Balak is an odd Torah portion. Except for the last 9 verses, it’s as if, now that we’re on the banks of the Jordan, we can stop for a bit of entertainment. The Israelites aren’t even participants for three whole chapters. The tone is often farcical, from Balak’s attempts to soft-soap Bil’am (hey, I know your curses really stick!) to Bil’am’s overt smarminess to Balak’s attempt to salvage the situation by moving Bil’am to different spots (here, maybe you can curse them from this angle). There’s even a talking donkey. I gave a d’var Torah on this text 9 years ago, so if you’re interested in more, it’s posted here.
Balak, king of Moab, is freaked out by the recent victories of the Israelites over Sihon and Og. Hoping to avoid disaster, he tries to hire a local soothsayer to curse the Israelites. Bil’am (That’s our Hebrew pronunciation. It is rendered in English as “Balaam,” which I have on very good authority is closer to the original pronunciation) is a minor league prophet, who occasionally receives divine messages in dreams. He initially demurs, saying the Lord controls what comes out of his mouth. Then accepts the offer after getting mixed messages from the Lord; had he been less greedy, he might have seen that the Lord was trying to get him to decide on his own to say “no” even when he was given permission. Anyhow, he sets out. A sword-bearing angel bars his way, his donkey accordingly refuses to go forward, and Bil’am, who doesn’t see the angel, beats the donkey, which then speaks in protest. Only then can Bil’am see the angel and hear another divine mixed message: this task is obnoxious to Me, but go ahead anyway. He does.
Bil’am is careful to warn Balak that he can only say what the Lord puts in his mouth. When he blesses the Israelites instead of cursing them, Balak moves Bil’am to another spot, hoping the different perspective will yield different results. It doesn’t. The first two times, Bil’am is a passive conduit for the Lord’s words (see verses 23:4 and 16). However, the third time, from the peak of Peor, when he sees all Israel spread out before him, he is truly inspired: (24:2) “As Balaam looked up and saw Israel encamped tribe by tribe, the spirit of God came upon him.” Part of the beautiful third blessing has been incorporated into our liturgy: (24:5) “Mah tovu ohalekha Ya’acov, mishk’notekha Yisrael,” “How fair are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel!” He then reveals to Balak what Israel will do to Moab and the other nearby nations in days to come and goes on his way. The portion ends with 9 verses about major misbehavior by the Israelites with Moabite women, followed by (what else) a plague, stayed by the spear of Aaron’s grandson, Pinchas. More about that next time.
Tomorrow is both the Fourth of July and the 17th of Tammuz. Independence Day is a happy time, while the 17th of Tammuz is a minor fast day (sunrise to evening) that marks the beginning of a three-week period of mourning leading up to Tisha B’Av. Because it falls on Shabbat this year, its observance is moved to Sunday.
Shabbat shalom and Happy Fourth of July,
Parshas Balak – On 1 Foot
BILAAM: Can I curse them? Can I curse them? Can I curse them?
G-D: Sure…try it…
BILAAM: (Ahem)—Mah Tovu Ohalecha…
BALAK: Why I oughta…
An amazing talking dog
A man and his dog walk into a bar. The man proclaims, “I’ll bet you a round of drinks that my dog can talk.”
Bartender: “Yeah! Sure…go ahead.”
Man: “What covers a house?”
Man: “How does sandpaper feel?”
Man: “Who was the greatest ball player of all time?”
Man: “Pay up. I told you he could talk.”
The bartender, annoyed at this point, throws both of them out the door. Sitting on the sidewalk, the dog looks at the guy and says, “or is the greatest player Mantle?”
(sent out in 2007)
As we’ve seen, stories with talking animals go back to Genesis. But now we also have talking inanimate objects, such as the talking utensils in Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast,” a talking house (exterminator ads in which the wall tells all), a talking mole (a “Scrubs” episode in which Carla tries to persuade Turk to have the one over his lip removed)), talking (and walking) raisins (Raisin Bran ad – they heard it through the grapevine), etc. Here’s yet another example of unexpected speech:
A man walks into a bar, sits down, and orders a drink. The bartender gives him his drink, accompanied by a bowl of peanuts.
To his surprise, a voice comes from the peanut bowl. “You look great tonight!” it said. “You really look fantastic… And that after shave is just wonderful!”
The man is obviously a little confused, but tries to ignore it.
Realizing he has no cigarettes, he wanders over to the cigarette machine. After inserting his money, another voice emits from the machine. “You BASTARD… Oh my god you STINK… Do you know, you’re almost as ugly as your mother.”
By now, the man is extremely perplexed. He turns to the bartender for an explanation.
“Ah yes sir,” the bartender responds, “The peanuts are complimentary, but the cigarette machine is out of order.”
A medieval Jewish astrologer prophesied to a king that his favorite mistress would soon die.
Sure enough, the woman died a short time later. The kind was outraged at the astrologer, certain that his prophecy had brought about the woman’s death. He summoned the astrologer and gave him this command: “Prophet, tell me when you will die!”
The astrologer realized that the king was planning to kill him, immediately, no matter what answer he gave. So he said, finally, “I do not know when I will die. I only know that whenever I die, you will die three days later.”
A Matter of Perspective
Three preachers sat discussing the best positions for prayer while a telephone repairman worked nearby.
“Kneeling is definitely best,” claimed one.
“No,” another contended. “I get the best results standing with my hands outstretched to Heaven.”
You’re both wrong,” the third insisted. “The most effective prayer position is lying prostrate, face down on the floor.”
The repairman could contain himself no longer. “Hey, fellas, “he interrupted, “the best prayin’ I ever did was hangin’ upside down from a telephone pole.”
Quotes about Prophecy