Balak (Diaspora): Unreal Realities

Why does the story get so much attention?

Rabbi Avraham Gordimer,

Judaism Torah scroll (illustrative)
Torah scroll (illustrative)
Rabbi Avraham Gordimer

The entire episode of Bilaam and Balak is surreal. The Torah suddenly interrupts its narrative of the trek of Bnei Yisrael (the Children of Israel) toward the Land of Israel amidst a series military challenges and conquests and proceeds to present an elaborate story of the antics and follies of a bizarre sorcerer and a gullible king.

While it is true that Hashem manipulated the situation and frustrated the plans of Bilaam and Balak so as to generate berachah (blessing) for Bnei Yisrael, one wonders why the entire incident of Bilaam and Balak was given so much attention by the Torah. One would think that Bilaam and Balak should best be ignored, like most people trying to stir trouble, and assume that Hashem would have simply disregarded Bilaam’s attempts to arouse His anger toward Bnei Yisrael. Why does the Torah place so much focus and devote an entire parshah to the machinations of Bilaam and Balak? Why does the Torah seem to take these two characters so seriously?

Something major and unusual is clearly going on here.

Although we try to look at matters objectively and often take things with a grain of salt, Bilaam and Balak lived in a wholly different reality – a reality of wizardry and superstition, suspicion and fear. It was a culture in which Bilaam was viewed as a sagacious savior, Moav as nearly indefatigable, and Bnei Yisrael as a distant and obscure oddity and a dangerous nuisance.

When the speech of the great Bilaam was thrice overtaken by Hashem, and Bilaam thereupon was compelled to utter words that affirmed the chosenness and majesty of Bnei Yisrael, Bilaam and Balak were shocked. Their entire reality was shattered and rendered naught. They were shaken out of a cultural mindset that formed their beliefs, values and very identities. Their reality totally dissolved before their eyes.  

This is the core and crucial message of Parshas Balak and the reason that the Torah devotes special focus to the capers of Bilaam and Balak. One’s reality can be not real, and that which appears to be unreal can be the true reality. Hashem controls all and is the ultimate objective reality, and those who recognize this and connect with Hashem are part of that reality, regardless of the beliefs and attitudes of larger society.

It is interesting that the berachot recited by Bilaam are not in the order that one would expect. In fact, they are quite the opposite, even in content. Whereas one would expect the berachot to commence with various good tidings that would befall Bnei Yisrael and to consist of a series of benefits – such as wealth, prosperity, peace and security, similar to the many berachot bestowed upon Bnei Yisrael elsewhere in the Torah - Bilaam begins the body his oration with praise of the Avot and Imahot (Patriarchs and Matriarchs), followed by compliments about the uniqueness and the special spiritual conduct of Bnei Yisrael. Bilaam then addresses Hashem’s exceptional relationship with His People and the People’s dedication to Him. The berachot conclude with the future growth and prowess of Bnei Yisrael. (See Rashi and Targum Yonatan ben Uziel.)

Why were the berachot structured as such? It all seems so counterintuitive.

The answer is that the berachot established Bnei Yisrael as a reality totally different than the reality to which Bilaam and Balak were accustomed. Rather than promise various good tidings, the emphasis of the berachot is the extraordinary existential quality of Bnei Yisrael, heralding a force and an actuality of which Bilaam and Balak were heretofore thoroughly unaware. A new reality was presented to them, disabusing them of their former understanding and entire orientation.

The final aliyah of the parshah features the incident at Ba'al Pe'or and the heroic act of Pinchas, through which he ended the pandemonium, halted the plague and restored Hashem’s relationship with Bnei Yisrael after the massive sins at Ba’al Pe’or. This narrative complements and concludes the theme of “realities”. As discussed in this dvar Torah, Bnei Yisrael had entered a reality of pagan hedonism. They were uncontrollably immersed in it, when suddenly Pinchas' act shocked Bnei Yisrael back into a religious reality and enabled them to reconnect to Hashem.

As glamorous and alluring as the trappings of the materialistically driven world may be, and as overwhelming as the predominant secular culture may feel, the story of Bilaam and Balak tells us that this is not the objective reality. Rather, true reality exists where we find Hashem, unbeknownst to those of alternative realities.

May we study and internalize the lessons of this extremely unusual parshah and be inspired to seek the holy and genuine reality that Bilaam’s berachot wondrously affirmed.