Beit Midrash

  • Torah Portion and Tanach
  • Balak
To dedicate this lesson

The Torah study is dedicated in the memory of

Amram son of Sultana

Parashat Balak

The “Good Eye” of Israel

At the very moment that Moses receives the Tablets of the Covenant from the Almighty - a moment which is sure to play a most determining role in the destiny of the Jews - Israel is put to the most difficult of tests, and it results in a great fall.


Rabbi Zalman Baruch Melamed

1. Character Trait Improvement
2. The Preferred Path of Transformation
3. Days of Messiah
4. Israel’s Sin

Character Trait Improvement
King David testifies concerning himself that "my heart was not proud, and my eyes were not haughty" (Psalm 121). Regarding the difference between the "disciples of Balaam," and the "disciples of the Abraham" the Sages have the this to say: "Whoever has the following three traits is to be counted among the disciples of our forefather Abraham; whoever, on the other and, possesses three other traits belongs to the disciples of the wicked Balaam: Those who have a good eye, a humble disposition, and a meek soul are among the disciples of our forefather Abraham; those, however, who possess an evil eye, an arrogant spirit, and a greedy soul are among the disciples of Balaam" (Avot 5:19).

Balaam was a Prophet with extraordinary spiritual powers. Regarding Moses, the Torah states, "there never arose another Prophet like Moses in Israel."
On this verse, the Sages explain that "in Israel there indeed never arose [another Prophet like Moses], but among the nations there arose [another Prophet like Moses]. This was in order that the nations not be permitted to say, ‘If only we had had a prophet like Moses we ourselves would have become faithful servants of the Almighty.’ And which Prophet did they have who was like Moses? Balaam ben Beor."

Balaam, then, possessed impressive spiritual facets, yet when it came to character traits, he was depraved. "They are wise to do evil, but to do good they have no knowledge" (Jeremiah 4:22). When one is morally corrupt, spiritual power is steered into negative channels. Regarding Israel, though, admirable character traits are an integral part of their makeup; they are fixed in the Jewish soul.

A "good eye" implies, an affectionate attitude and a positive approach to everything in creation. A "humble spirit" means just that - humility. Possessing a "meek soul" means resisting passions.
If we examine the words of the Torah we can discern Balaam’s arrogance and strong physical appetite. He says to Balak’s emissaries, "God does not allow me to go with you." - With you, no; with others more important than you, yes. Balaam chases honor. Later, Balaam says, "Even if Balak gave mere his whole palace full of gold and silver, I would not be able to do anything great or small that would violate the word of God my Lord." From here we can see that, personally, Balaam is interested in attaining the gold and silver. The only thing preventing him is God’s command.

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 105a) lists all those people who have no portion the World to Come, among them Balaam. While the Talmud describes the actions of each one who has no portion in the World to Come, it goes on at exceptional length in describing the actions of Balaam. Balaam’s deficiency is ingrained, and it so powerful that it nullifies the entire value of his great powers.
"God then opened the donkey’s mouth" (Numbers 22:28). Here it is being hinted to the great Prophet Balaam, whose principal power lay in his speech, that the power of speech is a gift from God. If God so desires, even this great orator must remain silent, and the donkey, who knows not how to speak, opens its mouth.

The Torah describes to us how the donkey carried Balaam down a wide road with space on both sides. Later, though, the animal is unable turn to the left or the right. No doubt this description hints at some important idea which we should attempt to understand. The Sages explain these things as follows (BeMidbar Rabba 20:14):
"What are these signs? If he were to desire cursing the offspring of Abraham, he would find on one side the children of Ishmael and on the other side the children of Keturah; if he were to desire cursing the children of Isaac he would find on one side the children of Esau and be pushed up against the wall. Among the children of Jacob he found no unworthy individuals to strike at. Therefore it says on the third occasion (Numbers 22:26), ‘[God’s angel...stood] in a narrow place, [where there was no room to turn right or left].’ This refers to Jacob, as the verse says (Genesis 32:7): ‘Jacob was very frightened and distressed...’ for he found no way to turn right or left - i.e., he found no unworthy individuals among Jacob’s children."

Balaam wishes to strike at the very root of the nation of Israel - its forefathers. It is possible for him to strike at the progeny of Abraham for it contains unworthy individuals: Ishmael on the one hand and Keturah’s offspring on the other. It is even possible for him to curse the children of our forefather Isaac, on the side of Esau. Yet when it comes to the offspring Jacob he has no choice but to bless them, for there are no unworthy individuals among them.
Balaam wanted to curse but ended up blessing. Each one of his blessings teaches us something about the special qualities of the Jewish people.

"Jacob is like the dust..." Israel is likened to the dust upon which all tread: The dust symbolizes Israel’s humility - "Compassionate, humble, and benevolent. Abraham even said of himself, "I am mere dust and ashes" (Genesis 18:27).
Rabbi Yehudah Liva, the renowned Maharal of Prague, explains the nature of Israel’s humility. He informs us that it constitutes subservience to the will of the Almighty. It entails a readying of the character traits to receive the divine abundance, like the earth which needs to be prepared in order for it to receive the seed and to cause it to sprout. Israel’s strength is the result of this divine abundance which the Jewish people merit by virtue of their humility.

Elsewhere, the Maharal explains that humility does not mean a nullification or canceling out of the self, but rather a departure from constriction and boundary into boundlessness. Humility is not just a removal of arrogance, a removal of the negative factor; it is a bonding with that which is beyond limitation and constriction. It is a marriage with the eternal. And it follows that he who is unimpeded by restrictions is connected to the Torah, which is also without restriction.
Balaam continues blessing Israel (Numbers 23:21): "God does not look at wrongdoing in Jacob." Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar, the "Or HaChaim HaKadosh," explains that when Israel performs commandments, they do not perform them not wearily, but sprightly and with great desire.
"I see [this nation] from mountain tops, and gaze on it from the heights" (ibid. 9) - these "mountain tops" and "heights" are a reference to the forefathers in whose great path the Children of Israel walk.

The Preferred Path of Transformation
From here we learn the power of reversal, the capacity to transform evil into good. Of all people, it is the curser, Balaam, who is forced to bless. In the preceding Torah portion as well, it is the snake, known for its killing powers, which becomes the life-giving source.

This serves to teach us about the proper method of supplication to God. One who prays need not request that the thing which appears evil in his eyes become null and void and disappear from the face of the earth. Rather, a person should ask that the evil be transformed into good, and, in the end, bring a blessing. This was exactly what happened in the story of Purim. It would have been possible for the Jews to pray that the Almighty prevent Haman from rising to power in the government of Ahasuerus, cancel his decree, and cut down tree that had been prepared for Mordekhai. But the faithful Jews of that generation had to pray that everything be transformed into good, as indeed happened. The decree was not cancelled, but reversed, as the verse states (Ester 9:1), "The tables were turned, such that the Jews had rule over those that hated them." This rule holds true in all cases where there is threat of war - one should pray that from out of the threat of war there sprout great benefit.

Days of Messiah
Finally, Balaam prophesizes regarding the future Messianic era. The wicked Balaam says (Numbers 24:17), "I see it, but not now; I perceive it, but not in the near future." The Jewish people will indeed rise up, but this is a long way off.
With regard to this, the Sages provide an analogy (Yalkut Shimoni):
A king presented his son with a city that was far off. Both a friend and an enemy of the prince went along with him to his city. On the way, his enemy said to him: "It is because your father hates you that he gave you a city so far away." Hearing this, the son became angered at his father. His friend, on the other hand, said to him, "Here, we are about to arrive at the city and they are preparing all sorts of delights for us." The prince immediately forgot his anger.

Balaam knows that the Jewish people will rise up and come to life. "A star shall go forth from Jacob..." (Numbers 24:17). But, because of his hatred for Israel, he attempts to push off this idyllic future. The Jews will overcome their enemies. There are nations which will aid Israel, and they will be blessed (ibid. 21): "When he saw the Kenites, he proclaimed his oracle and said, ‘You live in a fortress...’" But those who attempt to go against Israel will pay the price (ibid. 20): "First among nations is Amalek, but in the end he will be destroyed forever."

The Maharal explains that Amalek is "the first and head of all the nations, and this is the very reason that Amalek opposes and contests Israel... for there is no doubt that all idolaters oppose Israel." Later, the Maharal explains that Amalek is the "Fourth Kingdom," likened to iron, whose one goal is to break, destroy, tear, and separate. He ends, "And there is no need to say any more on this matter... just how much wisdom and understanding the Almighty granted him... but Balaam’s prophecy testifies regarding the redemption of Israel which will no doubt come speedily in our days, Amen."

Israel’s Sin
At the end of our portion we read about Israel’s sin. "And the people began to behave immorally with the Moabite girls (ibid. 25:1). Via prostitution, the Moabite girls manage to draw the children of Israel into worshipping Baal Peor. What does this form of idolatry consist of? In effect, worship of Baal Peor is the most disgusting form of idol worship possible - it calls for excretion before the idol. In essence, this form of idolatry spells an all-out disregard for societal norms, as if to say, "Everything is permissible." This worship was carried out in a location called Freedom Valley ("Pi HaChiroth"), the name of which expresses the drive for complete and unbridled freedom.

The Sages take note of the fact that now, of all times, having escaped Egypt and on the verge of entering the Promised Land, Israel gives in to this sin (BaMidbar Rabba 20:24):
"At that very moment Moses was rendered powerless, the law was hidden from him, and everybody broke out in tears, as the verse states, ‘They were weeping.’ And just why were they weeping? Because they were helpless at that moment.
"To what may this be compared? It may be compared to a princess who after adorning herself beautifully in order to enter the marriage canopy... is discovered defiling herself with another. This renders her father and relatives helpless.

"Similarly Israel, at the end of forty years, camped upon the Jordan in order to enter the land of Israel, as the verse states, ‘There they camped along the Jordan from Beth HaYeshimoth to Avel Shittim in the West Plains of Moab" (Numbers 33:49). It was there that they began to behave immorally, and Moses was rendered helpless, as were the righteous, and ‘they were weeping.’"
This sin is in itself terrible, but it is even worse when one considers its timing. It is this which causes the weakening of the hands of Moses and the righteous, and brings them to tears. The Sages also point to the fact that throughout their stay in Egypt the Israelites did not sin (ibid. 22):
"Israel was redeemed from Egypt due to the merit of a number of things... They did not change their names, they did not change their language, and they did not reveal their secrets."

So long as Israel resided in Egypt, they refused to change their names - i.e., they did not change their deep-seated nature; they were not led astray by the foreign culture that surrounded them. They continued to speak Hebrew - i.e., they maintained their national uniqueness. And they did not "reveal the secret." The entire nation of Israel was aware of the fact there was a divine command that each Israelite woman request to borrow the silver and gold vessels of the Egyptian women. All the same this kept completely secret and remained totally unknown to the Egyptians. Had this been made known to the non-Jews, it is very likely that they would have refused to give them the vessels.

Why now, after finally freeing themselves from the yoke of Egypt, do the Israelites sin?
The situation then is reminiscent of the situation today, in our own generation. While in exile, the Jews upheld the Torah and the Mitzvoth. Yet, all of a sudden, upon returning to the Holy Land, the nation began to rebel against the Torah. An extreme faith crisis took hold of the Jewish people - liberalism the likes of which Israel has never known, a throwing off of the Yoke of Torah, and contempt for all that is sacred. And the irony about it is the fact that it is happening now, of all times, after the Jewish people have finally reached their peaceful destination.

Clearly, all of the hardships are really trials and clarifications. To the contrary, the closer one comes to that which is sacred, the more vigorous such clarification must be. Bonding with the Holy Land calls for purification, and here, at this point in time, we are being put to the test even more intensely than when we had been in exile. This principal held true in the case of the Golden Calf as well. At the very moment that Moses receives the Tablets of the Covenant from the Almighty - a moment which is sure to play a most determining role in the destiny of the Jewish people, and from which there is no turning back - Israel is put to the most difficult of tests, and it results in a great fall. At this of all moments Israel is called upon to remove all intrusive foreign elements. This clarificative stage involves a difficult spiritual crisis.

The opposite also exists. From out of the depth of the sin, the penitent is able to attain full and complete repentance. This was the case with Rabbi Elazar ben Dordiya, who was guilty of repeated acts of sexual immorality. It was only after he had gone too far - after having crossed seven seas and seven rivers in order to perform a certain transgression that he finally was driven to repentance. He recognized that he had reached the very lowest spiritual level possible and that one more transgression would render him completely hopeless.
In our generation as well, with the return of Israel to the Holy Land and the process of national bonding with all levels of its sanctity, the nation is called upon to undergo severe spiritual trials. Out of these trials will come a great communion with God, inner recognition to the point of natural identification with the way of the Torah - repentance from love.

Our beloved mentor, Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah HaCohen Kook, was in the habit of explaining the difference between "repentance from love" and "repentance from fear." The Rabbi would say that one who repents out of fear says, "What have I done! If only I had known, I would have behaved differently." As a result, it turns out after the fact that whatever he did, he did accidentally, and therefore his sins are transformed from intentional to unintentional. One, on the other hand, who repents out of love, regrets having wasted his energies on negative goals. He says, "If only I had the power to rectify the past, I would use the forces which the Almighty gave me for positive goals instead of negative." For this reason, his intentional sins are transformed into merits.
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