Balak (Numbers 22:2 – 25:9)

What on earth?

We’ve just read that the Israelites are finally across the Jordan from the Promised Land.  Now we get a story full of slapstick, including a talking donkey, with no Israelites taking an active part until the last 9 verses (and those aren’t pretty).

The story: Balak, king of Moab, has heard about the recent military victories of the Israelites, who are now on his doorstep.  Afraid of these unknown foes, he seeks supernatural help from Bil’am (in English, Balaam, which may be closer to the ancient pronunciation), a sorcerer/diviner/sort-of-prophet, to curse the Israelites.  [I have posted my 2006 d’var Torah on Bil’am, if you’re interested.]  Bil’am actually does have occasional contact with the Lord but apparently just uses this gift for personal gain (c.f. Zoltan Karpathy in Shaw’s Pygmalion and then My Fair Lady.) He joins Balak’s emissaries, angering the Lord. An angel with a fiery sword is sent to block his way but only his old donkey can see it.  After he beats her for stalling (some sorcerer, he can’t even convince his donkey to move), she talks, which doesn’t seem at all strange to Bil’am, and he sees the angel, who warns him to say only what the Lord tells him to.

Bil’am, having warned Balak that he can say only what the Lord tells him to, sees the Israelite camp and blesses them. Balak, puzzled and angry, tries to change Bil’am’s perspective, literally, by moving him around, but Bil’am blesses them a second time and a third. The third blessing includes words that have become part of our daily liturgy: “Mah tovu ohalekha Ya’akov, mishk’notekha Yisrael,” “How good are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel!” (24:5). Bil’am does prophesy (24:15-23) concerning the eventual fates of Israel, Moab, and several other peoples, and then leaves.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks opens his current d’var Torah [Not Reckoned Among the Nations (Balak 5779)] with an old joke:

The year is 1933. Two Jews are sitting in a Viennese coffee house, reading the news. One is reading the local Jewish paper, the other the notoriously antisemitic publication Der Stürmer. “How can you possibly read that revolting rubbish?” says the first. The second smiles. “What does your paper say? Let me tell you: ‘The Jews are assimilating.’ ‘The Jews are arguing.’ ‘The Jews are disappearing.’ Now let me tell you what my paper says: ‘The Jews control the banks.’ ‘The Jews control the media.’ ‘The Jews control Austria.’ ‘The Jews control the world.’ My friend, if you want good news about the Jews, always read the antisemites.”

If you look at the Torah as the story of a nation, it is striking how flawed the characters are, how much they are scolded and how little praised.  Perhaps, to be trustworthy, praise had to come from outside, in this case from Bil’am, someone certainly not biased in their favor. As  stated in Proverbs (27:2),  “Let the mouth of another praise you, not yours, the lips of a stranger, not your own.”

Bil’am’s own delusions of grandeur are briefly damped by his experience with Balak.  Through him, God has shown the Moabites and Midianites that Israel is blessed.  Rabbi Sacks writes [What Makes God Laugh (Balak 5776)], “God had a different message for Bilam himself, and it was very blunt. If you think you can control God, then, says God, I will show you that I can turn a donkey into a prophet and a prophet into a donkey. Your animal will see angels to which you yourself are blind.”

The last nine verses of this week’s portion bring us back to the Israelite camp.  Bil’am, according to the usual interpretation, gets back at the Israelites using seduction, not curses.  The local women seduce Israelite men and draw them in to worship their god, Ba’al Peor.  The Lord tells Moses to impale all the ringleaders.  Meanwhile, one high-ranking couple starts fornicating right in front of the Tent of Meeting. Pinchas, Aaron’s grandson takes it upon himself to spear them in the act, thereby limiting the victims of the Lord’s inevitable plague to a mere 24,000.   We’ll consider this apparent act of vigilantism next time.

Shabbat shalom,


tph bilam and his donkey


Perspective Jokes

  • While walking the dog tonight I heard new ideas and perspectives coming from the forest…
    Then I realized it was enlightening bugs.
  • Life is all about perspective
    The sinking of the Titanic was a miracle to the lobsters in the ship’s kitchen.
  • You have to put it in perspective.
    Otherwise you have perspecve.
  • Let go.. New perspective..
    If you love someone, let them go.
    If they come back,
    nobody wanted them.
  • As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized the world can be seen through a million perspectives.  Mine and 999,999 wrong ones.·
  • When I’m stressed I like to draw a line of trees, getting smaller as they reach the horizon.  It really puts things in perspective.


Bad News…

Debbie visited a psychic of some local repute. In a dark and gloomy room, gazing at the tarot cards laid out before her, the tarot reader delivered the bad news:

“There’s no easy way to say this, so I’ll just be blunt – prepare yourself to be a widow. Your husband will die a violent and horrible death this year.”

Visibly shaken, Jennifer stared at the woman’s lined face, then at the single flickering candle, then down at her hands. She took a few deep breaths to compose herself.

She simply had to know. She met the tarot reader’s gaze, steadied her voice, and asked:

“Will I get away with it?”


“I almost had a psychic girlfriend but she left me before we met.” – Steven Wright


Quotes about Delusions of Grandeur

Maybe science is just magic with delusions of lack of grandeur.  Peter David

What is man? He’s just a collection of chemicals with delusions of grandeur.  Ayn Rand

I don’t have any delusions of grandeur. I just want to make music that doesn’t make me bored. El-P (Jaime Meline)

Delusions of grandeur make me feel a lot better about myself.Jane Wagner

I know when I’m bad, I know when I’m good, and I know when I’m everything in between. I don’t have any delusions of grandeur or delusions of failure. In terms of my work, I’ve got a pretty cold honest eye.   Bebe Neuwirth


(4 of) 20 Renegade Vigilantes Who Were a Chaotic Force for Good

1 Was at a market in Mozambique with a guide. Guide asks stall seller if he has any “really fresh” pangolin (illegal as hell and endangered). Seller shows him a box with two live ones.  Guide turns to me and yells “run,” punches the seller, grabs the box, and books it across the market toward where we had parked. He released the critters later that day. It was an interesting trip. geopolit

3  When I was still in my medical training in Westwood, I often saw a middle-aged gentleman putting coins into expired meters.  The one time I saw a meter maid try to approach him and he ran off giggling.  A few months later I saw him at a stop sign in a Maserati.  Basically the definition of chaotic good. needs_more_zoidberg

7  A Brazilian drug dealer kidnapped medical staff to force them to vaccinate a community for yellow fever.  About137Ninjas

9  In my country, potholes are notorious for going unchecked.  A facebook group sprung up called “Adopt a pothole” and it started as just posting pics of potholes and tagging the government agency in charge (the government is responsible for damages to cars caused by potholes that they are aware of so they tagged them as proof).  But they still weren’t getting filled.  And that’s when it got wild.  People started planting palm trees inside the potholes and posting those pictures.  I can only assume it was effective.  Because I saw a pic of one near my neighborhood, went and saw it to confirm and within a few days it had been filled.  gagWas2Hateful


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