Blog Balaq 16 Tammuz 5781
When I was little, I remember that grandmother telling me: “Son, “Don´t let anyone take you for a ride” i.e., don’t be easily deceived by others. Why? Sometimes it is difficult to distinguish the fake from the real. The same thing happens when we buy gold; we need to test it to see that it is not painted metal. On the other hand, there is also cubic zirconia that looks like a gemstone but is not. These examples all have one thing in common: “They are not what they seem.”
At the time of Balak, Israel was living among Semitic peoples who had created their own gods and for them, the God of Israel was simply another god. The name EL (ֹאל aleph lamed, (one name of the Hebrew God) was a homonym in Ugaritic, Assyrian, Akkadian, Canaanite, in the Levant Mediterranean, and had similar features to their gods such as Anu, Ba’al, Dagan, Ra. That is why the First and Second Commandments are so important. Today they may seem logical and simple to understand, however, the modern world is far from practicing the commandments.
“I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make any graven image for yourself, nor any manner of likeness, of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth below, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them, nor serve them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God...” (Shemot 20:2-5) Anochi Adonai Eloheicha asher hotsitecha me’eretz Mitzrayim mibeyt avadim. Lo yihiyeh lecha elohim acherim al-panai. Lo ta’aseh-lecha fesel vechol-temunah asher bashamayim mima’al va’asher ba’aretz mitachat va’asher bamayim mitachat la’aretz. Lo-tishtachaveh lahem velo ta’avdem ki anochi Adonai Elohecha El kana…
– אָנֹכִי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִיךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים: לֹא-יִהְיֶה לְךָ אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים, עַל-פָּנָי. לֹא-תַעֲשֶׂה לְךָ פֶסֶל, וְכָל-תְּמוּנָה, אֲשֶׁר בַּשָּׁמַיִם מִמַּעַל, וַאֲשֶׁר בָּאָרֶץ מִתָּחַת–וַאֲשֶׁר בַּמַּיִם, מִתַּחַת לָאָרֶץ לֹא-תִשְׁתַּחֲוֶה לָהֶם, וְלֹא תָעָבְדֵם
כִּי אָנֹכִי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, אֵל קַנָּא…
Why do we warn our young children to not be easily fooled by strangers who offer them candy? Because they don’t know their intentions; the less life experience a person has, the less discerning they are and the less mature they are, the easier it is for them to be deceived. This is exactly what happened to Israel. Rav Shaul says to the Kehilah at Ephesus: “Then we will no longer be infants, tossed to and fro by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming”. (Ephesians 4:14). And we are warned in the book of Revelation against the messenger of the Kehilah in Pergamum: “Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: There are some among you who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin so that they ate food sacrificed to idols and committed sexual immorality.”
Our weekly portion does not mention commandments; however, it does speak about the dangers that we can fall into if we do not mature and if we do not decide to put the Torah into practice. Israel was close to conquering the Promised Land after 38 years in the desert, however, they were a people who had not yet matured. Because of how the episode is described, it strikes me that Israel didn’t realize what the Midianites were planning along with the Moabites, nor that they were being observed by Bilaam or Balak. It seems that this was revealed only after 24,000 people had been killed because of their actions, just like when police cases are reconstructed after a crime. Therefore, the mistake I see in Israel is that they lived too confidently within enemy territory, causing them to establish relationships that were unsuitable, and which quickly made them forget the first two Commandments.
Balak, a king who was motivated by self-imposed fear, hired a seer who “half sees” (we later see that Bilaam acknowledged that he did not see clearly) and that God spoke to him “at night” and that he could not distinguish an envoy from the Eternal even though his donkey did. What motivated Bilaam? Money and he used spirituality not to serve others or God, but to serve himself. Today that’s equivalent to religion being a very lucrative business.
This man, Bilaam, recognized One God and tried to persuade Him to allow him to curse Israel, but God replied that they were a blessed people, that there was no evil in them. That is why Bilaam then created the basis of today’s anti-Semitism: “Try to destroy them from the outside, but when that doesn’t work, destroy them from within.” Israel is a people who differ from the other nations; they were recognized by kingdoms who conquered them in the past, and it seems that when they have not been able to destroy Israel by forbidding the Torah, outlawing study of their laws, depriving them of their prayer or community life, they seek to destroy Israel through cultural and social absorption and assimilation. This has happened more than once in Israel’s history; some clear examples of this are the Judeo-Christian conversion during the inquisition in the 15th century, the Yevsektsiya of Semyon Dimanstein, with the destruction of traditional Jewish life, the Zionist movement, and Hebrew culture in the Soviet Union in the early 1900s, the assimilation of the people going back to Babylon, Persia, Germany, or North Africa, and so many mixed marriages in the 20th and 21st centuries, and so on. I remember something that my dear Rabbi Netanel (Ranebi) taught me: “You can learn by yourself, but it is better to learn from the mistakes of others.”
Bilaam, a man “without a people” (B’lo Am) or who “confused the people” (Bilah Am), joined together with Balak (destroyer) and observing that Israel could not be cursed, they both decided to seek advice from some “not so friendly friends”, the Midianites. This Bilaam was astute by presenting apparently good, pleasant, and true things which we see because his prophecy did not reveal that he was being false. He behaved like someone who throws you a smile but carries a knife inside waiting for the opportunity to destroy you. He knew how to present false or adulterated words as real and original, deceiving Israel to fall into the cult of their god “Baal-Peor” which means “lord of the opening or gap”. They portrayed a cult that was open to everyone with everything having the appearance of love and peace. This cult was associated with the veneration of the dead, sexual immorality, banquets of forbidden foods consecrated to their gods. According to Pseudo-Philo’s Biblical Antiquities, Bilaam said to Balak: “Come, let’s see what you can do to them. Choose a few beautiful women among you in Midian and place them before them naked and adorned with gold and precious stones. When they see them and lie with them, they will sin against their Lord and fall into your hands. Otherwise, it will not be possible for you to defeat them”.
When Israel would not control their emotions and the appetites of their body (food, sexuality, contamination with the dead) the cost was 24,000 souls. Their immoral behavior was such that it is said in a midrash that Cozbi and Zimri had sex publicly before the elders of Israel. Yet God gave Pinchas the courage to do the right thing at the right time and stop the slaughter. In this parashah, we see that it was an opportunity to put the commandments into practice, however, I conclude that knowledge does not infer practice and that we can easily be deceived when we decide that others can maintain a relationship with the Eternal for us (e.g., when Israel asked Moshe to speak to God and not directly to them).
Yeshua said in Matthew 7: 15-20: “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit, you will know them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit, you will recognize them.”
What are we sowing today? Who are we learning from today? What fruit are we seeing in our lives? Bilaam ended his days being killed by the edge of the sword, not having the death that he had requested, and is remembered by the fruit of death, idolatry, falsehood, and hypocrisy. May we have the merits that our Haftarah teaches us in Micah 6: 8: “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.