Parashat Balak


CometParashat Balak


Parashat Balak
by Adrian Kelaty, Dvar Yerushalayim Student
Gur Aryeh



Despite what the parsha might suggest, “King” Balak of Moav was only a prince. In fact, he was actually Midianite, and he only came to Moav to tell them about the security situation concerning Israel, their enemy. It was at this point that they appointed him temporary king, and only then, in pasuk 4, was he “King of Moav at that time”.

On further reading, we find that Moav went to Midian to hire Balaam, the sorcerer, who was born circumcised and who spoke Hebrew. But surely Moav was a mighty and resourceful nation by itself? Why didn’t they want to carry out their plan on their own? The Midrash suggests three answers:

1. The Midianites knew Moshe’s Rabbenu’s background, as he had lived in Midian for many years. Moav wanted to know if Balaam could defeat him.

2. Even though they hired Balaam, they didn’t want to rely on his cursing, so the Moabites went to discuss military tactics with Midian.

3. The Moabites hired Balaam with the hope of joining forces with the Midianites to have a greater chance of defeating their common enemy, Israel.

The Israelites had been commanded not to fight against Moav – so why were they scared? Because they were afraid that Midian and the surrounding territories would be destroyed, and the Moabites would be the “leftovers”. Hence the sedra states that Israel was like “an ox licking up grass”, which would ‘leave behind’ Moav, like an ox leaves behind the parts of the grass that it regurgitates.

The question often arises, why did Hashem give the power of prophecy to a gentile? Because He wanted to show the nations that he was fair to them aswell, giving them a prophet who was in many ways on a par with Moshe Rabbenu himself. Balaam learnt all he knew from his father Beor, who in turn learnt from Aza not Azael, the angels whom Hashem banished from Heaven.

However, G-d only appeared to Balaam at night, as he was unworthy of Ruach Hakodesh during normal hours, when Jews receive their prophecy. But why did Hashem give these powers to a sorcerer as debased as Balaam? Because Balaam could relate to the nations, who would simply not have been able to relate to a man of G-d.

We then see that the elders of Moav brought charms with them when visiting Balaam. Surely Balaam, the internationally renowned sorcerer would have his own charms to work his magic with? This is because Balaam might have then claimed to be merely a sorcerer, who in fact does not need charms, so to prevent Balaam using this as an excuse for an argument or a ‘copout’, the elders came prepared with their own charms.

Regarding cursing Israel, how could Balaam be sure that “Hashem will speak to me”? Because he knew that Hashem was involved with the welfare of His people. Also, Balaam had thought that through him the Bnei Yisrael would leave Egypt and be given the Torah. When Moshe was the one who did this, Balaam became jealous.

Why did only the officers of Moav stay with Balaam? What happened to the Midianites who were with them? At that point, Midian united with Moav, so they all became Moabites. Thus we see later on in the parsha, the Israelites had illicit relations with the daughters of Moav, and a few pesukim later it talks about the Midianite woman. They had been merged, but Hashem said “Harass the Midianites” – not the Moabites.

Balaam said that he could not “transgress the word of Hashem”. Doesn’t this show him to be a great person, performing such a great Kiddush Hashem? Absolutely not. Chazal tell us that we should always judge Balaam’s words ‘lignay’ (negatively). He said “I cannot” not “I will not”, implying that he really wanted to curse Israel, but it was impossible.
But why didn’t Balaam lie and just say that he was able curse the people of Israel (and thus collect his money). Firstly, he didn’t want to ruin his reputation, and secondly, he wasn’t trusted enough to be paid in advance. We see in Parshat Mattot that Balaam turned up in Midian at the time of the war with Israel. He was there to collect his wages for getting Israel to sin with the Moabite women, and he was killed by the sword. Balaam had used the Jews weapon, the tongue, to attack them, therefore the Jews used his weapon, the sword, to kill him.

Why did Hashem say to Balaam “Arise and go with them”, (the Moabites)? Because in fact this was Balaam’s job, to speak Hashem’s Word to the nations “if they [the men] came to summon you”, i.e. if they called you to be an emissary for the word of Hashem. And when he went with them, why was Hashem angry? Because Balaam didn’t go to speak the word of G-d, but to curse Israel.

Balaam owned a very special donkey. Our Sages of Blessed Memory tell us that this donkey was created on the sixth day of Creation at twilight. It was given to him by Yaakov Avinu as a gift so that he wouldn’t issue an evil decree against his descendants. But instead Balaam advised Pharaoh to make the Jews make bricks, and to bathe in their blood to cure his leprosy.

This donkey miraculously started to talk. However, it simply uttered “why did you hit me”. Was it worth performing this great miracle just for such a plain statement? This was because Hashem wanted to say “Whoever I wish to speak, will speak” – not Balaam. Also, by the donkey’s next statement “Have I been accustomed to do such a thing to you”, Balaam was humiliated in front of the Moabite officers who were with him. The donkey was hinting that it had been abused. Thus Balaam looked disgusting in front of the Moabites, and they wondered whether such a sinner could really relay blessings and curses from Heaven. In addition, the Moabites saw that Balaam couldn’t see the angel but the donkey did, making Balaam look like a phoney. Moreover, Balaam said that he would have killed his donkey if he had a sword. If he needed a weapon to kill a mere animal, how then could he obliterate an entire nation with just speech? Of this, Balaam had no answer.

Balaam said to Hashem “If it is evil in Your eyes, I shall return”. If he was offering to go back, why then do we find Hashem telling him to continue? There are two explanations for this:

1. If Balaam would turn back, the nations would subsequently say that Hashem was powerless against Balaam’s curses. Therefore Hashem told him to carry on, so that He could publicly thwart his plan.

2. Hashem wanted to show His special love for Israel, so He used the foremost prophet of the goyim and completely turned around his curses into blessings, as it says in Sanhedrin “from the blessings Balaam was forced to articulate, one can deduce what curses he really had intended to utter”.

When Balak heard that Balaam would only say “whatever word G-d puts in my mouth”, his reception cooled off, and he didn’t even invite Balaam to dine with him, but rather merely sent him one cow and one sheep. This annoyed Balaam.

Balaam saw “the edge of the people”, not in a physical sense, but rather in a spiritual sense. Rashi tells us that these people were the Erev Rav (the mixed multitude of gentiles who accompanied the Jews out of Egypt). Balaam was trying to find some sign of immorality or other evil as a reason so that he could kindle Hashem’s wrath against Israel.

Why did Balaam build seven altars? Again, we learn from Rashi that these correspond to all the altars that the Patriarchs built. Alternatively, Balaam realised that the Jews were blessed through their observance of the Shabbat, therefore he intended to undermine this by building seven altars, and offering seven rams and seven bulls on them.

Regarding these sacrifices, instead of saying that they were offered “on the altar”, the Torah says “by means of” the altar”. Only one other person offered sacrifices by “means” – Noah. What is the similarity between Noah and Balaam? Both were blemished. Our Sages of Blessed Memory tell us that Noah had been maimed by his son Cham, rendering him unable to serve at the Altar. This meant that he had to have someone to offer the sacrifices for him. Similarly Balaam, as we are told, was blind in one eye and lame in one leg, and therefore had to have Balak offer the sacrifices for him, while he supervised. Therefore Balaam offered sacrifices “by means” of the altar. In connection with this, we learn that we should strive to do a mitzva even it is “Lo Lishma” (not for its own sake); as a reward for his 40 sacrifices to Hashem, Balak merited to have Ruth as one of his descendants – great grandmother of King David. How much greater is our reward if we do mitzvot for their own sake!

Given that Hashem had ordered Balaam to bless Israel, one would have thought that Balaam would much rather have done it privately, instead of going back to Balak (as he did) and thus incurring the wrath of the Moabites. This is precisely why Hashem told him to return to Balak – to make a Kiddush Hashem for the gentiles, and simultaneously making Balaam a target for hatred.

“From Aram, Balak…led me, from the mountains of the east”. Aram refers to the place that was the source of blessing for Israel, and the “mountains of east” refers to the Patriarchs, whose merit is immovable. Balaam then said that Israel is “a nation that will dwell in solitude”. This refers to the mitzva of Brit Milah, which distinguishes us and makes us “solitary” from the other nations. Balaam then made a prophetic statement – “may my soul die the death of the upright”. He knew that every Tisha B’av, 15,000 Israelites will perish in the desert due to the sin of the spies. This was a painless death, and Balaam was envious and wanted to die like this. However, this was only for the Jews, not sorcerers – hence Balaam “died by the sword”.

Why did Balaam have to see the Jews when he cursed them? He intended to use the instant of G-d’s wrath, one solitary moment in the day when His anger reigns supreme. The gemara (Berachot) teaches us that this moment lasts only 1/16 of a second; enough time for Balaam to say the word “kaleym” (“destroy them”), but not to specify whom. Hence he had to look at the Jewish People.

Balak told Balaam he would now only be able to see “the edge of the people”. Balak, realising that Hashem wouldn’t curse the people, resolved to having Balaam curse only a small part of them.

Balaam then makes three connected statements in one pasuk:

1. “G-d is not a man that He should be deceitful” – this refers to someone who intends to do something, but deliberately refrains.

2. “..nor a son of man that he should relent” – this refers to someone who intended something but changed his mind.

3. “Would He say and not do, or speak and not confirm?” – this refers to someone who intends to do something, but finds it impossible.

These three reasons are in response to Hashem telling Balaam that he would not curse Israel – He will surely not change His mind!

However, we see that Balaam moved to three different places to curse the Jews. Why did he move from place to place? Each time, he blamed the area that he had bought the offerings, and he thought that G-d might be more accessible elsewhere – never once looking at himself for his lack of success. This comes to teach us that we must establish a fixed place for our prayers, to resemble the Patriarch Abraham, who believed unquestionably in the justice of Hashem and did not change his place of prayer. What was the reason for Balaam trying three times before giving up hope of being able to curse them? Three occurrences of an action establish a chazaka (a pattern which is fixed to continue in the future).

What did Balaam see when he uttered “How goodly are your tents, oh Jacob” – not one tent of Israel faced another, and in this way no man was able to gaze at another man’s wife. It was then that he decided to encourage immorality from an outside source – the daughters of Moab. And with this plan, he succeeded. But how could the Israelites sin with harlotry so soon after they merited the highest praises from G-d? The Moabites used a cunning plan. They set up tents selling fine clothing, with old women as vendors. When a Jewish man would approach one of these old women, a young woman would come out of the tent and offer a better price for the same garment inside. This way the men would enter and sin, and their entrapment was gradual and not immediate.


“Insights into the Torah” – Rav Zalman Soratzkin
“The Midrash Says” – Rav Moshe Weissman
“The Call of the Torah” – Rav Elie Munk
“Love your neighbour” – Rav Zelig Pliskin
“Encyclopedia of Biblical Personalities” – Yishai Charidah


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