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

“It is God who brought them out of Egypt
according to the power of his loftiness.” (Numbers 23:22)

Parashat Balak combines high drama and farce: Balak, king of Moab, hires Bilaam, the local seer, to curse the Israelites. Along the way, Bilaam’s donkey sees what Bilaam doesn’t (God’s angel blocking the way) and bests him in a verbal duel. In the end, Bilaam blesses the Israelites with the famous words, “Ma tovu ohalecha Ya-akov…, How goodly are your tents, Jacob…” (Num. 24:5)

Balak is certainly about God’s absolute power. But it also addresses another important theme: free will. Bilaam’s first response to Balak is to “sleep on it” and see what God advises (Num. 22:8). God says no and Bilaam reports this to the Moabite delegation. When they press him, he gives it another shot; this time God says if they have come to you, go, but do only what I tell you (Num. 22:20). So Bilaam goes. Three medieval commentators examine God’s ambiguous response and Bilaam’s subsequent punishment.

Rashi, (1040-1105; France) focusses on the word l’cha, to you, implying Bilaam was motivated by financial gain to himself. Ibn Ezra (1089- ~1164; Spain) says God can disapprove but still be persuaded (just as in the episode of the spies). God is angered because Bilaam goes even though he knows it is wrong. Nachmanides (1194 – 1270; Spain) notices Bilaam tells Balak’s delegation he has God’s permission to go but omits he still doesn’t have permission to curse. God gives Bilaam an opportunity to reveal his true character.

Given the opportunity to do the right thing, he doesn’t. So instead of becoming a hero, he goes down in Jewish history as an archtypic bad guy. So, what are you choosing today?

Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom

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