For the week ending 30 June 2007 / 14 Tammuz 5767

Parshat Balak

by Rabbi Yaakov Asher Sinclair -
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Balak, king of Moav, is in morbid fear of Bnei Yisrael. He summons a renowned sorcerer named Bilaam to curse them. First, G-d speaks to Bilaam and forbids him to go. But, because Bilaam is so insistent, G-d appears to him a second time and permits him to go. While en route, a malach (emissary from G-d) blocks Bilaam's donkey's path. Unable to contain his frustration, Bilaam strikes the donkey each time it stops or tries to detour. Miraculously, the donkey speaks, asking Bilaam why he is hitting her. The malach instructs Bilaam regarding what he is permitted to say and what he is forbidden to say regarding the Jewish People. When Bilaam arrives, King Balak makes elaborate preparations, hoping that Bilaam will succeed in the curse. Three times Bilaam attempts to curse and three times blessings issue instead. Balak, seeing that Bilaam has failed, sends him home in disgrace.

Bnei Yisrael begin sinning with the Moabite women and worshipping the Moabite idols, and they are punished with a plague. One of the Jewish leaders brazenly brings a Midianite princess into his tent, in full view of Moshe and the people. Pinchas, a grandson of Aharon, grabs a spear and kills both evildoers. This halts the plague, but not before 24,000 have died.


The Hollow Crown

“He sent messages to Bilam son of Beor to Petor, which is by the river of the land of the members of his people.” (22:5)

Of all the architects of the twentieth century, Frank Lloyd Wright is probably the most famous. He once wrote:

“Early in life I had to choose between honest arrogance and hypocritical humility. I chose honest arrogance and have seen no occasion to change.”

Popular wisdom dictates, ‘If you got it — flaunt it!’ Even when we see the glitterati behaving with seeming self-effacement, it’s usually against the backdrop of a carefully contrived photo op to catch the ‘he’s-just-one-of-the-people look’ for the media and posterity.

From a Jewish point of view, the more prominent you are, the more you have to humble yourself — and not just while the cameras are rolling.

The Jewish people are extremely lucky. We have a prophet called Moshe who told us what G-d wants from us.

In fact, to forestall any complaint of favoritism or unfair advantage, G-d gave the gentile nations their own prophet, Bilam, who was comparable to Moshe though much inferior.

The obvious question is how does that forestalls the claim of unfair advantage. If Bilam was no Moshe, why couldn’t the nations claim, “G-d, You gave us the Jews Moshe and we got Bilam. Do us a favor! They got the $20,000 Rolex and we got a $99 Chinese ‘replica’!”

Why wasn’t that a legitimate claim?

The Torah tells us that G-d loves the Jewish People, not because we are the greatest of the nations, but rather we are the “smallest”. This doesn’t mean we are pygmies. It means that the characteristic of a Jew is to be self-effacing and easily embarrassed.

G-d elevated King David, Avraham and Moshe to positions of ascending greatness in direct proportion to their humility. King David said, “I am a worm, not a man.” A worm, however lowly, is still a creature. Avraham said, “I am dust and ashes” — not even a creature. And Moshe said “We — what (are we)?” Moshe’s definition of humanity never even rises above the level of a question. Our whole existence is ‘questionable’.

Of Chirom, king of Tzur, on the other hand, it says, “I (G-d) bestowed greatness on Chirom, king of Tzur, and he said ‘I sat in the seat of G-d.’I granted fame to Nevuchadnetzar and he boasted, saying ‘I will climb on the summit of mountains — I will be similar to the Most High’.” (Talmud Bavli, Chullin 89a)

When a Jew prays the silent standing prayer, he or she bows four times. During that same prayer, the high priest would bow at the beginning and end of every blessing — some 36 times. And the king would begin the prayer in a bowed position and not straighten his body until he completed the entire prayer.

William Shakespeare placed the following words into the mouth of the fallen King Richard II, “For within the hollow crown that rounds the mortal temples of a king keeps Death his court; and there the antic sits, scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp; allowing him a breath, a little scene, to monarchize, be feared, and kill with looks; infusing him with self and vain conceit, as if this flesh which walls about our life were brass impregnable; and humored thus, comes at the last, and with a little pin bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!”

Only with death staring him in the face does a non-Jewish king recognize his own mortality and insignificance.

Whichever prophet Hashem would have given to the nations he would have been no better than Bilam. The nations got the prophet they deserved, one truly drawn from among their ranks.

  • Sources: Based on Rashi, Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe

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