Image: A donkey. Photo via pixabay.com, by Myriams-Fotos.
Parashat Balak is something of a curiosity. It is named after an enemy of the Hebrews, who tried to get the prophet Bilaam to put a powerful curse on our people. No other Torah portion is named after such a bad man.
The story is a very strange one, too. King Balak tries to hire Bilaam to put a curse on the Hebrews. Bilaam consults with God (?!) and refuses. Eventually Bilaam agrees because Balak offers him great riches. God puts an angel in his way, which Bilaam cannot see. Bilaam’s donkey can see it, though, and even though he beats the poor donkey, she will not move. Finally she speaks to Bilaam and explains what is happening and he sees the angel. He speaks with the angel, who warns him again.
After many more adventures Bilaam winds up blessing our people, not cursing them. He blesses them with the words we say when we enter a synagogue:
How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel! Like palm-groves that stretch out, Like gardens beside a river, Like aloes planted by the LORD, Like cedars beside the water;Their boughs drip with moisture, Their roots have abundant water. Their king shall rise above Agag, Their kingdom shall be exalted. God who freed them from Egypt is for them like the horns of the wild ox. They shall devour enemy nations, Crush their bones, And smash their arrows. They crouch, they lie down like a lion, Like the king of beasts; who dare rouse them? Blessed are they who bless you, Accursed they who curse you! – Numbers 24:5-9
Balak is furious – all his money and Bilaam blesses Israel? To see how the story comes out, read the portion!
Let’s see what our darshanim have to say about this bizarre story:
J’accuse! My Shock in Watching the RNC by Rabbi John Rosove
Balak: A Better Way by Rabbi Neal Joseph Loevinger
Is Our Ability to Speak a Blessing or a Curse? – by Barbara Heller
The Curse of Being a People Who Dwell Alone by Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild
Relatively Speaking by Rabbi David Kasher
“These People Scare Me!” by Rabbi Ruth Adar
Before You Sing Ma Tovu Again by Rabbi Stephen Fuchs