People in fields 370.
(photo credit:Courtesy Isabella Freedman Retreat Center.)
‘No black magic can be effective against Jacob, and no occult powers against Israel’ (Numbers 23:23)
Who controls the fortune and destiny of nations? Does the ebb and flow of
history turn nondescript, banal and ordinary individuals into great heroic
personalities, or do those extraordinary heroes create for themselves the
perfect historic opportunities to demonstrate their courage and heroism? Perhaps
it is neither history that creates great leaders nor great leaders who create
history, but rather God, the Ruler of the Universe, who plans and controls the
various moves of His puppet-pawns on the great earthly chess board in order to
provide the end-game which has been His purpose from the beginning of
Or perhaps it is none of the above; perhaps there are certain
soothsayers or magicians who know the secret formulae – or the black magic – to
manipulate God and change reality to conform to their evil designs. Perhaps
history is created by such demonic emissaries from the nether world, forces of
darkness and destruction.
Or perhaps nations rise and fall due to the
efforts of more benign, but no less dangerous marketers for financial profit and
personal political gain, who seize control of public opinion by painting certain
peoples “black” and certain peoples “white,” media moguls who understand that
the bigger the lie, the greater the credibility.
I believe that these are
precisely the issues being dealt with in this week’s supernatural, eerie,
comical, lyrical and prophetic portion of Balak. This portion follows the
Israelite encampment on the plains of Moab and concludes just after the
Israelites begin to behave immorally with the Moabite and Midianite women. Its
narrative style is very different from most of the verses that precede and
follow it; indeed, it could be removed from the Book of Numbers without
affecting the storyline whatsoever.
Balaam enters the scene after the
Israelites have gone through desert rebellions and reorganizations and finally
seem to be succeeding in defeating several of the smaller Canaanite nations and
preparing the next generation to enter the Land of Israel. The unasked question
throughout the portion is who or what will ultimately be responsible for the
success – or lack thereof – of the Israelite nation in history? Balak, the king
of Moab, is in mortal fear of this new “power” on the block, which defeated the
mighty Egyptians and seems to be “licking up everything around them.” As they
inch closer and closer to Moab and Midian, he convinces the elders of Midian to
join him in hiring a voodoo soothsayer, Balaam, to curse and defeat Israel
through his magic powers of the occult. Balaam informs them that he, too, is
under the power of God, and that even he is not able to curse those who are
blessed by God. He cannot even travel with them to observe the Israelites.
However, he declines the job offer in such a way as to let his “clients” know
that he will nevertheless attempt to manipulate God into allowing Israel to be
cursed – and he does succeed in getting God to allow him to accompany the
At this point in the narrative, our sages declare
that “God leads individuals in the path they wish to follow” – so that if the
evil voodoo man has chosen to curse, Israel shall indeed be cursed. But what
follows is both comical and at the same time profound. Balaam saddles his donkey
to travel with the Moabite king, but suddenly his donkey refuses to proceed,
turning aside from the road and into the field. The donkey sees what the voodoo
man has missed: God’s angel will not allow Balaam to come through; God’s angel
is preventing the donkey from advancing with Balaam and Balak! The donkey then
speaks, and, in so doing, demonstrates that speech is a gift from God. If God
wishes a donkey to speak it will speak; and if God wishes Israel to be blessed,
Israel will be blessed. Speech, whether blessings or curses, can only come from
The venal, virulent voodoo man still tries to manipulate God. He and
Balak attempt to bribe God with sacrifices to allow for the cursing of the
Israelites, but to no avail. Instead, Balaam expresses the most magnificent of
blessings: “This is a nation with the ability to dwell alone, which does not
have to be counted amongst other nations... No black magic can be effective
against Israel and no occult powers against Jacob… How goodly are your tents, O
Jacob, your tabernacles, O Israel... A star shall go forth from Jacob, and a
ruling scepter from Israel… Israel shall emerge triumphant… in the end, Amalek
will be destroyed forever.
“With that, Balaam set out and returned home.
Balak also went on his way” (Numbers 24:25). But this is not how the portion
concludes. As Chapter 25 opens, the Israelites behave immorally with Moabite
women, and a prince of the tribe of Simeon publicly fornicates with a Midianite
princess. A horrific plague overtakes the Israelites and Israel seems to be
vanquished until Phinehas and eventually Moses punishes the wrongdoers, thereby
inspiring national repentance.
The message is clear. Israel is to be
blessed – but only if we serve God (and not idols) and act morally and
ethically. Israel’s success or lack of success is not dependent on voodoo men,
black magic operators, even solely on God’s will; it is ultimately dependent on
our own moral actions.
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr
Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.