"The period of wanderings may be seen as a trial of faith, and … there emerges the vision of a new nation that will take possession of the Holy Land-and do so as a holy people" (Plaut, Revised Edition, 887).
This week's parashah brings us the exciting story of Balak, King of Moab and Balaam, an esteemed pagan prophet. Balak, afraid the Israelites will attack his nation, sends for Balaam to curse them. God tells Balaam that he may not curse the Israelites. Ultimately Balaam agrees to go with God's permission, although with the understanding that he can only say what God commands. On the way, we read a fantastic scene resulting in a donkey speaking to Balaam and demanding an explanation of Balaam's mean-spirited behavior. Balaam arrives in Moab and every time he opens his mouth to curse the Israelites, a blessing emerges.
At the end of the parashah, an Israelite publicly engages in proscribed sexual activity with a Moabite woman, Pinchas sees and kills them both, thereby averting a plague against the Israelites.
Aliyah - Sixth aliyah: Numbers 23:27-24:13
From the peak of Peor, Balaam looks over the encampments and blesses the Israelites for the third time, saying,
"How fair are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel!" (24:5).
Balaam's description of the Israelite community may be familiar to you in English or Hebrew, Mah tovu, ohalecha Ya'acov, mishk'notecha Yisrael. It is found in our liturgy at the beginning of the morning service.
What did Balaam see that was "fair" or "lovely"? Rabbi Gunther Plaut notes that "The physical image of Israel is the reflection of its spiritual being" ( Revised Edition, 1057). This idea is based on the use of the word tov, meaning "good," which would seem to be an assessment of inner, not outer beauty. Rashi's interpretation also teaches that Balaam saw something unique in the behavior of the community. " How fair are thy tents… He said this because he saw that the entrances of their tents were not exactly facing each other" (Silberman, 118a), facilitating privacy. Balaam had been living and working in the idolatrous and immoral land of Moab, and he saw something refreshingly different and beautiful in the Israelite camp. Aesthetics and ethics, the beautiful and the good, are inextricably intertwined. The external appearance of the Israelite community reflected its internal integrity and modesty. This stands as a worthy and holy ideal for the children of Israel.
There is a relationship between the spiritual health of the community and the sexual behavior of its members. We may excuse someone's sexual transgressions and treat that behavior as separate from the individual's overall character or integrity. However, in Torah the two are joined. Sexual relationships can be based on unequal power or they can be built on mutual respect, affection and trust. They can either degrade the parties involved or be a source of sublime joy. That was true in the Ancient Near East and it is true here and now.
Blessed are they who bless you, accursed they who curse you! (24:9) Each of us makes personal choices that impact not only our own character but also the nature of the community. God commands that the men who are acting immoral sexually be rounded up and punished publicly. Although this behavior may seem private and personal, it is not secret. It curses rather than blesses God because of the disrespect it shows to another human being, and that attitude pollutes the community. Personal actions have communal, even cosmic consequences.
Our personal relationships and decisions may seem private, but they affect the nature of the entire community. When we sing Mah tovu entering the synagogue, we do not have to look at something or someone in particular. If anything, we need to look in the mirror and ask whether we would merit the blessing of Balaam as a result of our private, personal conduct. As we prepare to pray, we remind ourselves of the standard by which our actions are judged, and strive to contribute to the moral integrity of our people and all people.
- Think of your own dwelling place or places you have lived. What were some of the outward physical touches that made it lovely? What were some of the emotional, spiritual or moral aspects of the people who lived there that made it a good place to be?
- What is the first thing you think when you enter the synagogue? How might this prayer help you get in the right frame of mind to pray?
- Do you think modesty is an important value? Why or why not?
For Further Learning
Balaam's blessings are in poetry as are the words of the prophet Micah in the haftarah for this parashah.
It has been told you, O mortal, what is good,
and what the Eternal requires of you-
Only this: to do justly,
and love mercy,
and walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8)
Compare Micah's description of "what is good" mah tov with our understanding of what Balaam described that way. Are they similar? How would you define what is good?
Balak, Numbers 22:2–25:9
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,173–1,194; Revised Edition, pp. 1,047–1,067;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 937–960