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Balak 5778-2018

“The Contemporary Impact of the Blessings of Bilaam”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Balak, records Bilaam’s dramatic prophecies regarding the Jewish people.

Balak, the son of Tzipor, the king of Moab at that time, was terrified that the People of Israel would attack the Moabite people and destroy them, as they had recently vanquished the Amorites.

Knowing that the Israelites did not battle in a conventional manner, but rather relied on Divine help to succeed, Balak called upon the services of Bilaam, son of Beor. Bilaam, who was known as a talented prophet, possessed the ability to curse the People of Israel and defeat them through his words and imprecations.

After much convincing to secure Bilaam’s participation in the strategy to defeat Israel, Bilaam finally agrees. G-d, however, appears to Bilaam to warn him not to curse the Jewish people.

After several rounds of prophecy in which Bilaam offers favorable words toward Israel, Balak, in utter frustration, says to Bilaam, Numbers 23:25, גַּם קֹב לֹא תִקֳּבֶנּוּ, גַּם בָּרֵךְ לֹא תְבָרְכֶנּוּ. “If you can’t curse them, at least don’t bless them!” Bilaam responds to Balak, saying, הֲלֹא דִּבַּרְתִּי אֵלֶיךָ לֵאמֹר, כֹּל אֲשֶׁר יְדַבֵּר השׁם אֹתוֹ אֶעֱשֶׂה, “Have I not spoken to you saying, ‘Whatever the L-rd shall speak, that shall I do?’”

After another round of blessings, Balak’s anger flares against Bilaam. Clapping his hands in fury, Balaak says, Numbers 24:10-11, לָקֹב אֹיְבַי קְרָאתִיךָ, וְהִנֵּה בֵּרַכְתָּ בָרֵךְ זֶה שָׁלֹשׁ פְּעָמִים, “I summoned you to curse my enemies, and behold you have blessed them these three times! Now go, flee to your place. I wanted to honor you, but G-d has withheld honor from you.”

Again, Bilaam tells Balak, Numbers 24:12-13, “I told your emissaries who came to fetch me, that even if Balak were to give me an entire household of silver and gold, I cannot transgress the word of G-d to do good or bad on my own. Whatever the L-rd speaks, that shall I speak.”

Perhaps by stepping back a bit, we can properly absorb what has transpired in this story. After all, it’s not very often in Jewish history that anyone, especially an avowed enemy of the Jews, blesses the Jewish people.

It could not merely be a serendipitous coincidence that only recently a former Australian member of parliament, Ross Cameron, offered an amazingly positive commentary on SkyNews Australia about the Jewish people.

I just want to say that the Arab world, you’ve got 350 million Arabs in 22 countries, you pride yourself, the Arab, sort of Bedouin culture, prides itself on hospitality. I just want to say to you that I don’t think your policy of punting the Jews is in your interest. And I think if you just sat down for a moment and said, “Okay, we’ve got this little rare jewel of six and half million Jews in the State of Israel of eight million people. This is one of the best things going for the Middle East, this is what I have described previously as ‘the magic of this operation.’” So wherever you are in the world, if you have a Jewish neighbor, say, “G-d bless you!” When you see a Jew walking on the street, you should recognize an ancestor [descendant] of King David, and say, “This is absolutely the most awesome story of human survival ever written.”

The prophecies of Bilaam are beyond beautiful. Says Bilaam, Numbers 23:21, “G-d does not behold iniquity in Jacob or see the perverseness of Israel, G-d is with him [Israel].” In Numbers 24:5&9, Bilaam concludes, “How goodly are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel. Blessed are those who bless you and cursed are those who curse you.”

Rabbi Baruch HaLevi Epstein in his work, Baruch She’Amar, asks: Of all the verses in the Bible that could have been chosen, why do the daily prayers of our people open with Bilaam’s prayer? Rabbi Epstein suggests, that if Bilaam, who hated the Jewish people so intensely, said these wonderful things about the Jewish people, מַה טּבוּ אהָלֶיךָ יַעֲקב , ‘How goodly are your tents, O Jacob,’ imagine what the truth really was! Imagine how incredibly wonderful the Jewish people really were, exceeding even Bilaam’s own extraordinary praises.

Rabbi Aryeh Ben David in his invaluable compendium of Shabbat table conversations entitled Around the Shabbat Table, makes the very insightful point that Jewish people in the time of Bilaam and Balak were quite distressed because of the hopelessness of their situation. They had just suffered a multitude of crises: the spies, the rebellion of Korach, the impending cessation of the Manna from heaven, Miriam and Aaron had passed away, and Moses too would soon pass. Would the Israelites really be able to enter the Promised Land and defeat their enemies?

Comes along Bilaam, a man who abounds with hatred for the Israelites, and pronounces a most hopeful message, saying clearly that Israel will vanquish its enemies, Numbers 24:8-9, “The people [of Israel] will lift up itself as a young lion; will not lie down until it eats of the prey,” Numbers 23:24, “Israel will eat up the nations, its enemies, will break their bones and pierce them through with its arrows. It lies down like a lion and, like a great lion, who will stir him up?”

When the angels sing praises to G-d about Israel, says Rabbi Ben David, they are tainted witnesses. All those who love Israel and say nice things about them are also tainted. But, when our enemies say nice things about us, we have to perk up our ears to listen and believe them.

Bilaam’s curses, that were turned into blessings, remain with the Jewish people forever as a source of inspiration. It is because of these blessings, that the curses of our enemies cannot harm us.

May you be blessed.

Please note: The Fast of Shivah Assar b’Tammuz (the 17th of Tammuz) will be observed this year on Sunday, July 1, 2018, from dawn until nightfall. The fast commemorates the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem, leading to the city’s and Temple’s ultimate destruction. The fast also marks the beginning of the “Three Week” period of mourning, which concludes after the Fast of Tisha B’Av that will be observed on Saturday night and Sunday, July 21st and 22nd. Have a meaningful fast.