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ParshaNut: The View From The Top – Parashat Balak


by Rabbi David Kasher, Kevah’s Senior Rabbinic Educator

This week King Balak seeks to curse the Children of Israel, and fails. Then he does it again. And again. Why does he keep trying? A new, holistic read of the parsha may help shed some light on his strange behavior.

This is the basic narrative structure for Parshat Balak:

Balak, King of Moab, has been made uneasy by Israel’s recent string of victories over enemy nations, and has begun to worry that he will be the next to fall before them. He decides to seek the advantage with a preemptive strike, hoping to weaken the Israelite forces before they have a chance to advance against him. His first plan of attack, however, is not military, but metaphysical: he will hire Bilaam, a local prophet, to curse Israel, and thus doom them to defeat. Bilaam seems open to the task and, after several stops and starts – including the famous incident with the talking donkey – he heads out to perform the curse. But when he opens his mouth to unleash the curse, the spirit of the Lord takes over and, instead of cursing Israel, he blesses them. For, as Bilaam declares:

How can I damn whom God has not damned? (Numbers 23:8)

מָה אֶקֹּב, לֹא קַבֹּה אֵל; וּמָה אֶזְעֹם, לֹא זָעַם ה

The message of this tale seems relatively straightforward: God is on Israel’s side. No one can curse them, for they have divine protection. Their triumph is assured. Who could defeat God’s favored nation?

That would appear to be the end of the story. Yet there is a curious plot device that extends the story, taking us through two more (seemingly unnecessary) repetitions of the same narrative cycle. For Balak’s reaction to the first failed curse, after an initial burst of anger, is to relocate Bilaam to a new mountaintop. Strangely, he seems to believe that a different view will change the nature of Bilaam’s prophecy:

Balak says to him, “Come with me to another place from which you can see them… and damn them for me from there. And with that, he took him to Tzofim field, on the summit of Pisgah.(Numbers 23:13-14)

 וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו בָּלָק, לְךָנָּא אִתִּי אֶלמָקוֹם אַחֵר אֲשֶׁר תִּרְאֶנּוּ מִשָּׁםוְקָבְנוֹלִי, מִשָּׁם.  וַיִּקָּחֵהוּ שְׂדֵה

צֹפִים, אֶלרֹאשׁ הַפִּסְגָּה

Of course it does not work. Bilaam goes through his ceremonial preparations again, and again he summons his prophetic voice and lets out:

God is not a like a man, to be capricious,                                        לֹא אִישׁ אֵל וִיכַזֵּב   

Not some person who will change his mind…                                 וּבֶןאָדָם וְיִתְנֶחָם

My message was to bless                                                                          הִנֵּה בָרֵךְ, לָקָחְתִּי

When He blesses, I cannot reverse it. (Numbers 23:19-20)        וּבֵרֵךְ, וְלֹא אֲשִׁיבֶנָּה

Why did Balak think it would be otherwise? How could a simple geographical repositioning have altered a divine message?

Read more of this week’s ParshaNut at Kevah.org.

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