CHUKAS/BALAK (Numbers, 19:1- 25:9) — “Will the REAL Jackass Please Speak Up?”

Who was the greatest of all the prophets?  If you answered Moses you are right –  sort of.  In fact, the last three verses of the Torah confirm that Moses was the greatest of the prophets.  However, in one aspect, Moses had some competition.  Balaam, a non-Jewish magician, possessed a level of prophecy called, “One who knows the mind of the Supreme One.” (Numbers, 24:16) Rashi explains that this means that Balaam had the ability to determine exactly when G-d was angry.

Balak, the King of Moab, contacted Balaam.  Balak sought to take advantage of Balaam’s unique spiritual talents.  Balak was aware that the Israelites had defeated their enemies when they were assisted by G-d.  He knew that he couldn’t defeat them on his own.  He hoped that a well-placed curse provided by the great sorcerer Balaam would lead to success.  A group of messengers was dispatched to offer Balaam the job.

Balaam refused to go.  G-d had appeared to him and told him that he was not to curse the blessed People of Israel.  Balak then sent off a more distinguished delegation with a lucrative offer to convince him to change his mind.  Balaam stood his ground — sort of.  “If Balak were to give me a house full of silver and gold, I still would not be able to… violate G-d’s word.”  (22:18)

Still, he invited them to stay overnight to see if he might receive a new prophecy that would allow him to accept the job.  This time, G-d gave Balaam permission to go with them.  However, He warned Balaam that he would only be able to say what G-d would permit him to say.  Balaam went.  He didn’t get it.

The rest of the Torah Portion describes events that were most frustrating to Balaam and Balak.  An angel blocked Balaam’s access on the road.  The “great prophet” Balaam didn’t see the angel, but his donkey did.  Three times she refused to go past the angel.  Three times he beat the stubborn donkey that wouldn’t proceed.  Miraculously, the donkey began to speak and reprimand him for beating her.  The “great prophet” Balaam, who thought he could destroy an entire nation with his words began a desperate search for a sword with which to destroy his donkey.

Finally, the angel appeared to Balaam and showed him that apparently the donkey had more horse sense than her owner did.  Still, if Balaam still wanted to go, he had permission, but would only be allowed to say what G-d would permit.  Balaam went.  He still didn’t get it.

Once Balaam met with Balak on hills overlooking the Israelite camp, he had altars set up.  The plan was to offer sacrifices to G-d before trying to curse His People.  Balaam still didn’t get it.  Three times, Balaam tried to curse the Nation of Israel; three times, they came out as blessings.  (One of his blessings, “How good are your tents, Jacob, your Tabernacles, Israel” (24:5), has become part of our daily prayers, recited when entering the synagogue each morning.)  Fired from his job by Balak, Balaam went home in disgrace.

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What was going on in Balaam’s head?  How could a great oracle who was “One who knows the mind of the Supreme One,” make such a mistake?  How could he be so blind to the fact that G-d didn’t want him to go on this mission?  How did this brilliant prophet allow his donkey to make a jackass out of him?!

The answer can be seen from one of Balaam’s communications with Balak: “If Balak were to give me a house full of silver and gold, I still would not be able to… violate G-d’s word.”  Balaam let his weakness show:  “If Balak were to give me a house full of silver and gold...”  Rashi points out that we see here that Balaam, for all his powers of prophecy, was motivated by simple greed.  He kept trying different ways, different approaches, to get G-d to allow him to curse the Israelites, so he could collect a hefty fee.

This is especially fascinating when we realize that according to the Talmud, Balaam was a descendant of Laban, the father-in-law of Jacob.  There are even some commentaries that suggest that Balaam was none other than Laban himself!  Balaam/Laban was so blinded by the attraction of wealth that he was willing to curse his own flesh and blood!

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Isn’t it amazing what people will do for money?  We often meet “devout” people (of all religions) whose religious scruples are checked at the front doors as they walk into work each morning.  After all, they reason, religion is religion, and business is business.

I work part-time in the mortgage business.  I have learned, unfortunately, from some of my “colleagues” that the easiest way to get customers is to be less than totally up-front with the client at application; there will be plenty of time to add on fees and change the rate before the closing.  I once lost a client to a competitor who was lying to him.  I lost the client because I refused to out-lie my competitor. The customer found out too late that he had to come up with more money for closing costs.  Ironically, my ex-client became my best friend, advising everyone to come to me for their mortgages.

Balaam’s logical thinking and fear of Heaven were distorted by his love of money.  Our income for the year is decided on Rosh Hashanah.  When we compromise our values by looking at the world through cash-colored glasses, we see only the dollar signs, and end up making donkeys of ourselves.

Have a great Shabbos

Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz

To leave a comment about this article, or to read other readers’ comments on this article, scroll down past the archive links.

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From the Archives

Some years the two Torah Portions of Chukas and Balak are read together, and some years they are read on two separate Sabbaths.  For your convenience, here are links to both Portions:

FIRST PORTION – CHUKAS 

“A Sad Shabbos in New York State” (2011)

…  While some societies have not condemned these activities the way the Torah does, it was always recognized that the institution of marriage was about a man and a woman.  A man doesn’t marry his car.  A man doesn’t marry his pet iguana.  And a man doesn’t marry a man…

Last Shabbos, we read the story of Korach.  Korach didn’t like the way the Commandments were working out…

Last Friday night … the State of  New York decided to emulate Korach…

How did this tragedy/travesty in New York happen?  It’s really rather simple… 

Read more. 

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“Who’s ‘The MAN’? … YOU’RE ‘The MAN’!” (2010)

… Ezekiel cites the special relationship between G-d and  Israel…

The Talmud interprets “…you are Man…”, to mean “You (i.e., Israel) are called ‘MAN; the nations of the world are not called ‘MAN.’

What does the Talmud mean by, “You are called ‘MAN; the nations of the world are not called ’MAN”?   Certainly it can’t mean to humiliate Gentiles and to consider them less than human!  The Talmud is replete with references to the fact that all of humanity was created in G-d’s Image.  We share the planet with our fellow Children of G-d.

So what does it mean?…

Read more .

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“Tattle-Snakes & Copperheads” (2005)

… G-d said to Moses, “Make for yourself a fiery serpent and place it on a pole.  Anyone who has been bitten will look at it and live.”  Moses made a snake out of copper and placed it on a pole; so it was that anyone who had been bitten would stare at the copper snake and live

The symbolism is beautiful.  Like the snake in the Garden of Eden, they sinned with their tongues.  Since they acted like snakes, they were punished with snakes.  After sinning with their mouths they repented with their mouths.  They corrected the wrong by using their mouths properly.  Moses undid the poison of the miraculous punishing-snakes with a miraculous healing-snake.

Great!  Just one question.  What’s the deal with the copper?…

Read more.

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“The Kiss of LIFE” (2004)

The “Brothers ben-Amram” both died shortly before the Israelites entered the Land of Canaan (Israel) …  Our Sages point out a contrast between the nation’s reaction to these deaths. The Children of Israel wept for Moses, while the entire House of Israel wept for Aaron.

The Children (literally, sons) of Israel wept for Moses.  The men wept over the loss of their respected judge.  The entire House of Israel, men and women, wept over the loss of their beloved peacemaker…

Moses and Aaron had different jobs… the mourning for Aaron was more widespread than for Moses.

Whose approach was better?  Who was a better advocate of proper behavior?…

Read more.

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“Stone Drunk” (2002)

… The People were thirsty.  … Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his staff. A great deal of water gushed out, and provided water for the community and their animals.”

G-d was furious:  “Since you (and Aaron) didn’t have enough faith in Me to sanctify Me in the presence of the Israelites, you will not bring this assembly to the land that I have given them.”

… the people witnessed a great miracle.  A rock was struck, and water flowed from it.  The Israelites hadn’t seen a miracle like that in 40 years!  How is this a lack of faith on Moses’ part? …

Read more.

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“The Bigger They Are…” (2001)

Og … organized an army againstIsrael, and once again, we were forced to fight off an aggressor.  … Moses needed some encouragement:

G-d said to Moses, ‘Don’t be afraid of him…”

G-d doesn’t waste words.  He told Moses not to be afraid to fight Og.  … Moses was afraid that Og would be rewarded for a Mitzvah he had done many years before…

What a Mitzvah!!  Og tells Abraham to go saveLotso he can be killed and Og can marry his widow!  With friends like Og, who needs enemies?!  How could Moses actually suspect that G-d would reward Og for such a deceitful, treacherous act?…

Read more.

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SECOND PORTION – BALAK

“Rocky Road” (2010)

…What’s with this guy?!  He’s a sorcerer, the great Midianite prophet!  He is “one who knows the mind of the Supreme One.” (Verse 16)  How is it so hard for him to see that G-d doesn’t want him to do this?

… it all started with a question.  G-d had asked Balaam, “Who are these people?”

“Aha!” thought Balaam.  “G-d doesn’t know everything!  He needs to ask me who these people are!  If I play my cards right, I’ll be able to pull the wool over His eyes and curse His beloved Nation.”…

Read more.

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“How Good is YOUR Tent?” (2007)

…Balak, the Moabite king, hired Balaam to curseIsrael.  Now why, you may ask, would an anti-Semite like Balak need to hire someone to curse Jews?  Plenty of people would be happy to do it for free!

Cursing, you see, is a great talent.  Some people do it better than others.  Balaam was a pro…

Read more.

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“Of Television, Toilets, and Idolatry” (2003)

… There was, however, one condition demanded by the Midianites.  They insisted that their “clients” pay homage to their idol, “Baal Pe’or.”

…  “You don’t have to pray to our idol, or even to bow to it.  All you have to do is…

Have you ever heard of anything so bizarre? …

Read more.

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“Will the REAL Jackass Please Speak Up?” (2000)

… Balaam still didn’t get it.  Three times, Balaam tried to curse the Nation of Israel; three times, they came out as blessings… Fired from his job by Balak, Balaam went home in disgrace.

What was going on in Balaam’s head?  How could a great oracle who was “One who knows the mind of the Supreme One,” make such a mistake?  How could he be so blind to the fact that G-d didn’t want him to go on this mission?  How did this brilliant prophet allow his donkey to make a jackass out of him?!

The answer can be seen from one of Balaam’s communications with Balak…

Read more.

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This is the weekly message at www.torahtalk.org.   Copyright © 2000-2011 by Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz.  May be reprinted. Please include copyright information.

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Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz is a Mohel (www.Brisrabbi.com) and chaplain inMonsey,New York. For information about scheduling a Bris or a lecture, or just to say hello, call (800) 83MOHEL.

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Published in: on June 12, 2000 at 4:20 pm  Leave a Comment  

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