For the week ending 26 June 2010 / 13 Tammuz 5770

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.


My Mind’s Made Up – Don’t Confuse Me With The Facts!

"Balak, the son of Tzippor" (22:2)

It takes one to know one.

In Moav, proficiency in the black arts was as common as a cold. Balak was the greatest sorcerer in Moav. In those times, people could predict the future by creating talking birds. They would take gold for its head, silver for its beak, and copper for the wings. The parts had to be assembled at a certain time of day. Finally, they placed in its mouth the tongue of a real bird. Then they put it on the sill of an open window so that by day it faced the sun, and, by night, the moon. Seven days later, the bird’s tongue began to make a ringing sound. The sorcerer would then take a golden needle and pierce the bird’s tongue. And then the bird would begin to talk.

Using the powers of impurity, the bird would reveal the secrets of the future.

No one was more skilled in this form of divination than Balak. For this reason he was called Balak ben Tzippor. In Hebrew, the word tzippor means "a bird." In other words, the name implied, "Balak, who can foretell the future through a magic bird." Among other things that the bird told Balak was that he would at first be victorious over the Jewish People, but finally he would fail.

Once, Balak was preparing a bird to prognosticate the downfall of the Jews. While he was bowing and offering incense to the bird it suddenly took wing and flew out of the window. Balak was very disturbed when the bird did not return.

After some time, Balak saw the bird returning. However, pursuing the bird was a plume of flame. The flame singed the bird’s tail. Balak knew that this was a sign that the power of the Divine Presence would eventually conquer the power of the dark side.

In spite of this, Balak still invited Bilaam to curse the Jews.

There are a couple of things in this bizarre story that don’t quite add up. First, if Balak was the chief sorcerer in Moav, why did he need Bilaam? Was he looking for an apprentice? Also, if Balak saw the portent of the plume of flame, what did he hope to achieve by inviting Bilaam to curse the Jewish People. Wasn’t it obvious to him that he would fail?

The answer is that the obvious is never an impediment to self-interest. Balak didn’t want to be confused with the facts. Balak was so intent on the destruction of the Jewish People that he ignored the obvious portent of the bird and surmised that the Jewish People, like all other nations, were subject to the natural forces of the constellations. However, the Jews are above the stars. G-d supervises us with specific Providence.

And to answer our other question, Balak was not in need of a sorcerer’s apprentice. Both he and Bilaam had expertise in different areas of sorcery. Balak was well versed in the outer facets of magic, the practical day-to-day aspects of cursing and spell-casting. Bilaam, on the other hand, had knowledge of the inner workings of the black arts. Balak surmised that together they would make an unbeatable duo, able to overcome clear indications of incipient defeat.

Balak proves the old adage: "My minds made up. Don’t confuse me with the facts!"

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