For the week ending 12 July 2008 / 9 Tammuz 5768

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.


A Guest Appearance

“...and from there he saw the edge of the people.” (22:39)

Unbeknownst to our hero, the wicked count Carlo was looking down at him from the gallery of the grain silo.

The stainless steel claw that replaced Carlo’s hand held tightly a rope attached to a huge metal anvil that swung silently sixty-five feet above the granary floor, poised to plummet to the ground and turn our hero into Steak Tatare. Just a few more feet... just a few more feet and he would be directly under the anvil.

“Heh, heh, heh!” whispered Carlo to himself.

“This time, my fine friend, you will not escape my clutches!”

Inch by inch our hero drew closer to his nemesis. And then he was there, directly under the massive vicious anvil!

Count Carlo relished the moment for a few nanoseconds, and then very gently he released the rope from his claw. Freed from its restraints, the anvil fell like a stone, like an eager racehorse loosed from the starting gate.

Next to Count Carlo stood Baklava, his faithful bumbling butler. “Master, you let go of the anvil!” said Baklava. “I know I did you bumbling idiot!” “But Master, the end is tied to your right leg!” “What! You fool! How did that happen?” “I did it, Master,” said a beaming Baklava. “I didn’t want us to lose the anvil!”

“You… You...! Quickly, grab the rope, you idiot, maybe our combined weights will stop the anvil, and I won’t be pulled to my death!”

“That would be nice, O Master... But I‘m not so heavy anymore. I’ve been going to Weight Watchers.”

“Don’t argue with me, you, you, you, you bumbling Balkan!”

In the time it takes to say ‘Sidney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre’, Count Carlo and Baklava grabbed the rope. The anvil was suddenly checked in its downward plummet. But it wasn’t going to give up without a struggle. It hoisted the two men right up to the pulley that was set into the granary roof and there they swung like a couple of trussed chickens. The anvil came to an abrupt stop about three inches above the head of our hero.

Our hero could have sworn that he heard something. He looked around him. Nothing out of the ordinary here. He sighed his diffident sigh and sauntered out of the granary into the morning sunlight, unaware that he had come within a few inches of his life.

There’s something very unusual about the story of Balak. If the Torah had not revealed the episode of Bilam trying to curse the Jewish People, we would never have known about it. All the other events that the Torah writes concerning the Jewish People could also be known from tradition, but not this week’s parsha. When this week’s parsha was taking place, the Jewish People were way out of earshot. You could only see them somewhere in the distance. From the top of a hill; across a field; in the wilderness. But we never see them close up. They’re like extras in their own movie. Had it not been for the Torah, we would never know what a narrow escape we had. The Jewish People walk through this week’s parsha blissfully unaware of the machinations of Balak and Bilam.

At the end of sixth century, the Byzantine Empire completely destroyed the Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel. Unbeknownst to the Jews of Babylon, the Byzantines then poised themselves to also make Babylon ‘Judenrein’. Before they could implement their plans, however, the Moslem revolt toppled them from power.

Jews played a prominent role in the overthrow of Czarist Russia and in the subsequent Soviet government. Secretly, however, in 1953 Josef Stalin tried unsuccessfully to destroy the Jews in what became known as “The Doctors’ Plot.” According to one theory, if the "Doctors' Plot" had carried on and reached its climax there would have been a mass expulsion of Soviet Jewry. But these plans died along with Stalin on March 6, 1953.

In the series of Psalms that make up Hallel, there appears the shortest Psalm (117). It speaks of a world in the time of the Mashiach:

“Praise G-d all nations; laud Him all the peoples; for His kindness to us was overwhelming.”

Once, a Russian prince asked Rabbi Itzaleh of Volozhin why non-Jews will be expected to praise G-d for His kindness to Israel. Rabbi Itzaleh replied “The princes of the nations constantly plot our annihilation, but our merciful G-d foils your plans. You keep your plots so secret that we Jews don’t even realize in how many ways you have tried to harm us and in how many ways G-d has saved us. Only you, the nations of the non-Jewish world, truly see the extent of G-d’s kindness to us, and therefore only you can praise Him adequately.

  • Source: Based on an idea heard from Rabbi Reuven Subar

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