| Published: June 27, 2023
In this week’s Torah reading, Balak, King Balak of Moab retains the sorcerer Balaam to curse the Jewish people. Instead of curses, only blessings come out of his mouth—including prophecies concerning the Messianic redemption. Moabite women entice some of the Israelites to sin, resulting in a plague amongst the Jews. Phinehas zealously kills two of the high-ranking offenders, and the plague comes to an end.
First Aliyah: The Israelites have just conquered the Emorites and the Bashanites, the two mighty neighbors of Moab. Balak, king of Moab, worries that his nation would be the Israelites’ next victim. He sends messengers to the Land of Midian, to Balaam, a famed non-Jewish prophet and sorcerer, asking him to come and curse the Jews. G‑d appeared to Balaam that night and instructed him not to go to Moab. “You shall not curse the people because they are blessed!”
Second Aliyah: Balaam sent word with Balak’s messengers that G‑d doesn’t permit him to go with them. So Balak sent more prestigious messengers to Balaam, promising him great riches in return for his services. Once again G‑d appeared to Balaam. This time G‑d allowed Balaam to go — provided that he only speak the words which G‑d dictates to him.
Third Aliyah: Balaam leaves together with the Moabite dignitaries. G‑d sends an angel with a drawn sword to block Balaam’s path. While Balaam couldn’t see the angel, the she-donkey he was riding did, and refused to move onwards, causing Balaam to strike her. The donkey miraculously speaks, admonishing Balaam for striking her. Eventually, G‑d “opens Balaam’s eyes,” and he sees the angel. A conversation between Balaam and the angel ensues, wherein Balaam is chastised for his behavior towards his donkey, and again he is reminded only to say what G‑d dictates to him. After this humbling episode, Balaam arrives in Moab where he is greeted by Balak.
Fourth Aliyah: Upon Balaam’s instructions, Balak builds seven altars and offers sacrifices to G‑d. G‑d “chances” upon Balaam, and dictates to him the words he should repeat to Balak and his ministers: “From Aram, Balak the king of Moab has brought me, from the mountains of the east: ‘Come, curse Jacob for me and come invoke wrath against Israel.’ How can I curse whom G‑d has not cursed, and how can I invoke wrath if the L-rd has not been angered?…” Balaam then proceeded to shower the Israelites with beautiful blessings and praises. When Balak responds angrily to the blessings, Balaam reminds him that he can only say that which G‑d tells him to say.
Fifth Aliyah: Balak takes Balaam to another location, hoping that this new venue would be more inauspicious for the Jews. They again build altars and offer sacrifices, and again G‑d dictates blessing for the Jews which Balaam repeats. “G‑d does not look at evil in Jacob, and has seen no perversity in Israel; the L-rd, his G‑d, is with [Israel], and he has the King’s friendship…”
Sixth Aliyah: The entire process repeats itself once again, Balak takes Balaam to another place, hoping that Balaam can curse the Jews from there. For a third time they build altars and bring offerings, and for a third time, only blessings issue from Balaam’s mouth: “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel! … G‑d, who has brought them out of Egypt with the strength of His loftiness He shall consume the nations which are his adversaries … Those who bless [them] shall be blessed, and those who curse [them] shall be cursed.” At this point, Balak despairs of accomplishing his goal, and sends Balaam on his way.
Seventh Aliyah: Before leaving, Balaam prophesies about the end of days: “I see it, but not now; I behold it, but not soon. A star has gone forth from Jacob, and a staff will arise from Israel which will crush the princes of Moab and uproot all the sons of Seth…” He also speaks about the eventual destruction of Esau, Amalek and Assyria. Following Balaam’s unsuccessful attempt to curse the Jewish nation, Moabite and Midianite women seduce many Jewish men. In the course of their seduction, they also entice the Jewish man to worship the Baal Peor deity. G‑d commands Moses to execute the guilty people, and simultaneously a lethal plague erupts amongst the Jews. A Jewish leader, Zimri, publicly displays the Midianite princess with whom he was consorting. Phinehas, Aaron‘s grandson, kills them both, and the plague is halted.
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