Parashas Balak opens up speaking about… Balak! Balak is the king of Moav, neighbors to Emori, the first nation whose land the Jews conquered in last week’s parasha. Seeing the Jews conquering nation after nation, Balak and the Moavi nation start to panic, worried that they’re next. Inviting another neighbor, Midyan, to join the campaign, Moav sets out to seek help from Bil’am.
Bil’am is a prophet for the nations of the world. He has great power, and everybody knows that, which inspires Moav and Midyan to ask him to curse the Jewish people so their nations won’t be next to be conquered. Upon their arrival, the officers from Moav and Midyan tell Bil’am their request. He invites them to stay the night, during which he has a prophecy in which Hashem tells him that he can’t go and curse the Jewish people. After another night of back and forth, Hashem allows Bil’am to go but warns him that he will only be able to do and say whatever Hashem allows him to.
Bil’am sets out the next morning with the officers from these nations. Since Bil’am doesn’t have the right intentions, Hashem obstructs his view. Although he doesn’t see it, his donkey sees an angel standing on the road with a sword, stopping their travels! Not seeing the angel, Bil’am beats the donkey and tells it to continue.
Refusing to listen to its master in any way, finally the donkey begins to speak (obviously from Hashem!), and admonishes Bil’am for striking it. Not fazed by the fact that his donkey just TALKED to him, Bil’am replies and they have a brief conversation. Hashem then allows Bil’am to see the donkey as well and the conversation switches to one between Bil’am and the angel. It ends with the angel repeating that Bil’am will only be able to say whatever Hashem allows him to say.
Bil’am finally arrives in Moav and Balak the king comes out to meet him, admonishing him for hesitating and delaying in coming. Bil’am replies that he has no control over what he will say, and they then go out to bring sacrifices to Hashem. Bil’am opens his mouth to curse the Jewish people and instead blessings come out. Balak is enraged, but the same scenario repeats itself, as Bil’am tries to curse the Jewish people and more and more beautiful blessings come out of his mouth!
After this completely failed attempt at stopping the Jews’ power, Bil’am provides Balak with a brainstorm: get the Jews to sin, then Hashem will be upset with them and will not take care of them.
The women from Moav come out and convince many Jewish men to marry them, which is a very big sin. A plague begins which kills 24,000 people who had sinned. Pinchas, the grandson of Aharon HaKohein, stops the plague, and from there we go onto Parashas Pinchas next week!
There is lots to talk about in this parasha but I have one overarching question: Why is this week’s Torah portion named for such an evil man as Balak the king of Moav? And once it’s going to be named for an evil person, why not name it for Bil’am who at least was a prophet?
Balak, in all his wickedness, had one big positive attribute over Bil’am. He was honest. When Balak initiated the deal with Bil’am to curse the Jewish people, he didn’t mince any words. “I hate the Jews, I want you to curse them.” was his message, direct and honest.
Bil’am, on the other hand, worked in much more roundabout ways. Rather than refusing outright, knowing that Hashem wouldn’t let, he asks the men to stay overnight so he can ask permission. He comes with the officers from Moav and Midyan even after finding out that he will only be allowed to bless the Jewish people.
Honesty is not something that Judaism takes lightly. Our Sages say that Hashem’s signature is Emes, honesty, truth, faithfulness. Hiding the truth, not telling the whole truth, and leading people to believe things that aren’t so all fall under dishonesty, which is not something anyone appreciates.
(based on a d’var Torah I saw on anshe.org)
Listening to “Tov” by Sheves Achim on Sheves Achim Volume 2!