Melech Lapson: The Transformation of Balak

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Melech Lapson lives in Skokie, Illinois and is an incoming senior at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

This week’s Torah portion is Chukas-Balak. While the first part, Chukas, continues the general trend of the Torah by teaching laws and telling stories with lessons for us to learn from, parshas Balak seems to be out of place. Parshas Balak is told almost completely from the perspective of two wicked people, Balak and Bilam, and not the Israelites in the desert. Additionally, there does not seem to be any obvious moral lessons to learn from Balak and Bilam’s behavior. Indeed, the story seems to be a sidebar from the main story of the journeys of the Jews in the wilderness. There may have been many nations that tried different plots against the Israelites but only this one is explicitly mentioned. For example, in Chukas (21:15) there is an allusion to a story of other nations trying to ambush the Israelites, but it is only explicitly mentioned in Rashi’s commentary and not the Chumash. Why then would the Torah include an entire Torah portion dedicated to this weird story involving cursing wizards and talking donkeys?

Additionally, there’s the question of why would we name a Torah portion after Balak? The question is twofold: Firstly, we generally name Torah portions after righteous people (indeed Korach was a great person, though flawed), so why name one after an antagonist? Furthermore, if we were to name the portion after an antagonist, it would make more sense to name it after the main villain, Bilam. Balak was a king who was worried for his people and hired a professional to protect them, while Bilam actively hated the Jews and tried to curse them. Why then would Balak be chosen for the headline?

To answer these questions, we need to take a closer look at Balak’s speech and attitude throughout the reading. It seems that in the beginning Balak did not have any belief in God. All he knew was that the Israelites had proven to be a mighty force with a powerful sorcerer, Moshe, that could wipe out his people. So he called on the best sorcerer money could buy, Bilam, to try and curse them because he believed that was the only chance he had to defeat them. This is further supported by Balak’s statement to Bilam when he arrives (22:37): “When I first sent to invite you, why didn’t you come? Am I really unable to reward you?” Bilam replies that he is under God’s control but it is clear that Balak assumes it was simply because Bilam was greedy and arrogant that he refused to come after the first invitation.

Because he believes Bilam is trying to excuse his refusal, Balak proceeds with his plan to have Bilam curse the Israelites. He follows Bilam’s exact orders and when Bilam blesses the nation instead of cursing them, he is baffled (23:11): “What have you done to me? Here I brought you to curse my enemies, and instead you blessed them!” He still believes it is Bilam who is simply pretending to be unable to curse the Israelites. Balak then thinks that perhaps Bilam was just unable to properly curse them because he was trying to curse such a large group, and tries moving Bilam to an area where he can see only part of the Israelite encampment. But there too, Bilam ends up blessing the Israelites and uses the same excuse: (23:26) “ But I told you: Whatever the Lord says, I must do.”

It is at this point that we see a shift in Balak’s tone. In the next verse Balak responds: “Come now, I will take you to another place. Perhaps God will deem it right that you curse them there”. Balak starts to accept the idea that perhaps Bilam is telling the truth and there really is a God. He therefore changes tactics and tries to find a place that would make God want to curse the Israelites. This is why the final place Balak took Bilam was adjacent to an idol (which the Jews would later serve), in order to anger God. It is after Bilam’s third and final failure that Balak finally accepts the existence of God and His love for the Jews. As he tells Bilam (24:11), “I was going to reward you richly, but God has denied you the reward”. This also translates into Balak’s final ploy where he tried to get the Jews to sin, in order to distance them from God. Nevertheless, we see that by the end of the Torah reading, Balak has come to accept the existence of God.

But this realization of Balak was not temporary. He passed this realization to his children. The Moabite king Eglon was a direct descendant (either son or grandson) of Balak. The famous story involving Eglon was that when the Jewish judge Ehud came to assassinate him, Ehud said that he had a message for Eglon from God. At that point, Eglon stood up in respect, and then Ehud proceeded to kill him. It seems puzzling why Eglon would show respect to the Jewish God. He was oppressing the Jews and would have no reason to believe in their God. But now, we can explain that he learned this respect from his predecessor, Balak. Eglon himself fathered Ruth who would choose to join the Jewish faith which eventually led to the birth of David and the future Messiah. We can now see how this seemingly extraneous episode in the Torah, was of utmost importance in Jewish history.

The message for all of us is clear. If even Balak, a pagan king who lived all his life ignoring God, was able to recognize God’s presence in this world, all the more so should we try to see the work of God in the world around us. This realization is so powerful, that it led to the birth of King David, and by extension, the coming Messiah. May we all start to see the acts of God in the world and do our part to hasten the coming of Moshiach speedily in our days. Shabbat Shalom!

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