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Balak: The Attempted Takeover

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We often sit through the haftorah wondering, “Why do we read the haftorah anyway?” Krias HaTorah of the parsha makes sense—we read a portion of the Chumash each week so that we finish the entire Torah over the course of the year. But we’re not reading a portion of Navi each week so that we can finish all of it on some kind of schedule.

The purpose of the haftorah is for us to become familiar with insights and themes from the Navi. The goal of this column is to enhance that familiarity.

Let’s play a bit of word association.

I will mention a word and you will relate (to yourself) the first words that come to your mind.

Micha.

Can I guess what you thought of?

Wicked? Idolatrous? Story of Jews’ failure at the time of the Shoftim?

Something like that, right?

Well, all that is true. There was an idolatrous man during the Shoftim era with a famous idol, pesel Micha, that many Jews worshipped. But there was another Micha as well, the Navi Micha in Trei Asar, the Twelve Prophets. This Micha lived at the time of the more famous prophet, Yeshaya, at the time of the first Beis HaMikdash.

We read from the 5th and 6th perakim of Micha for this week’s haftorah and while sometimes the link between parsha and haftorah is not perfectly clear, here Micha mentions the episode of Balak and Bilaam attempting to curse Klal Yisrael and Hashem thwarting their plans. In fact, Micha helps us understand the true gravity of the threat a potential curse from Bilaam posed.

We may be tempted to read Parshas Balak as a quaint, if not comical story of two classic, almost cartoon-like characters trying to accomplish something and things never seem to go their way. But the way Micha describes the event, Klal Yisrael was in great danger and needed Hashem’s special salvation to escape the wrath of Bilaam.

Micha reports what HaKadosh Baruch Hu told him to tell Klal Yisrael as to why they should strengthen their service to Him. What are the “talking points” G-d wants mentioned? The miraculous splitting of the Yam Suf? The manna? Revelation on Har Sinai? The sun stopping in Givon? Nothing of the sort.

“I brought you out of the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of slaves. I sent Moshe before you [to lead you] and Aharon and Miriam with him. My people, please remember the terrible things that King Balak of Moav planned to do. And remember what Bilaam, Beor’s son, answered him. Remember your journey from Shittim to Gilgal. Then you will know [and remember] the righteousness of Hashem.” (Micha 6:4-5)

Apparently, from all the varied events Hashem could have wanted Klal Yisrael to recall the most powerful is the story of Bilaam’s curse.

Why? Aren’t the follies of Balak and Bilaam a harmless and almost entertaining event?

Apparently not.

Though it may not appear this way on the surface, Bilaam had a strong relationship with Hashem. As the midrash writes (paraphrased from Tanna d’bei Eliyahu, Rabbah, Chapter 28): “In one regard, Bilaam’s prophecy had an advantage which Moshe Rabbeinu’s did not. He saw Hashem’s ways more clearly.” In addition, Berachos 7a tells us Bilaam knew how to calculate when Hashem would be “angry” and more susceptible to the midas hadin which could be utilized against Klal Yisrael.

Obviously, the fact that Hashem revealed Himself to Bilaam was not some random act. Think about the following.

The Rambam says (Hilchos Yesodei Torah 7:1): “Prophecy can only be received by one who is extremely wise and learned, has mastered proper character traits, never lets his evil inclination overpower him in any matter in the world, and battles and defeats his evil inclination constantly.”

This must be true for Bilaam as well. Otherwise, he could not have merited prophecy. The Bilaam we know of is post-prophecy. Before Bilaam became a prophet, he was super-righteous, holy, kind, and godly. He would analyze and criticize his own actions and continually work to grow spiritually. However, once granted prophecy, Bilaam was unable to handle it. Prophets are not created in a vacuum; the only reason Moshe became the greatest of all prophets was because the spiritual genetics of the Avos, Imahos, and the entirety of Klal Yisrael produced a Moshe. Lacking a solid spiritual structure, Bilaam was not able to deal properly with prophecy and became corrupt and wicked.

But, he did have a strong relationship with Hashem and his curse meant something in Hashem’s “eyes.” If indeed Bilaam would have been allowed to curse Bnei Yisrael, severe damage would have been inflicted, more damage than in all of the wars Klal Yisrael fought.

We suggest the following insight, based on Chazal brought by Rashi. It appears that Bilaam’s agenda was to replace Klal Yisrael as Hashem’s chosen nation with a new nation that would have Bilaam and perhaps even Balak as “Avos.” This is why in trying to get Hashem to agree to allow him to curse Bnei Yisrael Bilaam builds many altars:

“Avrohom built four altars for You, Hashem; I will build seven! Avrohom only sacrificed one ram, I am sacrificing a ram and bull!” (Rashi 23:4).

Bilaam called Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov upright, yesharim and desired to be one of them when he said “Let my soul die the death of the righteous, tamus nafshi mos yesharim.” (Avoda Zara 25a).

Bilaam’s intent to destroy and replace Klal Yisrael is also evident from: “You want to uproot a nation that has 3 regalim, festivals?” (Rashi 22:28).

This all fits nicely with the many mystical sources which say Bilaam’s soul was a reincarnation of Lavan. Lavan argued and rivaled with Yaakov. He told Yaakov at their final meeting that Yaakov’s children, grandchildren and wives were his, Lavan’s. Lavan wished for Yaakov to remain with him and was very upset that Yaakov ran away. Why? As we say in the Haggadah, “Lavan wished to uproot everything.” Lavan wished to take over Klal Yisrael and uproot Yaakov as an Av. This was Lavan and this was Bilaam.

The “competition” between Bilaam and Avrohom Avinu is seen from Pirkei Avos: “Whoever has three particular traits is counted among the students of Avrohom, and whoever has three other traits is among the students of Bilaam. He who has a good eye, humility and contentedness is a student of Abraham, while he who has an evil eye, arrogance and greed is a student of Bilaam.” (5:22) Why the need to contrast them unless there was some real “rivalry,” at least on Bilaam’s part?

Bilaam had desired to become the patriarch of a new nation and replace Avrohom, the mishna points out the fallacy of such a consideration.

But during while Klal Yisrael was in the desert, it was not totally out of the realm of possibility. After all, Hashem Himself had suggested destroying Klal Yisrael and starting a new nation from Moshe Rabbeinu after the sins of the golden calf and the spies. Bilaam felt that perhaps he could capitalize on Klal Yisrael’s failings and convince Hashem to abandon them. Indeed, as the aforementioned pasuk states, “Remember your journey from Shittim to Gilgal.” Klal Yisrael sinned greatly with the women of Moav at Shittim (Bilaam had advised Balak to tempt the Jews and get them to sin) and Bilaam thought this would be their undoing and possible uprooting as Hashem’s special nation.

So, Hashem says in Micha (message summarized):

“I was so supremely dedicated to you during that time of real decision when Bilaam attempted to get Me to spurn you as My nation. I was committed to our relationship and will always be. Why don’t you show the same commitment to Me? Why do you now abandon Me and My ways?”

As the pasuk (Micha 6:3), “My nation, what have I done to you? How have I made you tired (of serving Me)? Answer Me!”

Hashem says that one would think Klal Yisrael would be ever so devoted to Him but unfortunately that is not the case.

When we read this haftorah, let us remember the potential curse of Bilaam and how Hashem saved us, and rededicate ourselves in some small way to the path of Hashem.

To schedule a speaking engagement with Rabbi Boruch Leff or to receive two books for the price of one, Shabbos in My Soul (Feldheim 2007) and More Shabbos in My Soul (Feldheim, 2008), or to purchase the book ‘Are You Growing?’(Feldheim, 2011) at 40% off, contact the author at: sbleff@gmail.com.

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