Balak

  • Rav Nathaniel Helfgot

Parshat HaShavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion


PARASHAT BALAK

BY RABBI NATHANIEL HELFGOT

A.

Parashat Balak is unique amongst the parshiyot in the Torah, in that it takes place exclusively (excluding the last nine verses at the end of the sidra) outside the arena of the Jewish people. For three lengthy chapters we are transported into the court of King Balak, his advisors and the machinations of his "hired gun," Bil'am the sorcerer. We hear not a word about what the Jewish people are doing, but rather are granted an inside view of the fears, actions and statements of the princes and agents of Moav and Amon. The only analogue that readily comes to mind are certain passages at the outset of Megillat Esther where we are treated to a lengthy description of the interaction between Achashverosh and his advisors and the "party" scene in the court of the king. Here too the "camera" is exclusively focused on the goings on in the gentile world, with not a word, in the plain sense of the text as to the reaction or participation of the Jewish people in the events.

Here in parashat Balak we do not know whether the Jewish people knew about Balak and Bil'am's attempts to curse them, and if they did, what their reaction to that threat was. Furthermore, we hear nothing about God informing Moshe Rabbeinu as to this potential "attack." It is as if this is a parasha totally written in another dimension and sphere, that was then communicated via some prophecy for inclusion as part of the Torah. Indeed, it would seem that this is the import of Chazal's very intriguing comment (Bava Batra 14b) that "Moshe wrote his Sefer, and Parashat Bil'am and Iyov." Chazal here are highlighting the unique nature of Parashat Bil'am and its inclusion in the Torah as we know it. (See further the comments in Responsa Chatam Sofer 356 and the essay by Rav Kasher zt"l, Torah Sheleima 19, Miluim 33, pg. 363).

There is, however, one small previous parallel to this section - the opening sections of Sefer Shemot. At the outset of Shemot, the Torah takes us, via a "hidden camera," into the thinking and actions of Par'o and his people. There too we see the gentile king plotting the downfall of the Jews and convincing his people of the imminent threat posed to the stability of the kingdom. In Shemot, of course, the section is only a few verses long but the parallel seems clear.

B.

In fact, a more careful reading of the Par'o and Balak/Bil'am narratives reveals many more distinctive literary and thematic parallels, with the latter story "playing off" the former one. Let me present some of this evidence in outline form, moving from our parasha and relating backwards to the Par'o story:

1. The Torah here very significantly uses the term "am" (people) in the mouth of Balak, Bil'am, and God, 7 times before Bil'am's first "mashal" in ch. 23. In fact, it is the non-Jewish king and nation who first describe the Jewish people as an "am" and only in the last instance is it used by God. This clearly echoes the beginning of Sefer Shemot where in ch. 1 we find that it is Par'o, the enemy, who is the first figure in the entire Torah to refer to Bnei Yisrael as an "am." It is only in ch. 3 of Shemot, after God remembers the covenant that God uses this term to describe the Jewish people during the revelation of the burning bush.

2. An entire phalanx of words and phrases describing the Jewish people here in Balak are echoes of the beginning of Shemot:

BALAK

"Va-yagar Moav mipnei ha-AM me'od, ki RAV hu, VA-YAKATZ Moav MIPNEI BENEI YISRAEL"(22:3)

"Va-yishlach mal'akhim el Bil'am ben Beor ... eretz benei AMO ... leimor HINEI AM yatza mi-Mitzrayim ... lekha na ara li et ha-AM ki ATZUM hu MIMENI" (22: 5-6)

SHEMOT

"Va-yomer el AMO HINEI AM benei Yisrael RAV ve-ATZUM MIMENU" (1:9)

"Ve-ka'asher yeanu oto ken yirbeh ve-khein yifrotz VA-YAKUTZU MIPNEI BENEI YISRAEL"

Clearly the Torah is paralleling the two encounters with the non-Jewish powers of the time.

3. In both narratives, the role of "sorcerers" and the debunking of their power is a major element. In Shemot, we have the constant presence of the "chartumim," who are used to convey the notion that God is more powerful than any of the forces, magic or powers in which Par'o trusts. In our section we have "Bil'am ha-kosem," the sorcerer, (as he is termed in Yehoshua 13:22) and Balak's pagan belief in the power of incantations and magic spells to manipulate the future and destiny of the Jewish people.

Chazal, I believe, highlighted this theme in the way they organized the aliyot that we read in Shul on Shabbat. Let us look for example at some parallels between the organization in Balak and Va'eira.

VA'EIRA

End of Revi'i (4th aliya): "So that you should know that there is none like Hashem our God" (Shemot 8:6)

End of Chamishi: "So that you should know that I am Hashem in the land" (8:18)

End of Shishi: "And so that My name be publicized throughout the land." (9:16)

BALAK

End of Sheini: (God to Bil'am) "But only that which I tell you shall you do" (Bamidbar 22:20).

End of Shlishi: (Bil'am to Balak) "That which God places in my mouth, that I will say (22:38).

End of Revi'i: (Bil'am to Balak) "That which Hashem places in my mouth, that I will be careful to say (23:12).

End of Chamishi: (Bil'am to Balak) "Everything which Hashem says I shall do" (23:26).

End of Shishi: (Bil'am to Balak) "That which Hashem says I shall do" (24:13).

In both narratives the Torah clearly has a very prominent theological message to teach us and the world about the nature of God's power and actions in history. As an aside, one might suggest that the main difference between the "chartumim" and the "kosmim" is that the former engage in magical ACTIONS, while the latter is much more focused on magical "SPEECH" or incantations. Thus, the key word throughout the Balak narrative is forms of the word "Daber" or "Dibbur" - to speak. Moreover, it is striking to note that in both narratives not only does the power of the magician fail, relative to God, but there occurs a HUMILIATION of the magician at the midpoint of the entire section. In the "chartumim" narrative in Shemot/Va'eira (ch.9) the magicians are afflicted with the boils and cannot stand in the presence of Moshe and Aharon and Par'o. They are basically neutralized as a factor, and from this point in the story they at most urge Par'o to surrender but never again do they attempt to challenge Moshe and God.

Similarly, in our parasha, Bil'am the sorcerer is not simply rebuked, he is humiliated before his patron over and over. Moreover, he is further deflated by the humorous encounter with the donkey which is partially meant to puncture the pomposity and arrogance of this self-proclaimed "Yode'a Da'at Elyon." Even the lowly donkey can see things and speak words that Bil'am has no access to. From that moment on Bil'am simply goes about his task of doing exactly what God "feeds" him to say. In light of this analysis it also interesting to note two other parallels: a. Both Par'o and Bil'am are brought to declare "I have sinned" (I have sinned this time," Shemot 9:25; "I have sinned," Bamidbar 22:34). b. The phrase used by Balak to describe the Jewish people's march across the desert plains - "behold, they have covered the face of the earth" (22:5) - echoes the plague of locust, the first plague of the final set of plagues, presented in Va'eira, that brought about Egypt's surrender - "and it will cover the face of the earth" (Shemot 10:5).

4. In light of this analysis, we readily can understand the quasi-textual and thematic basis for a well-known "aggada" (cited in Sota 11a) about the origins of Bil'am. According to this tradition Bil'am started out his career as one of the three advisors to Par'o who were involved in the plot to kill the newborn male children. Bil'am is the one who actually makes the proposal to eradicate the children and it is because of this wicked counsel that he is later killed in battle by the Jewish people. This midrasconnection of Bil'am to the court of Par'o highlights the profound relation between the Mitzrayim and Balak narratives.

5. If we move beyond the first half of parashat Balak to the actual "meshalim" of Bil'am, we notice that here too the echoes and literary associations to yetziat Mitzrayim are clearly felt. For example, excluding for the moment the first prophecy (23:8-10), which is actually a short introduction of Bil'am's mission, and excluding the last prophecy at the end of ch. 24 ,which deals with the distant future, let us look at the two main prophecies of Bil'am. In both of these oracles the ONLY historical event mentioned clearly and unambiguously is yetziat Mitzrayim:

"God Who took them out of Egypt" (23:22)

"God Who took them out of Egypt" (24:8)

Moreover, it is striking to note that the appellations "Yaakov and Yisrael" IN COMBINATION (no more than 3 words apart) appear no less than 7 TIMES in the course of the four "meshalim" or oracles of Bil'am (2 in the first, 3 in the second, 1 in each of the last two oracles). This very significant name combination, often found in poetical sections of Nevi'im Achronim, is almost non-existent in previous parts of the Torah. If we exclude the verses in which God actually changed Yaakov's name to Yisrael, there are only two (three actually). Bereishit 46:8 "These are the names of the Children of Israel who came to Egypt (with) Yaakov" and Shemot 19:3: "This speak to the House of Yaakov and say to the Children of Israel." In effect we have echoes of the description of the Jewish people in the context of the enslavement and Exodus from Egypt (which of course culminated with one of the goals of the Exodus - bringing the Jewish people as a free nation to serve God on the mountain).

C.

Given all this evidence, it would appear that the Torah is attempting to parallel the potential threat and God's salvation of the SECOND GENERATION from the clutches of Balak and Bil'am with the threat to the survival of the Jewish people posed by the enslavement in Egypt and the subsequent redemption, experienced by the FIRST GENERATION that left Egypt. In a word the Balak/Bil'am episode is a MINI - YITZIAT MITZRAYIM narrative as it applies to the specific situation of the new generation about to enter the land of Israel. In a certain sense, for the new generation to be able to enter the land they must go through parallel experiences of the forefathers, picking up the thread and completing the mission, not letting it go off kilter as had happened 38 years before.

Given this comparison, we should also note some of the differences between the two "Exodus" stories. While in Shemot the Jewish people are actually enslaved and suffer, here it is only the threat that looms over their head. And here God alone, in a sort of "refu'a kodem le-maka," preparing the antidote before the disease, nips the threat in the bud. Also in contrast to the Shemot narrative, where Moshe and Aharon play such a prominent role, here Moshe is totally absent. God alone does it all. (In next week's shiur we will examine this phenomenon in the context of the entire section of Chukat - Matot).

D.

As a methodological note, in developing literary parallels and patterns in biblical stories, it is often worthwhile to take a look at some of the chasidic exegetical literature on Tanakh which opens up vistas and ideas (of course encased in chasidic terminology) that often dovetail nicely with a more peshat-oriented and literary approach to Chumash. In that vein, let me close with a comment of the Sefat Emet, R. Yehuda Leib Alter zt"l, one of the previous Rebbeim of Ger who lived in the middle of the 19th century. I came across this insight after developing the thesis of the shiur, and it nicely reflects the entire notion that is explored above; here is my free translation of the passage:

"The language of the verse is 'Ha-am HA-YOTZE mi-Mitzrayim,' for Bil'am was one of the advisors of Par'o to enslave the nation of Israel and now too, through his magic and sorcery, wanted to return them to Egypt. Therefore the text states HA-YOTZE ("who is coming out") for their exodus was not yet complete. And so I found in the Zohar that Bil'am wanted to return them to Egypt. And therefore in each of the blessings he (Bil'am) mentions God who took them out of Egypt for he saw that he could not weaken the freedom that God had granted us when we left Egypt. And therefore the [Rabbis] wanted to establish the section of Bil'am as part of the recitation of the Shema (Berakhot 12b). And thus also it is written, "My people remember please ("zekhor na") what Balak the king of Moav planned to do, and what Bil'am the son of Beor answered him" (Mikha 6:5). Just as there is a mitzva to remember/mention the Exodus everyday, so too one is bidden to remember/mention the kindness that God did for us in thwarting the plot of Bil'am the wicked" (Parashat Balak, pg. 81b, standard edition)

Shabbat Shalom