This week's dvar torah: Parashat Balak - daily victories

The Western Wall rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz talks about the meaning of victories in our daily life that take place here and now in the heart of every person.

‘BALAAM AND the Angel,’ Gustav Jaeger, 1836. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
‘BALAAM AND the Angel,’ Gustav Jaeger, 1836.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The story we read about in this week’s Torah portion is unusual in the context of the Bible. It deals with an idolatrous magician – Balaam – and his (obviously unsuccessful) attempts to bring tragedy upon the Jewish nation. Before we examine the significance of his words, let us first turn to the story itself.
The Jewish nation was about to complete the journey from Egypt to the Land of Israel. As they neared the southeastern border of Israel, where Moab was, the Moabites became concerned. They were afraid the Jewish nation would conquer its land. Knowing that a military confrontation was not the sure way to deal with the Israelites in light of their victory over Amalek, they tried a different idea: a confrontation between two higher, supernatural powers.
Actually, the Jewish nation was not the least bit interested in the Land of Moab. On the contrary. Moses was commanded, “Do not distress the Moabites, and do not provoke them to war, for I will not give you any of their land [as] an inheritance” (Deuteronomy 2:9). But the Moabites weren’t aware of this. Or they didn’t believe it. So they turned to the most famous magician in the ancient world, Balaam the son of Beor. He was known, at least in the imaginations of the nations of the ancient east, as having the power to create miracles through speech – blessings or curses. The Moabites considered his words to be very significant.
After a short argument, Balaam left for Moab, but only after God revealed Himself to him (!) and explained to him that in this case he had no chance of succeeding. He could plan to say whatever he wished, but his mouth would not be under his own control. “If these men have come to call for you, arise and go with them, but the word I speak to you – that you shall do” (Numbers 22:20). Balaam sets out, and after some drama that is a story unto itself, as he faces both a donkey and an angel, he reaches Moab and goes together with Balak, king of Moab, to see the Jewish nation’s huge encampment and to curse them.
He tried over and over again, but he kept uttering blessings instead of curses. These blessings were very interesting ones since, as we said, it was not Balaam who initiated them but rather it was God who placed these words in this mouth. Let us examine one sentence from among these blessings: “Behold, a people that rises like a lioness and raises itself like a lion.” (Numbers 23:24)
Most commentators explain this blessing as referring to the Jewish nation’s near future. They were a nation about to enter Canaan where there were nations and kingdoms that would not receive them graciously. They were about to face a hard battle and Balaam prophesied – against his will – that the Jewish nation would rise up like a lion and be victorious and conquer the land of its enemies.
But the famous commentator Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, France, 11th century), saw this blessing as a hint of a different struggle. He said as follows:
“When they awaken from their sleep in the morning, they show the vigor of a lioness and a lion in grasping mitzvot, to don a tallit, recite the Shema and put on tefillin.”
Rashi teaches us that the victory Balaam is referring to is not a one-time occurrence and is not a historical story about the distant past. It is a daily victory that takes place here and now in the heart of every person. It is a victory that always follows a struggle, be it large or small, between laziness and procrastination and a sense of obligation and loyalty to fulfilling commandments; between our natural tendencies and an ideological worldview.
Note that Rashi does not refer to commandments that a person rarely performs in his lifetime, but rather to those fulfilled every day – wearing a tallit, reciting the Shema prayer, and putting on tefillin. A person starts fresh every single day and has to choose – How will this day unfold? What will guide me? What will control me – my impulses or my values?
These are choices we have to actively make every single day: to follow our desires or our faith. This is the struggle, and the words God put into Balaam’s mouth guarantee our victory. The Jewish nation has proven that this prophecy was fulfilled. For thousands of years, we have preserved our identity, our loyalty to Torah values, and to the commandments. We, links in this amazing chain of generations, join this small but significant victory and choose each morning anew to be people who live by their values and Jews who abide by their faith.
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.