This week’s portion demonstrates the scope of the Israelites’ reputation during their desert travels. Balak, the king of Moab, hears what befell the Amorites when they stood up to God’s people, and decides he does not want to meet a similar fate. He opts to hire Balaam, a Midianite sorcerer known for the power of his blessings and curses, to rid him of the pesky nation approaching his borders.
What follows is a display of God’s will triumphing over man’s intentions, as He thwarts Balaam’s every move. Finally, the portion ends with the Children of Israel, oblivious to God’s recent salvation, sinning and being punished with a plague. Only the actions of the quick-thinking Phineas are enough to stop God’s wrath.
Hiring a Sorcerer
Balak, king of Moab, is determined to protect his people from the nation camped in the plains of Moab. He sends messengers to known sorcerer Balaam, asking him to come curse the Israelites. Balaam insists he can only do what God allows him, and consults with God in a dream. God tells Balaam not to go with the messengers, and he dismisses them.
When Balak sends messengers a second time, with promises of greater payment, Balaam again consults God in a dream, and this time God acquiesces, but tells Balaam he will only be able to say the words God Himself gives him.
Along the way, Balaam is beset by an angel of God, determined to kill him. Balaam is oblivious to the holy being, but his donkey can see the angel. Each time the angel appears, the donkey strays from the path to protect her master, and each time, the ignorant Balaam strikes the loyal beast. Finally, they reach a point where the donkey cannot move out of the angel’s path, so she stops altogether. Angered, he beats her with a staff.
God miraculously allows the donkey to speak, and she pleads with her master for mercy on account of her track record. At this point, God reveals the angel to Balaam, and the heavenly creature tells him that his donkey is the one who has repeatedly saved his life. As Balaam apologizes for his misdeeds, the angel warns him again that he will only be able to speak the words God gives him.
Balaam arrives to an impatient Balak, who wishes to know why the sorcerer initially refused to come when called. Balaam replies that he can only act in accordance with the will of God. The two go off together and prepare sacrifices.
When God asks Balaam in his dream who the messengers are, he tells Him they have come to hire him to curse the people who “cover the face of the earth”. As the Israel Bible points out, this statement serves to highlight Balaam’s own anti-Semitism. Though the Jews represent less that 0.2% of the world’s population, they are often considered a demon intent on taking over the world. The story of Balaam and Balak reminds us that anti-Semitism will not prevail in the face of God’s will.
Points to Ponder
If God told Balaam he could go with the messengers, why do you think he sends an angel to stop him on the way?
Curses and Blessings
Three times Balaam sets out to curse the Children of Israel on behalf of Balak, and three times he fails. Each time, Balak takes him to a different vantage point from which he can see less and less of the Israelites. Balaam has Balak set up seven altars, upon which he offers seven bullocks and seven rams, at each site. God will not allow him to curse His people, however, no matter how pleasing his sacrifices might be.
After the third failed attempt, Balak lashes out at Balaam in his frustration, and Balaam reminds him that from the outset he had always maintained he could only say what God allowed. Balak has already asked him not to say anything at all if he can’t curse the Israelites. Now, he sends the sorcerer packing.
Balaam does not leave, however, without one parting message. The fourth parable is the most elaborate of all, laying out in detail what will happen to each of Israel’s enemies in the area in the future.
In his very first blessing, Balaam calls the nation of Israel “a people that shall dwell alone”. The Israel Bible points out that for better or worse, the Jews have always been singled out. Israel receives a disproportionate amount of media attention, and is held to a different standard than other countries. Although isolated, there is a lesson in Israel’s solitude. The Children of Israel have been chosen for a holy purpose. They are meant to remain faithful to God and fulfil the Biblical mandate of teaching His truths to the world.
Points to Ponder
What do you think Balaam hopes to accomplish with his repeated attempts, given that God already told him he would not be able to curse the Israelites?
A Sin at Shittim
While the Israelites are encamped at Shittim, they begin to sin with the daughters of Moab, joining in their idolatrous practices. God instructs Moses to take the tribal leaders and mete out justice against the sinners.
As Moses instructs the judges to slay those who have sinned, one man brings forth a Midianite woman and sins with her in public, causing great distress. The congregation responds by weeping, and only Phineas, son of Eleazar the priest, fights back, killing both man and woman with a spear and stopping the plague. We are told a total of 24,000 people fell in the plague God sent in his wrath.
Points to Ponder
Until Phineas acts, the Torah does not mention a plague going on. Why do you think that is?