This Shabbat we read the portion of Balak. The 17th of Tamuz, which coincides with Tuesday 11th July, marks the anniversary of the breaching of the walls of Yerushalayim which preceded the destruction of the first Temple. The seventeenth of Tammuz ushers in a three-week morning period for the Temple. There is an underlying connection between all of the above.
Balak was a gentile prince and sorcerer who was the leader of Moav. Seeing the miraculous success of the Jewish people in conquering the lands of Sichon and Og in last week’s portion, he feared for his nation’s safety. He hired Bilam, an evil prophet and sorcerer, to curse the Jewish people that he might be rid of them. Bilam was happy to accept the position, being both money hungry and a rabid anti-Semite. As he had always succeeded in his curses, he felt sure to succeed again.
However, HaShem had other plans. After several attempts to discourage him, HaShem allowed Bilam to accompany Balak on his wicked mission. However, each time he attempted to curse the Jewish people, the curses became blessings. After the third attempt, he himself admitted that the Jewish people were worthy of blessing and that he admired them.
Rashi explains that from the content of Bilam’s blessings we can learn what his intended curses were. A deeper understanding of Rashi is that HaShem brought forth the underlying good behind each of the curses. Everything in the world is ultimately good, in that it leads to the ultimate perfection of the world. However, that goodness can be concealed and only HaShem can reveal that goodness.
The destruction of the Temple was in order that the rebuilt temple should be of a higher stature. This is alluded to by the number seventeen, the date of the fast, which has the numerical value of Tov (good).
The three week period is an immensely powerful time, which we must change from exile to redemption through increasing in Torah study and good deeds. The transforming of evil to good which we read in the portion of Balak gives us strength and direction in this mission.
What is quite remarkable is that one of Bilam’s utterances is included in our Shabbat services.
Num 24:1-5 1 Now when Balaam saw that it pleased the LORD to bless Israel, he did not resort to sorcery as at other times, but turned his face toward the desert. 2 When Balaam looked out and saw Israel encamped tribe by tribe, the Spirit of God came upon him 3 and he uttered his oracle: "The oracle of Balaam son of Beor, the oracle of one whose eye sees clearly, 4 the oracle of one who hears the words of God, who sees a vision from the Almighty, who falls prostrate, and whose eyes are opened: 5 "How beautiful are your tents , O Jacob, your dwelling places , O Israel!
Verse 5 reads: Ma tovu ohalekha Ya'akov, mishk'notekha Yisra'el. "How beautiful are your tents , O Jacob, your dwelling places , O Israel!
The prayer begins with Numbers 24:5, where Balaam, sent to curse the Israelites, is instead overcome with awe at God and the Israelites' houses of worship. Its first line of praise is a quote of Balaam's blessing and is thus the only prayer commonly used in Jewish services that was written by a non-Jew. The remainder of the text is derived from passages in Psalms relating to entering the house of worship and preparation for further prayer (Psalms 5:8; 26:8; 95:6; and 69:14). In this vein is the prayer recited by Jews upon entering the synagogue.
And then, this pagan sorcerer concludes his oracle by quoting Genesis 12:3: Num 24:9 9 "May those who bless you be blessed and those who curse you be cursed!"
After delivering his blessings, Bilam prophesized concerning the coming of Moshiach. May we see the fulfillment of this prophesy even in our day, we ask and pray beshem Yeshua!