Bamidbar - Balak
June 2008, Contributed by Asher ben
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This week we read the Torah portion of Balak. To most people hearing
that name is not a reason to frown. For people living in his days however it may have seemed a little
strange to hear that an entire section of our holy Torah is named after this
Who was Balak?
Balak was the king of Moav. The midrash tells us that his hatred
towards the Jewish people was greater than that of any anti-Semite.
He looked for a way to destroy the entire Jewish nation. He teamed up
with his former enemy, Midyan, and together they approached Bilam
the prophet who was familiar with all the impure forces that can affect
nature. As we can read in the parsha, his evil plan did not succeed.
Instead of Bilam cursing the Jewish people, Hashem made him bless
them. It is interesting to note that the only time it clearly states
in the Torah that Moshiach will come, is in Bilam's prophecy.
If we were to look for a Balak in our time, we would probably choose
Hitler as a canditate. Imagine hearing your rabbi anounce
that the weekly Torah portion is named Hitler! That would be
inconceivable; yet the Torah has a parsha named Balak!
The same question was asked in connection with Korach. There are
however big differences between the two cases. First of all Korach
was a Jew. On top of that he was a Levi with a very high position.
We explained once that his DESIRE to be as holy as the kohen gadol was
in essence a proper thing. That is the lesson we take from hearing
the name Korach. His mistake was that he wanted to be the actual
kohen gadol, which was wrong. The talmud tells us that after he was
swallowed by the earth he did teshuva and he will have a portion in
the world to come. Balak and co. were not Jewish, did never regret
what they did and will not have a portion in the world to come.
In general the name of the parsha is connected with the its main
theme. When we take a closer look at Balak, we see that most of it
discusses Bilam. It tells us how he was approached by messengers of
Balak. Then Hashem made him push them off for a while till he got
permission to join them. Then Bilam's donkey started talking to him
when he was stopped by an angel on the way. Later we read about the
Blessings and prophecies Bilam said. Balak's role in all that is only
that he hired Bilam. It seems to be that it would have been more
appropriate to have named the parsha Bilam. (In which case we would
still be able to ask how it is possible a portion carries the name of
a wicked person.)
We can try to answer our first question based on what it says in the
Talmud, that one is not permitted to make mention of the name of an
idol unless this idol is mentioned in the Torah. Since Balak is
mentioned in the Torah there is no problem with mentioning him.
The problem with this theory however, is that although it might be
PERMITTED to use his name, it is still not appropriate to name a
Torah portion after him.
When the Jewish people left Egypt, Hashem told Moshe to tell them to
go towards the sea and be stationed by Ba'al Tsefon. (name of an
The commentators ask a simple question. Isn't there a law that one
is not allowed to mention the name of an idol? The answer they give is
that this applies only to man. Hashem can do as he pleases.
Later commentaries brought up an interesting point. Why is there a
problem in the first place? Don't we say that the name of an idol
which is mentioned in the Torah may be used? Then why make a
difference between Hashem and man. Everyone should have been allowed
to use this word!
The difference is as follows. The Halacha is that one is not allowed
to tell his friend: "Wait for me next to idol `X'''. (In our times
certain `houses of worship' shouldn't be used to indicate a place).
By doing so he gives it importance. Just mentioning the name of an
idol is not a problem though. This is the law concerning humans.
Hashem can even use the name of an idol to give directions.
From the above we see that using names of negative things is mainly
a problem when we give it importance. This makes our question even
stronger. What can be more lasting than being a name of a section in
the everlasting Torah?
Let's first try to understand why Hashem is different from man when
it comes to mentioning names of idols. We know that Hashem keeps all
the mitzvot he tells us to do. Why is it different in this case?
If our word can give importance to an idol, it would seem that
Hashem's words would give it more importance. Take into consideration that the entire world was created y the word of G-d! (baruch
she'amar-vehaya ha'olam. G-d spoke- and there was a world.)
When Hashem promised Avraham he would give the land of Israel to his
descendants, he said: "I GAVE them the land". When Hashem speaks it
is considered as if it happened already. Why then don't we say that
Hashem mentioning an idol gives it importance? It is the most
importance it can possibly get!
Idol worship is denying G-d's existence. It is known that humans do
not always feel G-d's presence at all times.This may cause them to do
things against His will. Therefore we are not allowed to mention
names of idols in a way that gives them importance. The only way we
can mention them is when, and in the way how, they are brought down
in the Torah. When the Torah talks about idols it is always in a way
that it shows us how they were worthless. The reason why the Jewish
people had to go to ba'al tsefon is because that was the only
Egyptian idol that was still in use. With the ten plagues, starting
with the turning the waters of the Nile river, idol #1 in the
country, into blood, Hashem had shown the Egyptians that their idols
were worthless. After the Jews had shown them that even the sheep -
another idol- could be slaughtered, they were left with Ba'al Tsefon.
That is why Hashem gave them their final blow in front of that idol.
There are other cases in the Torah where idols are mentioned in a
way that it teaches us to stay away from them. There are several stories
of the Jewish people serving idols (golden calf etc.) followed by the
consequences they suffered as a result of it.
Hashem on the other hand, obviously will never think that idols have
any importance, so for Him there is no problem talking about them or
even to use them as a landmark.
In general Hashem's word gives things their most importance. The same reasoning can be used the other way round too though. Since Hashem
is mentioning these idols in a NEGATIVE way, they lose all their
importance. That is exactly what happened by Ba'al Tsefon. Because
Hashem spoke about it, the whole world found out that it had no power
Talking about someone/thing doesn't necessarily mean the person
thinks highly of what he is talking about. (For example, an art
museum gives importance to the art displayed there. A holocaust
museum shows the world how evil people have been.)
We have a Mitzvah to erase the name of Amalak, yet at the same time we have a mitzvah to remember every day what they did to us.
That is the reason why the parsha was named after a wicked person.
Every child knows that Bilam was embarrassed in front of all his
people. Instead of cursing, Hashem made him bless the Jewish people
with the biggest blessing possible. Hearing the name Balak brings to
mind how Hashem `wiped the floor' with him.
This answers the first question. But the second question still
remains. Why Balak and not Bilam?
We mentioned in the beginning that Balak was the biggest Jew hater
ever. Although we don't find that he ever had a chance to harm the
Jewish people, our sages tell us that the harted he had was stronger
than anyone else's.
All idols mentioned in the Torah lost their power because they
became part of the Torah. By Balak we find that not only did he lose his
negative power; his power was transformed into positive blessings.
Bilam was only an instrument to use his prophetic capabilities. It
was with the power of Balak's extreme hatred that Bilam was meant to
curse, and it was that same power - transformed to positive energy-
that made Bilam bless the Jewish people. That is the reason why the
parsha is named Balak. It not only destroyed the evil; it transformed
it to good.
It is interesting to note that Moshiach is a descendant of Balak.
(Balak was king of Moav. Ruth was a princess of Moav, direct
descendant of king Balak. Her great-grandson was David from whom
Moshiach is a descendant.) It is because Balak contained in him the
future of the Jewish people that it had to be revealed through him.
It was that same force that will bring us the final redemption that
was hidden in Balak that made Bilam prophesize about it.
When Moshiach comes, "Kings will be our servants".
Balak was a king.
By hearing the name Balak we get a foretaste of the redemption.
May we soon merit to have the complete and final redemption by Moshiach and may it be NOW
Translations in Torah Portions of the week are partially taken from the ArtScroll
Stone Edition Chumash and from
Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch Chumash
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