“He replied, “I can only repeat faithfully what the Lord puts in my mouth.” (Numbers 23:12)
Here’s Parashat Balak in a nutshell: a xenophobic ruler (Balak) fears the foreigners approaching his borders (the Israelites) and plots their destruction by hiring a wizard (Bilaam) to curse them (the wizard is a clue it’s not “ripped from today’s headlines”). Of course, it all backfires because the one constant message in the Torah is God’s unique power to influence history.
But Balak contains other, more subtle messages. Bilaam’s famous blessing, “Ma Tovu, How goodly are your tents, O Jacob/Your dwelling places, O Israel?” (Num. 24:5) is an example of parallelism, a literary technique in which an idea is presented in one phrase (tents and Jacob), and then echoed or amplified through repetition in a second phrase (dwelling places and Israel). The differences between the renderings invite interpretation.
Applied to life’s spiritual journey, tents represent being “on the road,” actively, while dwelling places are the stops along the way allowing reflection and consolidation. The journey metaphor is supported by referencing first Jacob and then Israel: names of someone who travels a long time (and to many places) before figuring out who he is and what he is supposed to do.
Modern society is a “hurried up” world and progress is defined most often as forward motion. But Balak is a cautionary tale, reminding us the rest stops along the way are equally important for calibrating purposes and plotting directions accurately. Bilaam’s very next phrase emphasizes this: “Like winding brooks, like gardens on a river’s edge/Like aloes planted by God, like cedars beside the water.” (Num. 24:6) Moving water and stable gardens/ trees: each represents different aspects of growth.
Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom