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Beit Midrash Torah Portion and Tanach Balak

The Company You Keep

Rabbi Stewart WeissTamuz 14 5775
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Parshat Balak is one of the most unusual in the Torah; it revolves around a bizarre Jew-hater named Bilam, and is named for another no-goodnik named Balak! Why would we give such eternal prominence to two such scoundrels?

To answer, let’s ask another question (that’s the Jewish way!). The very first time that Hashem appears to Bilam, He asks him, referring to the elders of Moav and Midian in Bilam’s entourage, "Who are these men with you?" Bilam never actually answers G-d’s question, and this puzzles Rashi. So Rashi suggests that this was a rhetorical question posed by Hashem in order to entrap Bilam, who is now led to believe that G-d does not see all (since He presumably didn’t know the identity of the men), thus opening the door for Bilam to think he can curse Israel & get away with it.

Nice idea! But I have another thought.

Bilam was obviously a person with amazing potential, for he was celebrated and sought after, and able to communicate with Hashem. It has even been suggested that he was on a par with Moshe Rabbeinu himself! Had he acted differently, he actually could have been the "Moshe" for the other nations of the world. But it didn’t happen. And you know one reason why? Because Bilam associated with the wrong group of people; with hateful, paranoid, vindictive, anti-Semites. And as the saying goes, "If you lay down with dogs, you get up with fleas."

I also want to suggest that the title of our Sedra, "Balak," may not be named for the king of Moav after all! It may be the initials of 3 Torah characters who all suffered the same fate, because they had this very same tragic flaw.

The "Bet" stands for Bilam, as we just explained. The "Lamed" stands for Lot; the nephew of Avraham. Lot had the right "DNA" and he
traveled together with Avraham, no doubt learning much from him along the way. He, too, could have been great. But alas, he also chose to hang out with the wrong crowd. He cast his "lot" with the people of S’dom, among the most evil men in history, & barely escaped with his life, let alone a legacy.

The "Kuf" stands for Korach. He, too, had all the tools for greatness: Prestigious family, elite rank, wealth, honor. But he formed an alliance with the Moaners & the Malcontents (not a rock group) - including Datan, Aviram, Reuvenites & some disenfranchised first-born - and their
negative spin on life took them down – way, way down!

So Hashem is giving us some very valuable advice, via this rhetorical question he asks Bilam, "Who are these men with you?!" Choose your friends very carefully, for the company you keep may very well play a major part in determining if you turn out to be illustrious, or just a BLK-head.

Rabbi Stewart Weiss
Was ordained at the Hebrew Theological College in Skokie, Illinois, and led congregations in Chicago and Dallas prior to making Aliyah in 1992. He directs the Jewish Outreach Center in Ra'anana, helping to facilitate the spiritual absorption of new olim.
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