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Parashat Balak (Numbers 22:2:5:9)

“Bilam raised his eyes and saw Israel dwelling according to its tribes,
and the spirit of God was upon him.” (Numbers 24:2)

Parashat Balak is one of only six parashot, or portions, named for a person. Balak is a Moabite king who fears the wandering Israelites and therefore hires Bilam, a local prophet, to curse them. His plan backfires when Bilam, recognizing God’s sovereignty, blesses the Israelites instead with the famous phrase, “Ma Tovu, How goodly are your tents, O Jacob/Your dwelling places, O Israel?” (Num. 24:5)

Jewish thought is mixed when it comes to Bilam. Most sources consider him a scoundrel (Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 105a; Pirkei Avot 5:19) despite his unconditional submission to God’s will (Micah 6:5; Exodus Rabbah 3:1). But what does Bilam do wrong? The Torah scroll itself suggests one answer.

Scattered throughout the Torah are breaks, spaces between verses indicating changes in topic, either major or minor. Rashi (an acronym for Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, the pre-eminent 11th century Jewish commentator) claims God includes these breaks in the Torah to allow Moses a chance to pause and reflect on what he has just learned before moving on (Rashi’s commentary to Lev. 1:1).

Now, Parashat Balak contains no such breaks – not one! The Chofetz Chayim (Rabbi Yisroel Meir Kagen, 1838-1933; outstanding scholar and ethicist) infers from this a defect in Bilam’s character. Bilam may be a divinely-inspired prophet, but he is unaffected by his prophecies. Unlike Moses, Bilam never stops to explore the meaning of his words. Bilam is too focused on himself; he lacks the ability to reflect. And as John Dewey (1859 –1952; American educator) teaches, without reflection, there is no learning. Bilam is a static personality. Moses is a great teacher because he is a great learner.

Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom

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