“And the children of Israel set forward, and camped in the plains of Moab
on the side of Jordan by Jericho.” (Num. 22:1)
Everybody loves Parashat Balak. It’s got a bad guy (Balak, the Moabite King), high stakes (Balak hires Balaam, the local soothsayer to curse the Israelites), high drama (God keeps putting different words into Balaam’s mouth), high comedy (Balaam can’t even win a duel of wits with his donkey), and of course, high art (Ma Tovu, or, “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob/Your sanctuaries, O Israel.” (Num. 24:5) is included in the daily morning liturgy). There’s only one thing wrong with it: it is completely illogical.
Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson (Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University) puts his finger on the nub of the problem: if Balak is so worried, wouldn’t it have been simpler (not to mention more effective) to hire Balaam to bless his own people instead of cursing the Israelites? Artson’s answer is Parashat Balak is a reminder of God’s charge to Abraham: “…and you shall be a blessing.” (Gen. 12:2) The story highlights three necessary ingredients for being a blessing: thinking about others (rather than fixating on yourself), courage, and action.
Certainly, Parashat Balak (like all the Torah) teaches God’s central role in history. But it also offers a deep message about our role in history, which is to engage with the world to make it better. God doesn’t choose Abraham to sit at home. God chooses Abraham to journey into the world, actively. And God chooses Balaam to remind and challenge us: what blessing are you offering to others today?
Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom