The first is Balak, king of Moab, a small kingdom east of the Land of the Israel.
The second is Balaam, a complex person with magical powers who believes in God yet does not surrender to Him quickly.
Balak and Balaam
Balak sees that the Jewish nation is approaching Moab and is concerned about what is about to happen. He knows that the Children of Israel left Egypt, an empire that no other group of slaves had ever escaped, and he wonders what the fate of his own country will be when the Jewish nation will wish to cross it or, worse, conquer it.
Balak apparently did not feel he could rely on the military power at his disposal, so he searched for an alternative solution.
He sent emissaries to Balaam, that distant magician known for his power to curse and bless, and pleaded with him to come to his country and curse the Jewish nation. Balak was convinced that such a curse would at the least weaken the Jewish nation’s power and perhaps even lead to its utter defeat.
At first, Balaam refused to come, either because God had not granted His permission or because the promised fee was not sufficient.
Ultimately, both issues were resolved: Balak raised the promised fee, and God granted Balaam permission to go, with the warning that even with great effort, he would not succeed in cursing the Jewish nation. Despite this, Balaam set out on his way.
After some hardships on the way, Balaam reached Moab and began with a series of actions that, in his opinion, would help him overcome God’s warning regarding the failure of the curse. He built altars and sacrificed offerings, performed various magical acts and went to curse the Jewish nation.
As expected, instead of uttering curses, he uttered blessings. He repeated the series of magical ceremonies three times, resulting in repeatedly blessing the Jewish people. On the fourth try, he despaired and blessed it again, this time out of choice.
IT IS interesting that Jewish tradition takes a very negative view of Balaam. He is described as evil, corrupt, and as an adulterer. But Balak is not portrayed as negatively.
Perhaps the reason is that we can understand Balak’s motives as opposed to those of Balaam.
Balak acted out of fear. He was genuinely concerned about the fate of his land and its people. Even if his actions were negative, he was not motivated by corruption or evil.
Balaam, however, was not threatened by the Jewish nation. He lived in Aram, a distant northern kingdom that the Jewish nation was not about to approach. His motivation was greed. For a fair price, he was willing to curse and destroy a nation that had done nothing at all to harm him.
BALAAM’S STORY is further clarified when we read the haftarah of this week’s Torah portion. The haftarah is usually connected to the central theme of the parasha, and such is the case here as well.
The section we read in this week’s haftarah comes from the Book of Micah, a prophet who lived in the 8th century BCE. Micah admonished the Jewish nation while surveying historic events in which God defended the Jewish nation, among them the story of Balaam’s curses and blessings:
“O My people, what have I done, and how have I wearied you? Testify against Me. For I brought you up out of the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of slavery.... My people, remember now what Balak king of Moab planned, and what Balaam the son of Beor answered him.”
“O My people, what have I done, and how have I wearied you? Testify against Me. For I brought you up out of the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of slavery.... My people, remember now what Balak king of Moab planned, and what Balaam the son of Beor answered him.”The Book of Micah
Micah goes on to explain God’s desired reaction to the acts of kindness He did for the Jewish nation:
“With what shall I come before the Lord, bow before the Most High God? Shall I come before Him with burnt offerings, with yearling calves? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with myriad streams of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
“He has told you, O man, what is good, and what the Lord demands of you: but to do justice, to love loving-kindness, and to walk discreetly with your God” (Micah 6:3-8).
Micah asks a rhetorical question: How is it suitable to thank God for His acts of loving-kindness – through many sacrifices or, God forbid, through human sacrifices, as was customary in the ancient world? And he answers – no! God does not desire sacrifices, but, rather, moral behavior – to do justice, love loving-kindness, and walk with humility before God.
Micah was obviously not opposed to the sacrifices the Torah commanded. But he wanted to shift the focus to the essential things. Sacrifices are appropriate only when the person behaves in accordance with Jewish moral values.
Micah thus insinuates to the Jewish nation: Do not adopt Balaam’s method of “bribing” God by offering sacrifices. The God of Israel does not take bribery of any kind. He is interested in proper human beings who have morals and values. Do not be like Balaam, who believed in a God devoid of values. Believe only in a God who demands we behave morally! ■
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.