This past week’s Torah portion was Balak. I don’t normally dedicate my d’var to a person but one year ago y I was in Texas with Noah Shapira at his Bar Mitzvah on July 4th and this was his portion. It was an extraordinary celebration what with all the fireworks and I can’t believe a whole year has passed. I am so proud of Noah, as is his family and so I am dedicating this week’s portion to him.
I am referencing today a commentary called the Wellspring of the Torah, a two part set that I bought in Israel with Rabbi Shapira and so it is also very special to me. Now what we normally focus on in Balak is the incident of the talking donkey and that’s always fun. But since it is the usual, I want to look at other aspects of the portion.
Rabbi Meir of Premishlan says this: why should a Torah portion be named after a man who was not only a heathen but an enemy of the Jews? And that is a very good question. Balak is the king who, as an enemy of the Jews, hires Bilam the soothsayer, the heathen prophet, to speak out against Israel. It is said “it is true that the heathens hate the Jews. As it is written it is a known rule that Esau hates Jacob but their hatred is usually cloaked in honeyed words so that the Jews will not be aware of their need to protect themselves.” This is a true but very sad and sinister statement. Rabbi Meir goes on to say however that “Balak was outspoken in his hostility and there certainly can be no objection to naming a Torah portion for a heathen who is honest.”
It is always curious to me when someone lets their feelings of anti-Semitism be known – then I know exactly who and what they are. And I know exactly what to expect. I think I would rather know from the outset that someone has a problem with Israel, the Jewish people, Judaism. I would rather they just come right out and say it than trying to hide behind veiled references and actions.
The heathen, pagan, culture that both of these men come from is interesting. Rashi says this: If you ask why the holy one, blessed be He, causes his glory to rest on a wicked heathen it is that the heathen should have no excuse to say ‘if we would have had prophets we would have changed for the better.’ He therefore raised up prophets for them but they broke down the moral barrier of the world.
What this teaches me, what interests me and what I tell everyone especially students, is that every person in the bible is an example to us. Sometimes they are a bad example. God told Bilam not to prophesy against Israel, he gave specific instructions. But when Bilam continued in his purpose, as he was paid to do, and kept on cursing Israel well we all know the story. Out of his mouth came a blessing – part of which was what we now know as the Mah Tovu prayer that we say on entering the synagogue.
This is an amazing story – that God is in control of everything, that he can and does use anyone, even sometime who does not follow God, to accomplish his purposes. A man paid to curse Israel he ends up saying “how lovely are your tents.” What a twist. Why does Balak have a portion named after him? Because he was honest. If you even experience outright anti-Semitism I want you to think of a twist on your reaction. I want you to think of it as a hidden blessing: at least you know exactly where the person stands, then you know how to deal with them appropriately.
As always if you wish to study the Kosher Pastor program with me click the link on the site. If you want to enroll in our Uri program based in Africa, go to af.shuvu.tv and if you want to study Yeshiva, our multi year program leading to ordination, go to shuvu.tv.
Shalom and Kol Tuv