17 Tammuz 5782
To listen to the recorded message click on: https://youtu.be/xkS3h3-wvRg
Our Rabbi taught us to read the words of the Torah, to step back to see the bigger picture like a mosaic after which we are to glean the principles that we can apply to our lives today. This parashah is named Balak after a gentile king whose name means “destroyer”. The word itself connotes great power, yet Balak said… they cover the face of the earth, and they are hanging over me...! He was shaking in fear because he had heard what the God of the Israelites had done to the Pharaoh of Egypt. Pharaoh too had been afraid that the Israelites, who were multiplying like wildfire, would join his enemy to conquer Egypt. This same fear appears later in the story of Rachav, the innkeeper who said to the two scouts sent by Joshua, “your terror has fallen upon us and all the inhabitants of the land faint because of you”(Joshua 2:9). Leaders who attain great power, but they do not walk with God, can become paranoid dictators. They start believing that others will try to take away their supremacy even if it isn’t true. That same fear has caused many dictators down through the ages to pour out their wrath upon the Jews but in the end they were the ones who suffered the greatest losses.
Balak, king of the Moabites, joined with the Midianites, both of whom are our relatives and together they sent Bilaam, a soothsayer and a gentile prophet who spoke to the Creator, to curse Israel. He had the reputation that whoever he blessed was blessed and whoever he cursed was cursed. They offered him a lot of money to curse Israel because they knew that without it they could not defeat the Israelites in battle. Bilaam inquired of God who told him “You shall not go with them; you shall not curse the people, for they are blessed.” Our people weren’t blessed because of our behavior; we were and are still blessed because of the promise to Abraham through whom all the nations of the earth would be blessed. But that doesn’t mean we won’t suffer the consequences of our disobedience of the Ten Commandments.
Bilaam told the men to go home and that the LORD refused to let him go with them, but King Balak didn’t give up; he simply sent more princes with promises of great power and wealth if Bilaam would curse Israel but even though he knew that God had said he could not, he kept trying. Although at first glance it seems like Bilaam said the right things, God knew the intentions of his heart. This is similar to when the prophet Samuel confronted King Saul about not having destroyed all the Amalekites as he was ordered to do. King Saul replied, “but I have obeyed the voice of the LORD and have gone the way which the LORD sent me and have brought Agag the king of Amalek and completely destroyed the Amalekites, but the people took the booty, sheep and oxen, the best of the devoted property to sacrifice to the LORD your God in Gilgal.” This was when Samuel replied: “Does the LORD delight in burnt offerings as much as obeying His voice? To obey is better than sacrifice and to listen than the fat of rams.”
Verse 22 says that God’s anger was kindled because Bilaam went, even though he knew that he couldn’t curse Israel. He was speaking out of both sides of his mouth. This is a repeated warning throughout the Tanach: in Joshua 24: 8-10, Micah 6:5, Nehemiah 13:1-3 as well as in the New Testament in 2 Peter 2:15-16; Jude 1:11 and Revelation 2:14. It was a warning to any nation that would set a trap for Israel to fall into idolatry. When we are enticed to disobey God and to follow false gods, we lose His protection. That’s the only way our enemy can ever win against us. If we look back throughout history, each time we were taken captive, sent into exile, suffered, and died under foreign domination it was always preceded by us disobeying the God who created us. Sadly, this is happening again today. We are not to be like the other nations; rather we need to be set apart so that we can be a light to them.
Yes, Bilaam was a prophet, but he was unfaithful to the God who had given him his powers. Instead of leading the Moabites and the Midianites to the Bore Olam, he was more interested in serving himself and seeking his own glory. Although it is so tempting, we need to be careful not to do the same, to give credit where it is due. We know what happened to Moses, who spoke face to face with the Creator, but because he lost his temper and took the glory for himself, he and his brother Aaron suffered the consequences of not being allowed to enter the Promised Land.
In the same way that God spoke to Bilaam through his female donkey, he can speak through any of us. We can all have the gift of prophecy from time to time when God speaks through us to help others. But let’s remember that it’s His gift not ours and it is to serve others, not only ourselves. Bilaam was able to speak the Truth given to him directly from the mouth of God, but he loved money more. God’s word is not for sale. Beware of today’s prophets who say that they speak in God’s name while they serve to only enrich themselves. That’s disobeying the Third Commandment – do not take the LORD’s name in vain.
This story is also a warning that we must not try to manipulate God or anyone for that matter. How often do we promise to do things that we think will please God but that He hasn’t asked us to do? We may think by giving up certain things or by sacrificing ourselves for others out of our own sense of pride, we can appease God. He is not impressed; He knows us better than we know ourselves. The Haftarah portion this week ends with God’s prophet Micah in chapter 6 verse 8 telling us exactly what God wants from us: “It has been told to you, O man, what is good, and what the LORD requires of you: only to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God”.
He wants us to have integrity, to show mercy to our fellow man just as He has mercy upon us, and to be humble because we represent Him. God’s people have been endowed with an inordinate sense of justice and it is incumbent upon us to do righteous deeds and to speak out for God’s truth even when we are the only ones doing so.
Parashat Balak ends with a prophecy of the future regarding the destruction of Israel’s enemies including, Amalek, a nation which represents the spirit of all those who hate the people of Israel. In total contrast, it is followed by the story of Pinchas, Aaron’s grandson. Israel had remained in Shittim where they began to commit harlotry with the daughters of Moab and called the people to sacrifice and bow down to their gods. Moses ordered the people to hang the chiefs so that the LORD’s fierce anger would be eased. Pinchas stepped forward to do what the leaders of Israel could not do.
An Israeli friend of mine said that Israel today is filled with “sinat chinam”, hatred without a cause. It is breaking his heart. After serving in the Israeli army, many young people run to India where they are being introduced to the philosophies and gods of India. I myself have fallen into that trap in my search for truth and I know many people who did as well. There are many Jewish gurus! An outside enemy will never destroy us, but we can be destroyed from within. The spirits of Balak, the Destroyer, of Amalek, who represents sinat chinam, and of Bilaam, who represents people who manipulate the truth to serve themselves, are all at work in the world today. Pinchas stepped forward to do what was needed to stop the plague. Is it easy to follow in his footsteps and speak out to those who openly rebel against the God of Israel? It’s not, but we need to pray that God will give us the words and the courage. If God can speak through a donkey, He can speak through us. Let’s be willing to say to God in these dangerous times, “Hineni”, here I am, use me.