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The Torah's Weekly Portions
Numbers / Bamidbar - Balak
June 2008, Contributed by Asher ben Shimon
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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 man.

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 idol).

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!

To explain:
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 whatsoever.

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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