Dancing Between Two Virtues

Balak, Numbers 22:2−25:9

D'Var Torah By: Rabbi Craig H. Marantz

Focal Point

  • Balak son of Zippor, who was king of Moab at that time, sent messengers to Balaam son of Beor in Pethor, which is by the Euphrates, in the land of his kinsfolk, to invite him, saying, “There is a people that came out of Egypt; it hides the earth from view, and it is settled next to me. Come then, put a curse upon this people for me, since they are too numerous for me; perhaps I can thus defeat them and drive them out of the land.” (Numbers 22:4–6)
  • When the ass now saw the angel of Adonai , she lay down under Balaam; and Balaam was furious and beat the ass with his stick. Then Adonai opened the ass’s mouth, and she said to Balaam, “What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?” . . . Then Adonai uncovered Balaam’s eyes, and he saw the angel of Adonai standing in the way, his drawn sword in his hand. . . . (Numbers 22:27–29, 31)
  • How fair are your tents, O Jacob, / Your dwellings, O Israel! (Numbers 24:5)
  • Blessed are they who bless you, / Accursed they who curse you! (Numbers 24:9)


Parashat Balak is a curious chapter—one of the oddest in the entire Torah. How could it not be? With a sorcerer, a talking donkey, and curses-turned-blessings galore, the story sounds like a cross between the summer box office hits Shrek and Harry Potter .

The parashah focuses on two main characters: Balak, a Moabite king set on cursing Israel, and Balaam, the sorcerer hired to carry out the evil deed. Balak generously bribes Balaam to get the job done, but he grows more and more frustrated because the sorcerer never seems to complete the task. In fact, Balaam manages quite the opposite, uttering the blessing now so beloved: Mah tovu ohalechah Yaakov, mishk’notecha Yisrael , “How fair are your tents O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel!” (Numbers 24:5). He comes to this beautiful benediction after a bizarre encounter with a talking donkey, which makes him aware of God’s presence and apparently leads to a change of heart.

Many of the Sages, however, are unconvinced of Balaam’s turnaround. They consider his newfound affection for Israel insincere. Midrash colors the sorcerer as a haughty spirit and a greedy soul ( B’midbar Rabbah 20:6–11). Talmud indicates that God forced the blessings out of Balaam’s mouth against the sorcerer’s will (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 105b).

We cannot blame the Sages for their skepticism when the Torah itself remains unpersuaded that Balaam’s intentions are sincere. The Torah is so leary of the sorcerer’s influence that even his descendants are shunned: “No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted into the congregation of Adonai . . . because they hired Balaam son of Beor, from Pethor of Aram-naharaim, to curse you.—But Adonai your God refused to heed Balaam; instead, Adonai your God turned the curse into a blessing for you, for Adonai your God loves you” (Deuteronomy 23:4–6). And this comes after the Israelites condemn Balaam to death without explanation (Numbers 31:8).

As the monotheistic revolution struggled to spread its wings, its proponents offered zero tolerance for polytheistic practices like sorcery and divination. The monotheism of the ancient Hebrews promoted the view of a single, all-powerful God. The will of this one God could not be influenced by human magic. The Israelites vilified anyone engaging in or associated with these so-called pagan practices.

Obviously, our tradition is very protective of us. After all, Balak and Balaam conspire to curse and undermine the Israelites in order to drive them away. Our ancestors felt a need to call out these adversaries and hold them accountable. Tocheichah , or “rebuke,” is not only a natural response here, but is also a necessary one. Proverbs teaches, “They that rebuke find favor, and a good blessing falls upon them” (24:25). For the Israelites, the tocheichah of Balaam and Balak and their descendants serves as medicine designed to prevent the ills of constant threats from conspirators and their kin.

The challenge with tocheichah , though, is to guard against becoming overzealous. In our fervor, we can become blind to the potential virtues present in the very person who remains the object of our rebuke. In other words, when we become self-righteous in critiquing those who have hurt us, we often fail to give them the benefit of the doubt when they try to exercise real change of heart. In so doing, we violate the important Jewish midah , “virtue,” of dan l’chaf z’chut, “giving others the benefit of the doubt.” Our ancient texts may also be guilty of this to some degree.

Is it possible that Balaam experiences a profound change of heart about the Israelites, which leads him to offer blessings instead of curses? While most rabbinic lore denies this possibility, some elements of our tradition do allow for it. Nehama Leibowitz notes that Balaam evolves from “a common sorcerer to a prophet ‘who hears the words of God.’”She admits that Balaam uses his sorcery at first “to accommodate the divine will to his interests.” She even attests to the notion that Balaam offers blessings against his will—twice. But the third time is a charm, and with it Leibowitz feels Balaam “leaves all his schemes and wholeheartedly gives himself up to the divine prophetic urge” (Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Bamidbar [Jerusalem: Haommanim Press, 1981], p. 290).

The great rabbi Hillel teaches: “Judge not your fellow until you have been in that person’s place” ( Pirkei Avot 2:4). We all know what it is like to hurt another person, to wish bad things upon them. We know what it is like to be proven wrong about someone we assumed to know so well. And we know that when we have a change of heart about someone, when we have performed acts of t’shuvah , we long for forgiveness. We hope others will believe that our personal growth is real. We crave the benefit of the doubt.

Parashat Balak sets up two poles of virtue for us: tocheichah and dan l’chaf z’chut . There is blessing in thoughtful rebuke, designed to protect our welfare and integrity as Jews, to hold ourselves and our enemies accountable for evil. There is also blessing in the fundamental Jewish hope that any person can change if he or she truly wants to grow. Such effort to change deserves our benefit of the doubt. Our role in life, then, is to choreograph the steps between these two poles. If we create balance between these two midot “virtues,” we can look forward to a life of greater harmony, a reality suggestive of a world redeemed, a life filled only with blessings, a reality where God’s presence is always palpable.

God, as we dance this dance, guide our steps and open our eyes to Your presence and the blessings You bring to each of us.

By the way . . .

  • But by what merit does Balak deserve to have a parashah named after him? We read in Sotah 47a: “Rab Judah said in the name of Rab: Always a person should occupy oneself with Torah and commandments even though it not be for their own sake, because as a reward for the forty-two sacrifices which Balak, king of Moab, offered, he merited that Ruth should issue from him, and from her issued David and Solomon. . . .” So the merit of David and Solomon and even of the Messiah of the House of David was accounted to Balak. (Teaching from Birkat Avraham , in Lawrence S. Kushner and Kerry M. Olitzky, Sparks beneath the Surface [Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1995], p. 197)

Your Guide

  1. The Sages base their presumptions about the character of Balak’s and Balaam’s character on Torah text. How reliable is text as an indication of a person’s character? What are the dangers of investing too much credence in textual points of view?
  2. Given the previously stated passage from Deuteronomy 23:4–6, it is very ironic that the Messiah would come from the house of Balak. What does this say about the human capacity for change and personal redemption?
Reference Materials

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