D’VAR TORAH: Bil’am’s Blessing is enduring lesson

Rabbi Josef A. Davidson serves Congregation B’nai Amoona.


There is an old cliché that continues to ring true: One can attract more bees with honey than with vinegar. It is a lesson that seems to be lost on the title character of this week’s Torah portion, Balak.

Balak, the king of Moab at the time that our ancestors were wandering the wilderness of Sinai, was concerned with the numbers of Israelites. He feared that they might mow over them as a large herd of cattle might consume the grasses of pasture land, and he shared this concern with the elders of Midian. Balak persuaded them that in order to meet this threat to their nations, they should obtain the most powerful weapon of the day, namely the prophet Bil’am, whose power was the equal of that of Moses, according to the Midrash. Whomever Bil’am blessed was truly blessed, and whomever Bil’am cursed was truly cursed, and Balak wanted to hire him to curse this new enemy, the Israelites.  

So they sent a delegation to hire Bil’am. However, he refused, as God had indicated to him that this people who had come out of Egypt were blessed. This did not deter Balak and the elders of Midian. They sent a larger, more distinguished delegation of dignitaries a second time with the promise of a great reward for cursing the Israelites. Bil’am consulted with God once again, but this time was given permission to go with the delegation but to do only what God commanded him to do.

So the next morning Bil’am saddled his pack animal and set out with the emissaries. God put up a series of roadblocks that only the pack animal could see, which caused Bil’am no small measure of consternation Apparently, God wanted to indicate that the permission given to Bil’am was reluctant, at best, as well as to underscore that Bil’am could only do as God bid him.

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When Bil’am arrived, Balak instructed him as to what he was to do. He was to curse the Israelites, so that Balak with his partners, the Midianites, could defeat them soundly and end the perceived threat that they represented to their peoples. Bil’am informed his new employer that he had little control over what he did, that he was limited by what God allowed him to do.  There was no guarantee that Bil’am would be able to deliver the curse. Nevertheless, Bil’am attempted to do so. In fact, he tried on three separate occasions from three different vantage points, but despite the offerings that he had Balak offer and despite his own best efforts, Bil’am could only pronounce a blessing upon the Israelites.  One of these blessings has found its way into the daily prayer book: “Mah Tovu Oholecha Ya’akov – How goodly are your tents, Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel.”

So, the end of the matter is that Balak was unable to defeat the Israelites, even with the most powerful weapon of his time. Or is that the end of the matter? For, as the Israelites approached, they were seduced into joining the Moabite women in a orgiastic religious ritual.  While the Israelites remained impervious to the attempts of Bil’am to curse them, they were vulnerable to the eating, drinking and licentious behavior of the Moabites. Instead of attempting to repulse them, the key to victory of the Israelites seemed to be to invite them into the camp and literally love them to death.

So it is with all of the anti-Semites who have followed, all of those who perceived some sort of threat to themselves if the Jewish people continue to exist. They do all that they can to curse the Jewish people, to spread malicious depictions of Jews or of the State of Israel, their substitute target. 

However, if only they would learn the lesson of this week’s Torah portion, they would be more successful in their attempts to make the world Judenrein (free of Jews).  Engage the Jewish people in battle, and they become stronger, more determined to survive. However, when invited into the camp, the Jewish people will self-destruct, unless there is an intervention, as there was in the Torah portion.  

For the entirety of Jewish history, the other has been attractive. The Torah, the Prophets, the entire Tanach warn of the dangers of assimilation, of taking on the rituals, the values, the beliefs and the actions of other peoples.  The “Ten Lost Tribes” vanished due to assimilation. 

The fact that there is a Jewish people at all gives testimony to the effectiveness of tradition in maintaining Jewish identity even when there are no clearly defined national borders, and for good or for ill, of a history filled with persecution, oppression and even attempts at annihilation which have galvanized that identity — at least for the present.