Parashat Balak

Saturday 8 July 2017 Tamuz 14 5777

Numbers 22:2-25:9; Micah 5:6-6:8; Hebrews 10:5-9, 31-39

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