July 16, 2022: Parashat Balak – An Unlikely Vessel
This week’s parashat is taken from Numbers 22:2–25:9. Listen as David looks at Balaam, a very unlikely vessel for use by Hashem. Follow along in the AUDIO PODCAST, by clicking on the play button below, and reading along with the notes, as you listen to today's Parashat:
At the end of last week’s Torah portion (Parashat Chukat), we read of the Children of Israel’s mighty military victories over Sihon, king of the Amorites, and Og, king of Bashan, both ruling lands on the east side of the Jordan. The final words of the parashah read (Numbers 22:1): “The Children of Israel journeyed and encamped in the plains of Moab, opposite the Jordan, near Jericho.”
It is against this backdrop that we open up this week’s Torah portion – Parashat Balak – with these words in Numbers 22:2-3:
וַיַּ֥רְא בָּלָ֖ק בֶּן־צִפּ֑וֹר אֵ֛ת כָּל־אֲשֶׁר־עָשָׂ֥ה יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל לָֽאֱמֹרִֽי׃
וַיָּ֨גָר מוֹאָ֜ב מִפְּנֵ֥י הָעָ֛ם מְאֹ֖ד כִּ֣י רַב־ה֑וּא וַיָּ֣קָץ מוֹאָ֔ב מִפְּנֵ֖י בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃
“Balak son of Tzippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorite. Moab was very frightened of the people, because it was formidable; and Moab was disgusted in the face of the Children of Israel.”
Of course Moab was frightened! Here were the Children of Israel on their doorstep: Once a multitude of slaves in Egypt that miraculously walked away from their former Egyptian taskmasters and crossed through the midst of the Sea of Reeds, and in the process, decimated the mighty Egyptian empire. Surely, this occurred 40 years earlier, but lo and behold, here they were now, fresh from their victories over the mighty kings Sihon and Og. Hence, Moab was frightened.
It is at this point that we are told that Balak was king of Moab, and his response was to hire Balaam (Numbers 22:6) to:
“invoke a curse upon this people for me, for it is more powerful than me… For I know that whomever you bless is blessed and whomever you invoke curse upon is accursed.”
Clearly Balaam had a reputation that preceded him: he was a sorcerer for hire.
What is strange to comprehend is what Balaam says to the elders sent by Balak to hire his services. Balaam said to them in Numbers 22:8:
“Spend the night here and I shall give you a response, as Hashem shall speak to me.”
What? Why would Hashem, the God of Israel, choose to communicate with Balaam, a sorcerer from amongst the other nations? Did Balaam have any merit that warranted this awesome privilege? If he did, we certainly are not told about it.
Rashi comments: “Why did Hashem rest His Shechinah upon a wicked non-Jew? So that the non-Jewish nations should not have an excuse by saying, "Were we to have had prophets, we would have repented," Hashem established prophets for them.”
This is an interesting comment by Rashi. We can easily accept the simple truth that Hashem chose the Jewish nation as His Covenant people and move on. Hashem will do what He will do, so who are we to question His decisions? However, it is peculiar that we now read about Hashem speaking to and working through Balaam who is in no clear way connected to the Jewish people, and as we learn about his character traits, he was no righteous individual. What Rashi is saying here is that Hashem revealed Himself to the other nations as well – that these prophets, including Balaam, had the opportunity to reveal Hashem to the other nations, but did not. In Balaam’s case, he used it for his own selfish purposes.
In sharp contrast, look at the Jewish nation, and Abraham specifically. At the age of 75, Hashem called him out of Ur to leave his home and his land to settle in a foreign land with the future promise that his descendants would inherit the land and be as numerous as the stars of the sky. Abraham obeyed faithfully. Look at Moses. Moses, at the age of 80, was tending his father-in-law’s flocks on the backside of the wilderness when Hashem called him to do the impossible – to take His Covenant people out from under slavery in Egypt. Moses also obeyed faithfully.
Balaam, on the other hand, was a prophet for hire to the other nations who cared most about monetary reward; he was arrogant, and there are indications that he hated the Children of Israel with a vengeance. In this instance with Balak summoning Balaam, the only instruction that Hashem gave to Balaam was not to curse the nation of Israel. Hashem said to Balaam in Numbers 22:12:
“You shall not go with them [speaking of the men sent by Balak to summon Balaam]… you shall not curse the people, for it is blessed.”
That simple. Yet, we see numerous instances of Balaam finding ways to circumvent Hashem so that he could curse Israel and get paid!
When Hashem told him not to go on the first night, Balaam obeyed and told the men that he could not go. Yet, Balak sent higher-ranking officers a second time with the promise of greater honour and reward. Balaam responded in Numbers 22:18:
“If Balak were to give me his houseful of silver and gold, I am unable to transgress the word of Hashem, my God, to do anything small or great.”
How noble, right? Yet, instead of telling the men to leave and go on their way, he told them to stay the night. Clearly Balaam was hoping Hashem would change His mind and let him go. Lo and behold, Hashem did. Hashem said to him in Numbers 22:20:
“If the men came to summon you, arise and go with them.”
Why did Hashem change His mind?
There is a Midrash that offers a response (Bamidbar Rabbah 20:12): “From here you learn that a man is led in the way that he wishes to go. For at first Balaam was told by Hashem: ‘You shall not go with them!’ But when he was audacious to go, Hashem allowed him to go. We know that God allows him to go only because of his audaciousness, for it is written: ‘God’s wrath flared because he was going’. Thus, when granting Balaam permission to go, the Holy One, Blessed is He, said to him: ‘Wicked one! I have no desire that the wicked should perish, but since you are eager to go to be destroyed from the world, arise and go with them!’”
Hashem instilled within each of us a free will to make our own choices. Balaam desired to go, so Hashem let him go. As we see later, Hashem had absolutely no intention of letting Balaam utter a single curse upon His Covenant people.
In the morning, Balaam was so eager to go that he saddled his own donkey (rather than letting his servants attend to the task). Compare this instance to Abraham who similarly arose early in the morning to saddle his donkey for the trek to Mount Moriah to offer his son Isaac up as an offering to Hashem. What stark contrasts! Here we have Balaam, a man filled with so much hatred towards the Children of Israel that he arose early in the morning to saddle his donkey, and on the other hand, we have Abraham who rose early in the morning to fulfill the command of Hashem. In Numbers 22:22, we read:
“God’s wrath flared because Balaam was going, and an angel of Hashem stood on the road as an impediment to him.”
Next, Hashem sent a very, very clear signal to Balaam to wake him up. Hashem opened the eyes of Balaam’s she-donkey to see the angel, and three times, the she-donkey averted the danger directed toward her master as Balaam sat completely oblivious upon her back. Not only that, but on the third attempt, Balaam got frustrated with the she-donkey and began to strike her, at which point Hashem opened her mouth to have an intelligent conversation with Balaam! At this point, Hashem opened Balaam’s eyes and he saw the angel with a drawn sword and realized the seriousness of the situation and repented. (We know that the repentance was momentary for later on, we see Balaam fall back into his original scheme.) The clear and precise message that Hashem was sending to Balaam here was that Balaam’s own she-donkey was more worthy than Balaam to be the beneficiary of Hashem’s power. At this point, Balaam was ready to return home, but the angel of Hashem spoke the word of Hashem to him in Numbers 22:35:
“Go with the men, but only the word that I shall speak to you, that shall you speak.”
Upon arriving in Moab, even though Balaam forewarned Balak that he could only speak whatever word God put into his mouth, in speaking to Balak, he conveniently left out the part about not being allowed to curse the nation of Israel. Again, quite convenient for him, and a clear indication that Balaam still desired to curse Israel and collect his reward. As we read on, we see three attempts to curse the nation of Israel from three different high elevations in the land, and each time Balaam spoke, Hashem put an utterance of words in his mouth and he spoke nothing but blessings for the nation of Israel.
Or HaChaim writes: “Hashem wanted to disclose of the favourable future events and amazing things that would occur to the Jews, and He wanted them to be revealed by Balaam, the prophet of the nations. And of the good things that would happen to the Jews at the End of Days, and the eventual destruction of the wicked nations at the hands of the Jews. The nations would thus know, from the mouth of their own prophet, of the things to bring about many benefits to the Jews, both revealed and hidden benefits.”
Moreover, each of the three times Balaam spoke, the blessings became progressively more intense and powerful, moving further and further into the future, all the way up until the End of Days.
We don’t have time to unwrap the details of the blessings in this teaching, including the one on the Messianic mandate, but I encourage you to read through the entirety of the three blessings as well as the revelation of End of Days on your own, as they are intensely beautiful, speaking ultimately to Hashem’s utmost love for His Covenant people that will last into eternity, as well as the Messianic mandate (Numbers 23:5–24:24).
What is fascinating in all of this is the vessel that Hashem chose to use to accomplish all of this – a highly unlikely source: a pagan sorcerer from the other nations speaking to the other nations, uttering nothing but blessings bestowed upon Hashem’s chosen people all for the ears of those other nations.
And this is an important point. As much as Balaam had wicked, ulterior motives, driven by money and a pursuit of hatred against the Children of Israel, Hashem chose to speak through him as a likely conduit to reach the other nations. Balaam clearly had no desire to know Hashem, but rather to use the gifting of Divine utterance for profit to benefit himself. He was selfish and rebellious, age-old qualities dating back to Adam’s sin in the Garden. Nevertheless, Hashem used him with the anticipation that Balaam, of his own volition, would become an agent for the Kingdom of Hashem rather than a stumbling block. Hashem gave Balaam ample opportunities to mend his wicked ways, but ultimately Hashem used the events to glorify His Name. While Balak and the Moabites summoned Balaam out of fear of Israel, he had the prospective opportunity to hear that there was no going against the Almighty Master of the Universe Who held an intense love for the Children of Israel. In other words, Balaam had the opportunity to give up his selfish pursuits, to come in line with the words that Hashem was speaking through him, and to reveal to Balak and his entourage that Hashem is sovereign. This could have been an opportunity for these other nations to come into the knowledge of Hashem!
Yet, we know that Balak and his entourage did not listen, and Balaam did not learn his lesson. Balaam ultimately offered up advice that resulted in the Moabite women seducing the men of Israel into sacrificing to their gods and indulging in promiscuity, causing Hashem’s wrath to flare against Israel (more on this in next week’s parashah). Balaam saw a weakness and exploited it for profit, even after all of the revelations from Hashem. We read later on in Numbers 31, that Balaam along with the five Midianite kings eventually met their end by the hand of Israel, and it is said that Balaam happened to be collecting his payment for the atrocity he had just caused in the Israelite camp.
Now, you might ask the question: Does Hashem care only about the Jewish nation? What about the other nations? Of course Hashem cares about ALL of the nations! Hashem chose Israel to be the vessel through which He would reveal Himself to the entire world. It has always been Israel’s mandate to reveal Hashem to the world. Throughout the Torah, Hashem highlighted numerous times the importance of treating “gerim” or “converts” to Israel fairly – those from other nations that choose to join and became a part of the Jewish nation. To be precise, there are 36 such references throughout the Torah, making it one of the most frequently reiterated commandments of the Torah! Also, remember that Abraham, the father of the Jewish nation, was originally a “ger”, becoming the first Jew. Moreover, the lineage of the Messiah features “gerim” or “converts” from the Moabite and Canaanite nations (for instance, Ruth was originally a Moabite)!
What is Hashem trying to tell us here? Redemption and rectification ultimately involves the entire world! In Balaam’s utterance on the End of Days (Numbers 24:17), he uttered:
“a star shot forth from Jacob and a rod has risen from Israel”
...Speaking of the coming Messiah that would bring complete destruction to all of Israel’s enemies.
As we who believe that Yeshua is that promised Messiah, 2,000 years ago, Yeshua came as that Messiah, and though he did not fulfill the entire Messianic mandate during his time on earth (for instance, by decimating the enemies of Israel), he instead and (you could say) more importantly paid the ultimate sacrifice with his own life to redeem us and to turn away God’s judgment. In plain words, Yeshua “bought” us more time to repent and turn to Hashem. However, he will return one day to finish what was started. But the next time, it will be to finish the remainder of Balaam’s prophecy – the final destruction of the enemies of Israel and the final reining in of the Messianic era. As Yeshua said to his disciples (Luke 21:25-28):
“There will be signs in the sun and the moon and the stars and over the land, anguish for the Gentiles and confusion due to the rumbling of the sea and its breaking waves. Sons of men will melt from fright and terror of what is coming on all the land, for the troops of Heaven will be shaken. Then they will see the son of man coming in the cloud, with power and with great glory. And when these things begin coming, rise up and lift up your heads, for your redemption has come near!”
Luke continued in the Book of Acts (Acts 1:10-11):
“And while they [the disciples] were looking after him into Heaven as he ascended [Yeshua ascended into heaven], behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking to the heavens? This Yeshua, who ascended from you into heaven, will surely come in the same way as you saw him ascend to the place.”
May the Jewish nation arise and be a great light to the other nations of the world. May those of us who are born outside of the Jewish nation come alongside Israel and support Hashem’s chosen people in fulfilling their great mandate in bringing rectification to the entire world. May we not be like Balaam, focusing on ourselves and what we can get from Hashem. Rather, may we make ourselves available completely and freely for Hashem to mold and shape in His image, instead becoming pure and holy vessels to be used by the Master of the Universe for His Kingdom, glory and honour.