For the week ending 4 July 2015 / 17 Tammuz 5775

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.


But Daddy, I CAN’T Do That!

“Balak’s anger flared against Bilaam… ‘To curse my enemies did I summon you, and you have continually blessed them these three times!’ ” (24:10)

Children, bless them, are convinced of their own limitations.

“Daddy, I can’t do that! I’m exhausted! I just came in from shopping for a new dress at the mall. Do you have any idea how tiring shopping is?”

There are two kinds of “I can’t do that.” There’s the “I can’t do that” of someone if you ask them to walk naked through the streets. And there’s the “I can’t do that” of someone if you ask them to jump to the moon. The first expresses an extreme reluctance; the second a physical impossibility

With this distinction we can answer a paradox in this week’s Torah portion:

Why was Balak annoyed with Bilaam when he was unable to curse the Jewish People? Bilaam had already forewarned him from the beginning that he couldn’t do it. He said, “If Balak will give me his houseful of silver and gold, I cannot transgress the world of the L-rd, my G-d, to do anything small or great.”

The answer is that Balak assumed that Bilaam was extremely reluctant to curse the Jewish People, as reluctant as someone walking through the streets without a stitch on.

This sticking point, he believed, he could overcome with the grease of sufficient money.

What Bilaam was really saying to Balak was that he could just as easily curse the Jewish People as fly to the sun.

There are some things that you really can’t do.

  • Source: based on Rabbi Shimshon Pincus

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