Chukat - Balak Batmitzvah
Shabbat Shalom. I would like to start by saying Mazal Tov to Dani and his family, and also Chazan Steve and Roz Robbins on their Golden Wedding Anniversary. I would also like to thank Steve for all his help teaching m brother Jack to daven.
When I first found out that this was my Bat Mitzvah parsha, I thought great! - I get the talking donkey – it turns out, however, that there is more to this than just a donkey and it is full of interesting ideas.
As you’ve probably noticed, we read a double parasha this week- Chukkat and Balack. To set the scene we are now 40 years out from the Exodus, with a new generation preparing to enter the land of Israel. Chukkat has two important deaths, those of Miriam and Aaron and the shocking foretelling of a third death, that of Moshe, who is told he too will die in the wilderness.
Miriam’s death brought the ending of the miraculous well which had followed the Jewish people throughout the desert, supplying them with water. However, instead of mourning her death, the Jewish people just complained that there was no water and that they would die. In response to this, Hashem told Moshe to speak to a certain rock and this would supply the water. Instead of speaking to the rock, Moshe hit it, and, even though it supplied water, Moshe was punished as he and Aaron had not followed the precise instructions that Hashem had given them. As a result, when the Jewish people passed Mount Hor, Aaron died and was buried there aged 123. Moshe had already been told that he was going to die outside the land of Israel – a seemingly harsh punishment for a small error of hitting rather than talking to a rock – especially given he was mourning for his sister at the time.
This leads me to the second parshah -Balak. Although the parsha is named after Balak, in many ways one can consider the main character to be Billam. So, who was Billam? Billam was a non-Jewish Prophet who was said to be able to curse and bless people. Some midrashim say that he was one of Pharaoh’s advisers who said “let us deal cleverly with this nation” referring to the Jewish people in Egypt growing in numbers, therefore starting the descent into slavery. In fact, the Gemerah tells us that it was Billam who suggested drowning the male Hebrew babies. So why was there a non-Jewish prophet? The reason, according to Rashi, was so that the other nations could not say that they had only sinned because they didn’t have a Prophet to warn them.
Billam was not just a magician or sorcerer but a genuine Prophet who heard the voice of G-D. Indeed, a midrash on the famous verse at the very end of the torah “never again has there arisen in Israel a Prophet like Moses” states that the phrase “in Israel” was necessary because amongst the other nations Billam was the greatest Prophet. He was clearly a major, well-known figure, who had already had a significant impact on Am Yisrael in Egypt – it seems likely to me that he would have been well known to them, and surely the generation that had suffered under his influence in Mitzrayim would have told their children about Billam, who, unlike Pharaoh, still lived – and therefore unwelcome reminder of their past.
The parsha tells us that the Elders of Midian and the Elders of Moab went to find Billam to ask him to curse the Jewish people, as they were worried that they were about to be beaten in battle. Now before I carry on, I would like to highlight the point of how Moab and Midian had been enemies, apart from when they needed to oppose the Jewish people – only coming together then, united by their hatred of Bnei Yisrael. The elders of Moab and Midian went together to Billam and gave him Ballack’s message. Billam tells them to spend the night whilst he consults with Hashem. Hashem tells Billam, that he should refuse to go with the messengers of Ballack. But this was not the end of the matter. Ballack sent greater and greater messengers to try and tempt Billam to come, offering ever greater rewards. In the face of this, Hashem then appears to change his mind, telling Billam, that if he wishes to go he may, but making clear he can only do what Hashem tells him to saying - “ But the words that I shall speak to you, that is what you shall do.”
The next morning, he goes with the Princes of Moab. This is where we meet the famous donkey. G-d sends an angel who was holding a sword to block the way. Billam is unable to see this angel, but the lowly Donkey can. Billam ultimately suffers the humiliation, in front of Balak’s officers, of his donkey talking to the angel – almost as a friend! This makes the point that a great prophet like Billam could not see an angel that even his donkey could see. Perhaps his ambitions and greed got the better of him and blocked his vision. There are still echoes of the story in the modern day as people in power often cannot, or choose not to see what is right in front of them - perhaps like prime ministers not being able to see a party!
Despite this message of warning, Billam carries on with the Princes of Moab to curse the Jewish people. Billam meets Balack and attempts three times to curse the Jewish people. On each occasion, he comes out with a blessing from G-d instead, despite himself, the final one being Ma Tovu, that we still now say when we enter the synagogue each day.
Finally, Balack sees that Billam is not going to be able to curse the Jewish people, and so gives up. Billam still leaves, as far as we can tell, with the wealth he was promised.
This led me to two questions. The first has been raised by many commentators – why is this story even in the Torah? It is one of the few parts of the text that deals with our enemies rather than the story of our people. Several answers have been given, but I am drawn back to this idea that Billam had such influence in Mitrayim. Is this why his humiliation is included – seeing Billam humiliated by his Donkey and powerless to do anything other than bless Am Yisrael must have seemed like final closure for the suffering of their parents in Egypt before the Exodus 40 years earlier.
The second thing that struck me was the comparison between the way Moshe and Billam are handled. Not only were they the two greatest Prophets of their time, but I saw other similarities. Both argued with G-d over their missions. However, Moshe, in Parashat Shemot, argued with G-d from a sense of humility, not feeling himself worthy of his missions. In contrast Billam keeps trying to take on his mission to curse Benei Yisrael despite multiple occasions when G-d warns him off.
What is striking though, is that Moshe, who appeared to do a minor sin of striking the rock was punished by not being allowed to enter the holy land. However, Billam, who appears to try and defy G-d at every point gets away with no punishment and receives the wealth he was promised. So how can this be?
This also raises the question as to why Moshe and Aharon were punished so severely for their seemingly minor mistake of hitting, not talking to a rock, even though on multiple occasions the Jewish people had also made many mistakes. The midrash says that the closer you were to Hashem than the less room there was for you to make mistakes. I interpreted this as Hashem’s way of demonstrating to the Jewish people that despite being great, tzadikim are still held to account. I also think that if you were close to Hashem he had higher expectations of you, as a role model to the people you were leading, and you had to show them the correct ways.
However, when reading through different sources, I found two interesting points. The first was that Hashem never wanted Moshe to go into the land of Israel with the new generation and so it was always part of his plan for Moshe to die in the Wilderness with the rest of the generation that left Mitzrayim.
The second explanation, given in the Midrash Rabba on Devarim, is that Moshe was in fact being punished, but not for the sin of hitting the rock, but actually for an earlier mistake when he met Yitro’s daughters after fleeing Egypt, and did not correct them when they referred to him as an Egyptian. So it was his failure to define himself as an Israelite that meant despite his greatness, he did not merit entering the land.
This changes our perspective of Moshes punishment and makes it seem like it was not harsh but just fulfilling G-ds plans.
This now brings me on to Billam, does he get away with no punishment? Well according to the book of Yehoshua, Billam was “killed by the sword” along with the other leaders still in the land when the Jewish people were conquering it – so perhaps he got what he deserved after all?
So, in conclusion, we can see that Moshe was not so harshly punished and Billam did receive the punishment he deserved, so it seems as though everything is in its place.
I would like to take the opportunity to thank firstly Rabbi Roselaar, who taught me in the text track at Wolfson Hillel, inspiring me to engage with Jewish text based learning, and Rebettzen Laurence who has taught me in preparation for my Bat Mitzvah, allowing me to extend my Jewish learning , especially the mitzvot of being a Jewish woman, and has supported me to find answers to my questions, including those in this Dvar Torah.
Thank you for listening and shabbat shalom.