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Balak 5773-2013

“Balaam’s Second Vision: Lo, a People that Rises Like a Lion”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Balak, we read of Balak the son of Zippor, king of Moab, and his overwhelming fear of the conquering hosts of Israel who are encamped nearby.

To protect his nation from attack by the Israelites, Balak sends messengers to the world-renowned prophet of the gentile nations, Balaam the son of Bior of Pitor, beseeching him to come and curse the People of Israel, because they are far too numerous for the Moabites to defeat.

After much persuasion (and one recalcitrant donkey), Balaam arrives in Moab and is welcomed by King Balak.

In order to underscore his talents for sorcery, Balaam requests that Balak build seven altars and prepare seven bulls and seven rams for him to sacrifice.

In his first vision, Balaam declares that although he has been retained by Balak to curse the Jewish people, he is constrained from doing so because G-d does not allow him to harm His People. Balaam portrays the People of Israel as a people who dwell apart, and who are not reckoned among the nations.

Balak, the king of Moab, perceives Balaam’s first prophecy as favorable to Israel, and expresses his indignation at Balaam’s failure to fulfill his mission.

One would assume that Balaam’s second vision would be more to Balak’s liking. But, alas, Balaam is not really in control.

The Torah, in Numbers 23:18-24, records Balaam’s second vision:

Up, Balak, attend
Give ear to me, son of Zippor!
G-d is not man to be capricious,
Or mortal to change His mind.
Would He speak and not act,
Promise and not fulfill?
My message was to bless:
When He blesses, I cannot reverse it.
No harm is in sight for Jacob,
No woe in view for Israel.
The L-rd their G-d is with them,
And their King’s acclaim in their midst.
G-d who freed them from Egypt
Is for them like the horns of the wild ox.
Lo, there is no augury in Jacob,
No divining in Israel:
Jacob is told at once,
Yea Israel, what G-d has planned.
Lo, a people that rises like a lion cub,
Leaps up like the king of beasts,
Rests not until it has feasted on prey
And has drunk the blood of the slain.

The Da’at Sofrim offers a summary of Balaam’s second vision. In his second prophecy, Balaam speaks of the everlasting bond between Israel and G-d, and about the wars that will be fought with Israel. Even though Israel is primarily a spiritual nation, and has no desire to capture other people’s lands, Israel will engage in battle when necessary. In this manner are all the nations of the world forewarned to refrain from making war with Israel. For their own safety and well-being, they must fulfill that which is demanded of them by G-d.

Because much of Balaam’s words and prophecy are deeply esoteric, one of the challenges in Balaam’s second vision is to simply understand the meaning of his words. In Numbers 23:24, Balaam declares: “Hen ahm k’lah’vee yah’koom, v’cha’ah’ree yit’nah’sah, loh yish’kav ahd yo’chahl teref, v’dahm cha’lah’lim yish’teh,” Lo, a people that rises like a lion cub, leaps up like the king of beasts, rests not until it has feasted on prey, and has drunk the blood of the slain.

The Da’at Sofrim explains Balaam’s words and the metaphor of the lion to mean that despite Balak’s keen desire to see Israel’s greatness reduced, Balaam, nevertheless, in the name of G-d, declares that the hour of Israel’s greatness is yet to come. In this manner, Israel’s situation is comparable to a young lion cub, who, although at present, lies peacefully, will arise in the future to a position of leadership and dominion.

Balaam refers to the forty years that the people wandered in the wilderness as the so-called “dormant” years of Israel. After those years, Israel will break out of its cocoon, to boldly capture the land of Canaan. Once Israel fulfills that mission, Balaam predicts that they will return to their primary destiny of studying Torah and disseminating the Torah’s message among the nations of the world.

The comparison of Israel to a lion cub is also understood by Onkelos to mean that Balaam prophesied that Israel would begin to conquer the land of Canaan, and like a young lion, mature to its full strength, growing increasingly more powerful.

The interpretations of Balaam’s second vision by both the Da’at Sofrim and Onkelos explain his words to be predictive of what was soon to happen to the ancient Israelites.

On the surface, these interpretations seem to have little or marginal implications for contemporary times. Rashi, however, interprets Balaam’s prophecy entirely differently. He understands the verse (Numbers 23:24), “Lo, a people that rises like a lion cub,” to be laden with much contemporary meaning. Rashi suggests that Balaam is not at all referring to the aggressive nature of Israel when it must defend itself. Instead, Rashi suggests the verse refers to the daily “lion-like” behavior of the Jew. He maintains that when the Jewish people get up from their sleep in the morning they exert themselves like an awesome lion and grab commandments, immediately donning a Tallit, reading the Shema and putting on Tefillin.

Rashi, in effect, states that the security and destiny of the Jewish people depend upon their awesome passion for G-d, for His commandments and for the rituals of Judaism.

It is quite likely that Balaam hardly realizes the vast implications of his vision: There is no place in Jewish faith for “burnt-out” religionists. Each day, as the daily prayers begin with an exploration and search for G-d, through nature, mountains, skies, trees, and rivers, there is a new embrace of G-d. Each day, Jews accept upon themselves anew the dominion of G-d, with the blessings of the Shema and the Shema prayer itself. Each day, Jews, once again, express their praise, thanks and requests of G-d, in a dignified manner, in a suitable way, and with a passion and excitement as if these words had never been uttered before.

According to Rashi, only a passionate Israel will prevail, a nation like a fierce lion that “takes-no-prisoners” when it comes to expressing their complete uncompromised devotion to the Divine.

This passion is the secret of Jewish survival, and the secret of Jewish destiny.

It took a man (Balaam) obsessed with the desire to curse the Jewish people, to underscore and publicize the importance of this passion. Now, three thousand years later, we must realize that the information that Balaam shared with the world is as relevant today as it was then.

May you be blessed.