Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash
Introduction to Parashat
Yeshivat Har Etzion
THE GOD SYNTHESIS
By Rabbi Yaakov Beasley
parasha recounts what is surely among the oddest episodes in the history
of our people. In the previous
parasha, Chukkat, the fortieth year in the desert has arrived, and the
decree of wandering is at its end.
The Jewish people march determinedly and inevitably towards their destiny
– entry into the land of Israel.
They encounter and dispatch two powerful chieftains, Sichon and Og, whose
defeat shatters the king of Mo'av, Balak ben Tzippor; he fears, in the beginning
of Parashat Balak, that his kingdom will become the Jews' next
target. Despairing of victory
through natural, military means (Rashi, 22:4), the king decides to hire a
necromancer to curse the Jewish people.
Here, the story becomes surreal.
Until the end of the parasha,
when the daughters of Mo'av succeeded in ensnaring the Jewish people in
immorality and idolatry, the Torah's focus is on the hills surrounding the camp,
where Bilam the sorcerer and Balak the king attempt to curse the Jews. For three chapters, the Torah narrates
not only the failed attempts to curse the Jewish people (with the significant
insertion of a talking donkey), it also relates the entire blessings as they
emerge from Bilam's mouth. The
reader may well ask: granted, the blessings are decidedly poetic; yet, are they
any more significant than the failed hexes of a lame wizard? Surely, even if God were to allow Bilam
to curse away to his heart's content, the effect would be null! Yet, something within these chapters is
so significant that the prophet Mikha (6:5) enjoins the Jewish nation never to
Remember now what Balak,
king of Mo'av plotted, and how Bilam ben Be'or responded to him; from the
Shittim until the Gilgal – that you may know God's kindnesses!
saw such tremendous value in these chapters that they even considered including
Bilam's words as part of the Shema to be recited twice daily
(Berakhot 12b): "There was a motion to insert Parashat Balak into Keriat Shema;
it did not pass because it would have been a hardship to the congregation." The proposition fails only because of
Parashat Balak's great length! (See also Yerushalmi Berakhot
1:5, which suggests a daily reading of the parasha, but not within Keriat
by which a reader can unveil a text's meaning is by dividing the text
structurally into its components.
This year, we will investigate the first third of Balak and reveal
the message contained within its structure.
divide the bulk of Chapter 22, from the beginning of the story until Bilam's
arrival in Mo'av, into four sections:
Introduction (vv. 1-4)
Balak's first entreaty and mission (vv.
Balak's second entreaty and mission (vv.
Bilam's journey to Mo'av (22:21-35)
first investigate the internal structure of each of these sections, and then
return to the larger structure of the chapter.
begins with the last verse of last week's parasha, "And Benei Yisra'el traveled, and they
encamped in Arvot Mo'av, on the Yarden, across from Yericho." The dyad "And they traveled… and they
encamped" is a standard formulation of the Jewish people's travels in the
desert. Now they have apparently
arrived at their final destination, on the east bank of the Yarden, looking at
Yericho. The text continues with
several verbs in rapid succession: "And Balak saw… And Mo'av was alarmed… and Mo'av
dreaded… And Mo'av said… And Balak sent…" Interestingly, "Balak" and "Mo'av"
appear to be used interchangeably.
The Jewish people are also called by four separate names throughout –
after the war with the Emori, they are called "Yisra'el;" they are called
"ha-am," "the people," (horde?) when describing their numbers; they are
called "Benei Yisra'el" when they
inspire fear; and when they are poetically compared to an ox eating everything
in its path, they become "ha-kahal," "the congregation."
BALAK'S FIRST ENTREATY AND MISSION
We see that
this section contains four subsections: (a) Balak's instructions to the
delegation (vv. 5-6), (b) the first meeting between the delegation and Bilam
(vv. 7-8), (c) Bilam and God's conversation (vv. 9-12), and (d) the second
meeting between the delegation and Bilam (vv. 13-14).
immediately see two parallels: between (a) and (c), comparing Balak's original
instructions with the manner in which Bilam relates them to God; and between (b)
and (d), comparing the two meetings between Bilam and the delegation. In section (a), the first half provides
very specific, dry details to the delegation (to whom, where, why), while the
actual language of the charge borders on poetic. The pharaoh who enslaved the Jews is
hinted to with the phrase "it is too powerful for me" (see Shemot 1:9);
there is a reference as well to the blessing given to Avraham Avinu (compare "I
know that he whom you bless is indeed blessed, and he whom you curse is indeed
cursed" here with Bereshit 12:2-3).
As the Jewish people's power and numbers are reflections of the blessings
that God has given the Jewish people, we can see a mini-chiasm in verse 6 of
curse/ blessing/ blessing/ curse.
Even more striking are the six mentions of "I" or "me" in these two
subsection begins by describing the makeup of the delegation: both the elders of
Mo'av and the elders of Midyan participate. Noticeably, the elders of Midyan
disappear for the rest of the story, an omission that Rashi attributes to their
recognizing Bilam as useless immediately.
(The Chizkuni suggests that the omission is less significant: unlike the
officers from Mo'av, the elders of Midyan found places to stay easily among
their countrymen and did not require lodging from Bilam for the night).
We arrive at
the third subsection of the story: the conversation between God and Bilam. To God's simple request, "What do these
people want of you?," Bilam responds by paraphrasing Balak's original
request. Comparing Balak's original
words with Bilam's retelling yields some important insights into what Bilam is
BILAM'S PARAPHRASE TO
Behold, a people
came out of Egypt;
Behold, it has hidden the
earth from view
has settled next to me.
"Ara") for me this people
is too powerful for me.
Perhaps, I can
will drive it out of the land.
Behold, the people
that comes out of Egypt
hidden the earth from view.
"Kava") it for me
Perhaps I can battle
will drive it away.
Bilam attempts to transform Balak's request, which at first glance appears
within the boundaries of legitimate self-defense, to one more severe in
repercussions and scope. In Bilam's
speech, Balak's justifications ("it has settled next to me," "it is too powerful
for me") have disappeared while a stronger form of imprecation appears (from
"Curse" to "Damn"). Bilam hopes for
a more total victory (strike vs. battle), and unlike Balak, who simply wishes to
expel the Jewish people from his land, Bilam expresses a wish to completely do
away with them. Perhaps we see this
most clearly in the first change.
Balak mentions "a people."
Their identity does not concern him; what upsets him is their presence
near his land. In some way, he is
justified in seeking measures for wishing to remove them. Bilam, however, refers to them as
"the people." Though they do
not personally affect him, he recognizes the import and significance of the
Jewish people. Therefore, his
personal wishes, though placed in Balak's words, reflect a desire to rid the
world of them completely. It is no
surprise that God's response is clear and direct: "Do not go with them! You must not curse this people, for it
is blessed." By reversing (in a
chiastic structure) the final part of Balak's original entreaty to Bilam (bless/
curse) with the command "You must not curse the people, for it is
blessed," God not only reverses Balak's words, but his intentions as
As he has
previously told them, Bilam's reply is dependent on God's instructions to him,
so he refuses to return with the officers of Mo'av to Balak. However, the commentators notice here
the subtle deletion of half of God's command. Bilam states that "God refuses to let me
go with you," but he ignores the second half, "You must not curse them." Rashi explains that Bilam understands
God's words as leaving the door open to go with greater, more noteworthy
BALAK'S SECOND ENTREATY AND MISSION
We see that
the narrative of the second delegation also contains four subsections: (a) the
description of the second delegation (v. 15), (b) the delegation's presentation
to Bilam (v. 16-17), (c) Bilam's initial response to the delegation (vv. 18-19),
and (d) God's second conversation with Bilam (v. 20). Immediately, we note that Balak is
sending a greater delegation, both in stature and in numbers. Linking subsection (a) and subsection
(b) is the word "honor" — the Torah describes the delegation as more honorable,
and they promise Bilam great honor (in Hebrew, the word "honor" is doubled in
this promise). Honor, Bilam's
desire for it and the eventual loss of it becomes this subsection's theme. Balak's request "Please do not hold
yourself back from coming to me" parallels the response given by the first
delegation to Balak, "Bilam refused to come with us." (Noticeably, they also change Balak's
words, omitting that Bilam has told them that "God refuses to let" him accompany
them.) Balak's pronouncement that
"I will do anything you say" foreshadows the contest with God, who states, "The
word which I speak to you, that you shall do."
response to them is predictable.
Though ostensibly swearing allegiance to God, he alludes to the potential
riches that await him. He tells
them to wait the evening, as God will speak with him (trying to impress his
guests, he uses a more intimate term than previously – "with me," not "to me" as
response comes at night, as predicted.
Unexpected, however, is the response: "If the men have come to call you, rise
up, go with them; but only the word which I speak to you, that you shall
do." Some commentators point out
that from the first dream to the second, when Bilam is told to go with them, the
Hebrew term for "with them" changes from "immahem" to
"ittam." They suggest that "immahem"
implies a unity of purpose, while "ittam" only means to accompany
physically. Again, however, God's
ominous closing words, "Only the word which I speak to you, that you shall do,"
are ignored by Bilam.
BILAM'S JOURNEY TO MO'AV (22:21-35)
part of this section, describing Bilam's journey, once again contains four
subsections: (a) Bilam's departure
and the angel's first appearance (vv. 21-22), (b) the donkey's erratic behavior
and Bilam's violent response (vv. 23-27), (c) the donkey's speech to Bilam (vv.
28-30), and (d) Bilam and the angel (vv. 31-35). The surplus of verbs ("And he rose… and
he saddled… and he went…") point to the alacrity with which Bilam goes on his
journey; God's anger, swiftly kindled, appears immediately. Thrice the donkey sees the angel
standing in its way and tries to avoid it.
Only the pain from Bilam's whip causes it to resume its journey, albeit
reluctantly. Progressively, the
donkey's refusal becomes more severe – first, it simply veers off the way; then
it crashes into a fence; finally, it lies down, impervious to the beating it
between the donkey and Bilam is filled with irony. In response to the donkey's question
"What have I done to you, that you hit me?," Bilam responds that were he to have
a sword in his hand, he would kill his mount. At the same time, the all-knowing seer
cannot see the angel holding a sword in front of him! Though the donkey tries to make Bilam
understand that its disobedience is indeed a one-time occurrence, Bilam fails to
comprehend the nature of the situation he faces. It is only God's opening Bilam's eyes to
the angel that provides Bilam with understanding.
SUMMARY – GOD AS THE SYNTHESIS
the subsections of the unit on their own, we can now distinguish a structural
pattern that runs through all of the stories. Each section contains what we shall
label a thesis, an antithesis, and a synthesis. Let us investigate fuller:
first delegation (vv. 5-14)
ask Bilam to go with them.
says he is prevented from going if God does not allow it.
response – "Do not go."
second delegation (vv. 15-20)
ask Bilam to go with them.
reiterates that he is prevented from going if God does not allow
response – "Go."
Bilam's journey (vv.
attempts to go.
angel (and the donkey) prevent Bilam from going.
response – the angel reminds Bilam that he will be limited in what he can
We see that
in the structure of each subsection, tension is created (Bilam's going vs. God's
wishes) and then resolved clearly in the synthesis, with God's word prevailing
in all three cases. Conceivably, we
could even suggest that the three sections serve as a
thesis-antithesis-synthesis with each other: first, God does not allow Bilam to
go; then, God allows Bilam to go; finally, God demonstrates that even when Bilam
goes, he is subservient to God's will.
What we see is that the narrative of Bilam not only contains some of the
most vivid and memorable imagery in Tanakh, but even the structure of the
story points towards one central message: ultimately, we are all bound to God's
will, and only by aligning our will with His do we maintain a modicum of