to hopefully receive a different response to his query; can the Jews be cursed; meaning stopped to the ultimate advantage of the Moabites and those allied with them. Three times such requests are made by Balak of Balaam and each request involved the same type of grand ceremony with seven alters being built, much sacrificing being made and each in a different elevated location giving a different and better view of the land where the Jew People were encamped.
The ironic aspect of the entire episode is that Moses had been told by the L-rd to avoid the areas controlled by the Maobites and the Midianites on the way to the Promised Land so there would likely have been no chance for an entanglement with these nations and the Jews. But that information would have been something that would have been beyond the scope of any prophesies that Balaam would have been given to know and to share.
One thing that can be said about Balaam through the entire process is that his reports to Balak, though disappointing, were accurate. He told it as it was given to him by the L-rd leaving nothing out and not coloring or slanting the messages in any way. There is, however, more to be learned by studying Balaam. On a macro level we can see how the L-rd delivered His messages to Balaam as compared to how He communicated with Moses. Balaam, as may have been true of many if not all of the other prophets, would have to be asleep to be approached by G-d who would deliver His messages in what must have been something like a dream. Moses, on the other hand, was awake and standing before the L-rd when the L-rd would speak to and, more uniquely and amazingly, with him.
That comparison is something in and of itself. Remember, the stories in the Torah, the Bible, are the documentation of how G-d created our world, introduced mankind into it and, after seeing that mankind needed help in adapting to the world, witness both the story of Adam and Eve and the generation of Noah that so disappointed the L-rd that it ended up being entirely wiped out by the world-wide floor save, of course for Noah and his family, provided a veritable instruction manual, which is what the written Torah and its companion Oral Torah together are for anyone who would live as it suggests or, more accurately requires. (See the text of the Shama for the details of what is the basis of G-d’s proposal that He puts forth for us to follow as a way of life). Moses wrote the Torah and provided the foundation of the Oral Torah by speaking it to Joshua, who shared it with those after him. The Oral Torah has been past down through the generations ever since. There is a tendency for the entire Torah to be reduced to being an historical relic and the stories within it as being more like fables than fact and the people mentioned in it seen as caricatures rather than having been real people who struggled in their efforts to adjust to living in the world then as we do today.
Seeing Moses in comparison to Balaam can go a long way in helping us understand who Moses really was, what he accomplished and how he fit in as intermediary for us, mankind, between us and the Creator in an effort to ease our way living the most effective and happy life possible in the world we have been given.
Rashi points out something else about Balaam that helps us understand another aspect of him as a person; albeit not the most flattering aspect. In Chapter 24 Line 24. when Balaam was clearly aware that the Jews are blessed and not to be cursed, he chose to sit in such a way as to be facing Mount Sinai with a second intention in mind which Rashi suggests was to bring the L-rd’s attention to the site of what Balaam must have thought was a great disaster for the Jewish People and for G-d Himself, the Sin of the Golden Calf, and, therefore, something that might well remind G-d about how recalcitrant His Chosen People could be, and, thereby, bring about some kind of punishment, which if Balaam got lucky, might be the cursing of the Jews that was being sought by Balak.
But, this is where Balaam got it wrong, as we have pointed out in our comments on Parshas Parah, which deals specifically with the Sin of the Golden Calf among a number of other happenings and events. Though we now tend to make a big thing about the Sin of the Golden Calf, the way the Torah reports the incident is in a much more “matter-of-fact” way than it would were it a truly catastrophic happening. It was, in fact, one of a series of examples of faithlessness on the part of the last generation of Israelites, that knew first hand the feeling of the lash of slavery, and which demonstrated that they were clearly not ready for freedom and redemption; perhaps some more than others, but, in the end, none were really ready save for Joshua and Calab, who were the only ones of that generation to make it to the Land of Israel. Yes. Of that entire generation, only two people, Joshua and Calab, made it into the Promised Land; the Land of Israel. What is revealed about Balaam through this subtle but none-the-less cunning attempt at evil manipulation is what might be termed a “mean streak” in the man. Balaam’s assumption regarding the importance of the Sin of the Golden Calf was understandable. It certainly was an affront to the L-rd by those who participated in it. But, it was not a “game changer” for the L-rd.
The question that might be asked is why would the All-Knowing G-d choose to have associated Himself with a man such as Balaam with clear tendencies towards the negative and even the evil? The answer, on the surface at least, could be that no man is perfect. Perhaps the best example of that is Moses himself, who demonstrated his own human frailty, which earned him a punishment that denied him, even him, entre to the Promised Land.
In Chapter 24 Line 3, we learn yet another thing about Balaam that may be even more of a revelation about him than even Rashi might have observed. The sentence refers to Balaam by saying “his eye is open” and there are “Meforsheem”, Biblical commentators, who take that to mean that Balaam was blind in one eye. That would be rather ironic. He, as a prophet who received prophetic vision from G-d, may have had imperfect vision himself. And, perhaps here is a lesson to learn even beyond face value. Our two eyes, the way they are situated on the human face, gives us the ability to see things in perspective. It allows us to get the “feel” of an object or a view that gives it depth where seeing with only one eye would limit our appreciation greatly allowing us only to see one aspect, the two dimensional aspect, of the object we are observing. Perhaps that flaw in Balaam’s vision affected him in ways other than how he saw things.
Maybe his inability to see things in perspective spilled over some how into how he might appreciate, process or see his prophetic visions which made him less able to grasp all that there was in the message to be delivered. We note before that he was extremely accurate in the messages and prophetic visions he delivered. But, perhaps he was leaving out a perspective that would have made the communication all the more meaningful if he had been able to include it.
That brings us to the part of the Sedrah where Balaam is riding his donkey and encounters the Angel of G-d standing in the road with a sword drawn blocking his way. Balaam chooses to try and continue onward in spite of what clearly is a supernatural being that is denying passage forward. Would any normal human being seeing that kind of thing do anything but stop in his tracks? Even when the donkey does what donkeys can not do; speaks to Balaam to persuade him to stop, Balaam continues onward, goes off the road, tries to circumvent the Angel in his way. And, why? What is the great hurry? Why is Balaam acting so crazy? What is driving him like this? If we play out this scenario in slow motion, and consider what is happening and who the players are, things might become more evident.
The donkey sequence takes place immediately after Balaam has been visited by the L-rd and given prophetic instructions regarding what to do if asked to go with Balak and what to say when the topic of the Jews is broached. What is he instructed? That if the men come to ask him to go with them that he should go with them and to speak only exactly what he was instructed to say. So, when the men do come and he does go, why is there an Angel blocking his way? He is following his orders to the ‘T’. Unless one wants to make the episode into a comedy, it seems fairly evident that the sentence (Chapter 22:20) that describes the prophetic instructions of the L-rd coming just prior to the and the next sentence (Chapter 22:21) telling of Balaam rising in the morning and saddling his donkey may well be a continuation of the same dream sequence and all the amazing miraculous things that happen with the Angel holding a sword and the donkey speaking and the tremendous persistence of Balaam in trying to continue on by striking the donkey and taking paths that have not yet been blazed are all parts of the same dream experience to which we are being made privy. There are Meforsheem, Biblical Commentators, who are of that opinion according to Rabbi Dr. J.H.Hertz in the Soncino edition of the Pentateuch and Haftorahs.
There was no reason for anyone to block Balaam’s way unless he himself was conflicted about what was going on. And then, if that was the case, he would have been blocking his own way; at least in his dream, the dream that had included the prophetic intervention and who on earth could know what something like that might be like or do to a person?
Finally, after all the thrashing about and a profound apology by Balaam perhaps still in his dream he is told by the Angel of the L-rd the same directive as given by the L-rd earlier, to go with the men but to only speak the words that were spoken to him to speak; exactly as it had been spoken by the L-rd. People are known to have dreams where they are being chased or where they are running away from something or towards something and where there are obstacles to overcome and great energy is expended. The Bible tells of a number of dreamers who dream all sorts of things. Some of these dreams get interpreted some do not. Similarly, there are several instances where G-d does something to a man while the man sleeps and who can tell what remembrances of such experiences might linger within that person’s psyche or how profoundly that person might be affected by such an experience?
If indeed Balaam had what might be called a nightmare after his having been visited by the L-rd with a prophetic message to deliver on His behalf. What might have caused that to have happened to Balaam? It did not happen to him in either of his other two overnight prophetic dreams that are mentioned in the Sedrah; at least we were not told of any such happening regarding those evenings of prophetic transference.
Perhaps here we can see another distinction between the Prophet Moses and the Prophet Balaam, which will help us appreciate each of them for who they were. It must be noted that the L-rd gave very clear and specific instructions to Balaam even while Balaam was in a deep sleep when prophetic messages were being imparted to him. The rigid instructions were reiterated by the Angel of the L-rd after the donkey episode or at the end of Balaam’s dream if our interpretation is accurate, so it is quite clear that Balaam was not to be left to his own devices nor permitted to act on to his own volition. Prophetic messages delivered by Moses, as we noted earlier were communicated to him while he was fully awake and face-to-face with G-d, but were also delivered by Moses in a completely different way than Balaam was permitted to do. Moses did not merely parrot back the prophesy as dictated by the L-rd but integrated his own very human personality and understanding of the L-rd’s message or news with it, which had to have made for an entirely different level of appreciation of the prophetic messages and which demonstrated for the Jewish People of his day as well as for us today that Moses, as Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik, The Rav, described and demonstrated in his comments on this Sedrah that Moses was the “rebbie,” the “teacher,” for all Israel for all time.
Balaam was a very special person in deed. He had to have been to have been chosen by the L-rd for prophetic vision. It was evident; however, that there were aspects of Balaam’s personality that could not be trusted and that he would do what he could to somehow manipulate people and even the L-rd if he could to his own advantage. But, still he was also amazingly accurate and articulate to where his words have been and perhaps forever will be in the lives of the Jewish People annually and daily in some of our most hallowed moments.
In the Rosh HaShannah Mussaf Amidah, the silent devotional prayers offered in the additional service following the Shofar Service, the sounding of the rams horn, on the Jewish New Year, we recite the words of Balaam: “And it is said: He gazes at no iniquity in Jacob and sees no evil schemes in Israel; Hashem (the term for G-d meaning nurturing and forgiving) his G-d is with him, and the affection of the King is in him.” (Numbers 23:21)
And every morning upon entering a synagogue for prayer we recite a verse from Balaam’s prophesies: “How goodly are your tents O Jacob; your dwelling places O Israel.”
Rabbi Mordechai Katz in his book “From the Teaching of Our Sages” explains that this was a blessing from Balaam. It demonstrates his appreciation of the foundation of Judaism; the Jewish family. Love from family members gives people a sense of self-worth. The family passes things down from generation to generation and make people feel part of a community and part of a nation in history.”
Rabbi Katz points out further that where Balak, “though wicked was honestly wicked” because everyone knew where he stood. Balaam was the opposite. He was greedy, deceitful and false.” Rabbi Katz made the observation that “there are many today who pretend to be of high moral value but who will set those values aside when the opportunity to gain riches presents itself to them. Their greed becomes an obsession that totally disrupts their lives.”
Balaam finally prophesizes that in time there will arise in Israel a powerful ruler and that all of the alien tribes or nations to it, the descendents of Seth, will be subjugated and otherwise put down.
With that, the two primary focal points of the Sedrah, Balak and Balaam each leave to return to their homes. There is no fanfare made of it. They just leave. Balak had done what he could to see into the future. Balaam had done what he did when approached to plumb the future and reported accordingly. Balak had the information he sought and would act or not act accordingly. Balaam, we would learn later in Numbers 31:8 that he was slain by the sword following the war against the Midianites, which had been waged because they had enticed the Israelites licentious and idolatrous worship of Baal-Peor. Whether Balaam’s connection to the enticement was the reason he was killed is not stated. But, that he reaped as he had sewn can be deduced from the evidence that is left for us to sift through and consider.
If the Sedrah ended right here, it would have told an interesting tale and given us some insight into how the gentile mind was working in the days when the Jewish People were emerging onto the scene after having been put in virtual hibernation for four centuries. But, it goes on to detail the nefarious way in which Balaam had apparently thought and operated.
It would be very difficult for us today to understand or appreciate the religious practices, if we could call them that, of peoples such as the Midianites in the days of Moses. Orgiastic revelry mixed with ceremonial offerings and prayers to stone idols would shock and even disgust even the most irreverent and non-religious types of our day were they given the opportunity to observe such scenes. But, when one considers how overwhelmingly frightening it must have been to live in those days with not even the vaguest understanding of what life was all about, who put us here, what our role is, what happens after we are gone and if any of this matters, grabbing onto any kind of explanation might be more comforting than trying to get by with none at all.
With the memories, legends and stories of what had happened during and before and the great flood just slightly more than ten generations in the past, people such as the Midianites would have been walking a thin line wondering when such a devastating “wipe-out-the-world” event might not happen again and would be wondering too what they might be able to do to ward it off. Somebody’s crazy idea or understanding of a deity such as Baal-Peor might well have made good sense to people as frightened as the Midianites must have been in those days.
The Sedrah goes on to describe how the Midianites enticed the Children of Israel into participating in the worshiping rituals of Baal-Peor. (Later, at Numbers 31:16, we are told that this happened at the suggestion of Balaam, who encouraged the Midianites to reach out to the Jews in this way believing that if the Jews were not going to be cursed by the L-rd then perhaps, given the opportunity, that the Jews might curse themselves, which in essence, through their participation with the Midianites in their sorted and sinful practices in worshiping Baal-Peor, they did).
Our tendencies are to think in large chunks. In this case, that all of the Children of Israel participated with all of the Midianites since it says that. But, it does not mean that and the numbers and the facts later on bare that out. The Midianites do not get entirely destroyed because only the part of their people who were located close to the Israelites participated in these rituals. Similarly, when a census was taken after the War with the Midianites, only one tribe of the Jews, which was encamped in close proximity to the Midianites, had suffered serious losses in numbers.
The dramatic story of the Jewish Priest Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, who slays a Midianite woman and a Jewish man who publically engage in illicit sexuality is very gripping and startling coming right at the end of the Sedrah except for the news that is reported that the plague, which had never before been mentioned was halted by this act and that the total number of deaths resulting from the plague was twenty-four thousand. It is common that Sedrahs end on a positive note. So, even though the killing of the unidentified Jewish man and his Midianite co-participant in blatant illicit sexuality can hardly be considered “upbeat” the ending of a plague that killed so many people can be.
Coincidently, the same number of people, twenty-four thousand, was killed in the plague mentioned in Parshas Partah as a result of the incident of the Sin of the Golden Calf. This again brings in to focus the relative unimportance of this episode given the broad sweeping narrative that was unfolding. There were several million people in the ranks of the Children of Israel who were coming from slavery in Egypt to Freedom and the Promised Land. At every step along the way, more and more of the generation which was the last to know first hand the feel of the lash of slavery proved themselves to be unready for redemption and freedom. Belief in the G-d of their forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob may come trippingly off the tongue, but living it was quite another thing for them. As mentioned earlier, all but two people in that entire generation made it to the Promised Land.
But, their turmoil and travail created something for us that could only have been done by them. After all, for them, their religion was a frail hope-based trust that said there was one G-d who made a promise to their progenitors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob that He would redeem their decedents after four hundred years of slavery and deliver them to the Land of Israel where they would thrive from then on and be as numerous as the grains sands on the sea shore and as the number of stars in the heavens. They had no rituals or practices to perform. They had no commandants, except perhaps those of the ones of Noah that distinguished civilized men from barbarians. They just had to wait. It is hard to imagine what that meant to any of those many generations of Jews who lived during the many years of slavery before the Exodus. This generation was the only one ever that would face this situation; to go from complete slavery and a totally slave oriented mentality where Almighty G-d was more of a dream than a reality to seeing the L-rd in action one miracle after another and then living life with normalcy accept for being out from under the controlling powers of their Egyptian enslavers.
The fact that they were clearly not ready to be the Jews that the L-rd wanted and perhaps needed them to be before they could be redeemed stands as a very special state for us; a kind of high watermark of belief; a line in the sand of faith; that we must either choose to cross moment-by-moment every single day by how we choose to live our lives or to ignore it and take our chances with where we are going, what we are doing and why we are doing it.
The Haftarah for Parshas Balak is taken from the Book of Micah (5:6 to 6:8) and is connected to the Sedrah by its direct reference to Balaam and the incident referred to in the Sedrah. Micah reiterates Israel’s mission among the nations, to be a light unto the nations, and captures most eloquently the essence of leading a worthy existence for anyone as being: “To do justly, and to love mercy and to walk humbly with G-d.” And some interpret or translate the third to be Purity, which would say to walk in purity with G-d. Thus, the three core elements to living a righteous and a rewarding life would be: Justice, Mercy and Purity.
Today, it might be said that with there being so many well established religions, including the various sects of Judaism, and each doing all that it can to encourage people to live righteous lives, that the warning sign that Parshas Balak might be seen to be displaying for us is unnecessary and outdated. In this modern society with our fabulous technological advancements and our ever-emerging communications capabilities, there ought to be no worry or concern about people being wooed by the worshipers of idols or “strange gods” that are even remotely akin to Baal-Poer that Balaam had so rightly predicted would reach out to and successfully sway some of our ancestors.
But, the reality is that just as Judaism has brought itself forward into modern times so too has the forces of Baal-Poer been advanced, adapted and translated into the languages of the day. The meaning of Poer is most probably “opening” and the association with that translation and the various openings of the human body are what the worship of Baal-Poer was apparently concerning. It is hard to know how their proponents believed or believe today that focus on the various bodily functions and organs and the unbridled and indiscriminant exercise of the activities connected with them would help people feel better about their place in the universe and connect better with nature or god (small g) no matter how they interpret it. But, surely the lure of such wilding-happy-time party groups is everywhere these days and, with or without an actual alter; the worship of strange gods is as active as ever before.
The Jewish People coming out of Slavery in Egypt may not have been entirely ready to be admitted to the Promised Land as we have seen. Their faith was just not at that level. They had to be introduced to the idea at all by a Navi, a prophet, Moses, who guided them to where they were given the Torah and its commandment-driven way of life, which can be seen as a kind of user guide to help them and us get the most out of life and to similarly help us avoid the constant lure of traps and snares that can and often are put in our path.
The Mitzvos, the Commandments, of the Torah have been passed along in what is called the Mesorah, which is the historical record and communal way of learning and teaching that extends and encompasses the entirety of those who lived from when Moses and Balaam walked the earth clear up to today when we, as the people back then did, try to find peace and tranquility which might be referred to by using the same term that the Slaves leaving Egypt had prayed for centuries to achieve; Geulah, Redemption. Both Navieem, both prophets, Moshe Rabbainu, Moses our teacher and Balaam, the prophet who gave us eternal blessings even while doing what he could to thwart our success as a people, received their prophetic enlightenment and their marching orders so to speak from the same source, from the L-ord. The objective and the process are still the same. Only the names and faces have been changed to those of us who are here today who are exofficio representatives of all those who came before us. May we continue to be honored to do so.
Sivan 10, 5773 corresponding to May 19, 2013
© Drew Kopf 2013
Signed: Drew Kopf 2012 left side and דּוֹבֿ (in Hebrew) 5772 lower right corner(Note: Dated in error by the artist. Should read 5773).
Created: Sivan 5773 corresponding to June 2013
Original: Collection of Eilam Leherman, New York, NY. A gift of the
artist on the occasion of Eilam's Bar Mitzvah.