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Parasha No. 40
Balak: “Balak”

Bamidbar (Numbers) 22, 2 - 25, 9


First level

1. The position of the parasha
2. Curses which becomes blessings Listen to the parasha
3. Summary of the parasha (Ashkenazi chants, ORT link)
4. Two dangers
5. The meaning of the parasha
6. The fundamental optimism of Listen to the parasha Jewish history (Sephardi chants, Alliance link)
7. Historical conclusions
8. Moral conclusions
9. The key to the problem, according to the Shla Listen to the haftara

(Ashkenazi chants, ORT link)

Second level

1. Blessing over ruins

2. Rashi’s proof

3. The Shla’s elaboration

4. The internal process of converting

a curse into a blessing

5. Applications

6. Memorization exercises

7. Discussion on the commentary


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First level

Note: The first level of study, which is based on traditional sources, is sufficient for those people who are not accustomed to in-depth Torah study. It is preferable to absorb a little but well rather than to tackle long texts without being able to understand them.

The curse which becomes a blessing

The role of the parasha

In the preceding parashiot, Israel received the laws and guidelines which characterize it: keddusha - holiness, the land of Israel, the unity of the heavens and the earth. Now the people of Israel march on their way and they immediately encounter the hostility of other nations. The Torah then teaches Israel how to interpret this phenomenon and how to react to it. Indeed, it is a special kind of hostility which they face: it threatens the existence of Israel but the nations already saw that the God of Israel comes to its rescue to deliver it from hostile armies, so they decide to attack Israel with other arms – “by the mouth” as says Rashi in his commentary on verse 4 of the parasha, which he bases on Middrash Tanhuma. The elders of Moab understood that Israel’s strength lay in its message (“ein hoha ella befiv, their sole strength is in their mouth, af anu navo alehem be adam she cho befiv, this is why we shall rise against Israel through the intermediary of a man whose strength is in his mouth.”).

Once this tactic was discovered, theologians, priests, politicians, ideologues and journalists followed suit. The tactic which is described in this parasha has remained the same ever since: couch curses against Israel in elegant terms and employ accepted intellectual and moral authorities to deliver them. It is not uncommon for Jews to join in such campaigns and to go round the world spreading curses with anti-Jews. The aim is leotzi shem ra, to disseminate a bad image of Israel, through pseudo moral truths. See what Maimonides writes in Mishne Torah, Deot 7, 2. The effect is far-reaching: deamur beromi vekatel besuria, one speaks in Rome and one kills in Syria, states Middrash Bereshit Rabba 98, 19.

Since ancient times, every possible accusation and term has been used against Israel in order to deligitimize it and destroy its uniqueness: The Jewish God is a god of wrath, Jews are god killers, arrogant, one must internationalize Jerusalem, dejudaize Jerusalem, democracy, peace, repentance, fanaticism, post-Zionism, Palestine, Jews for Jesus, Old Testament, revisionism, etc. The list is endless and is constantly being added to with grandiose terms. But the goal is always the same: annihilate Israel. There is the conviction that it is only through such attacks that Israel can be vanquished. And each such attack is received with applause and praise by the media and the nations of the world. There are many powerful media today which attack Israel in this way.

Summary of the parasha

A powerful head of state, Balak, sends for Balaam, an acknowledged spiritual leader, and asks him to curse Israel.

Balaam mounts his ass in the morning to join in the persecution of Israel but the ass sees the angel of God who bars his way. Balaam strikes the ass, then the angel of God appears and tells him that his mission displeases God, but he is to go and will only utter the words that God will put in his mouth.

On Balak’s order, Balaam begins to utter his curse but each time sensible words emerge until finally he pronounces an ambiguous phrase which is simultaneously a blessing.

His most famous phrase is:

“Ma-tovu ohelikha Yaakov, mishkenoteikha Yisrael!

How goodly are thy tents Yaakov, thy dwellings O Israel!” (Bamidbar 24, 5).

We shall study Balaam’s ambiguity.

Balaam also pronounces what Israel will do to these cruel nations in the future, then he departs.

Following this external danger through words, another danger surfaces from within in the temptation towards debauchery: Israel is attacked by the daughters of Moab who use their charm to persuade the sons of Israel to worship their idols. By executing one of the couples, Pinhas halted the mass desertion which had already affected 24,000 leaders.

The meaning of the parasha

The parasha does not contain any mitzvot, but it gives us important clues to understanding the persecutions of Israel, the dispersion of the people, the relationship between Israel and other nations, and most particularly the process of transforming evil into good.

A fundamentally optimistic outlook emerges

Historical conclusions

The following facts are obvious to everyone:

1. No other people, since time immemorial, have been so envied and so adulated in order to de-possess it (of its land, or its Torah), and who are persecuted by those who have failed to vanquish it.

2. There have always been a large number of intellectuals, priests and informers who have joined this political game of attacking Israel in the name of false ideologies and ideals, especially when Israel is most vulnerable.

3. It is an undeniable fact that when Israel strays from the Torah, a period of catastrophe and terrible persecution follows: this dire warning is constantly repeated in the Torah and is reflected in an awesome chronicle of tragedies.

4. It is a fact that, in order to de-possess Israel and take it over, other nations and religions used these tragedies in order to prove that Israel had been abandoned and supplanted (thus the term the “Old Testament”).

5. In the face of all this, it is the Jewish and divine view of the Torah which the parasha presents.

Moral conclusions

The most terrible trials which Israel confronts are always linked by our Sages to a failing in the people’s devotion to Hashem and are seen as an instrument which will allow the return of the people to it source.

The key, according to the Shla

The Shla notes that the story of Balaam teaches us something even deeper. The story cannot simply be reduced to a story exemplifying the moral: the persecution of Israel will be followed by a period of divine benediction. It is such a story but moreso: for here persecution itself turns into benediction. Balaam wanted to curse and destroy Israel with the skills that had made him the greatest prophet of his generation, but his very curse turned into a blessing.

In the same way, we have witnessed in our own generation dramatic historical turnarounds when Israel succeeded not only in overcoming great threats and all-out wars, but it also succeeded in regained its historical territories.

The parasha raises many important themes

- the perennial recurrence, throughout history, of identical forms of persecution against the Jews;

- the recurrence of periods when Jews strayed from the Torah and the recurrent periods of persecution or vulnerability which ensued;

- the fact that many Jews are unable to draw lessons from this and continue to deny that divine protection is possible.

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Second Level: blessing over ruins

based on the Shla’s commentary

What does the parasha wish to teach us (for it does not simply chronicle history, nor is it simply a philosophical treatise on history)?

The Shla gives us the answer:

- The problem set before us is not only that the nations are finally obliged to praise Israel, nor that they wish to curse Israel. Though this is true.

- The key lies herein: when Balaam speaks of the “tents” (ohaleikha), he is referring the periods when Israel is on its land, when he speaks of “dwellings” (mishkenoteika) he is referring to the periods when Israel is dispersed and when the land of Israel and its Temple are in ruins. Balaam takes pleasure in this thought but God forces him to affirm that, even in a period of darkness, he sees the beauty of Israel, of its message, faith and future.

1. It is precisely this part of Balaam’s message, imposed on him by God, which Christianity tried to annul and falsify by teaching that the temporary ruin of Israel was proof that its beauty and divine election had also been destroyed and replaced by the “New Testament.” This is an even worse sin than that of Balaam, for it negates the explicit teaching of God in the Torah.

2. This doctrinal slur against the Jews, disseminated for over 20 centuries, has so impregnated people’s minds that few (Jews and non-Jews alike) today are aware of the message of “praise over ruins” which God imposed on Balaam. This should enlighten us on the extent to which Jews have been assimilated. Those who were not murdered physically have often been the victims of cultural annihilation.

3. Even today, when it would be indecent after the Holocaust to affirm the end of the divine election of Israel and respectable dialogues between the religions are being sought, there are still missionary activities in Israel aimed at vulnerable social groups and the Churches are aligned with the enemies of Israel not to fight against the “Old Testament” but against the heart of Judaism, against the “Judaization of Jerusalem” which stands for the people of Israel and the Torah of Israel. (see the 11 page report on the Congress of Churches in Beirut in the official organ “La documentation catholique” no. 2143, 4 August, 1996: this is an important document for all those who wish to understand the true context of Middle Eastern affairs.) There are often tactical changes of themes, becoming ever more sophisticated, but the goal has remained the same over the centuries. Those who live in this place of “tents and dwellings” of Israel are deeply aware of it.

Rashi’s proof

The Shla bases himself directly on Rashi’s commentary (24, 4) in order to affirm God’s divine, victorious interventon:

- Rashi demonstrates that the word “dwellings” mishkenoteikha, which refer to destruction, was chosen because the Hebrew allows for the play on words mishkan-mashkan “dwelling-pledge.” He refers to the traditional commentary on the repetition of the word mishkan (Shemot 38,21) at the beginning of parasha Pekudei.

- Rashi adds that the ruins are proof that wrath and suffering have ended and that the future will be joyous. He bases himself on Eikha Rabba’s commentary on Lamentations 4, 11.

The Shla’s elaboration

The Shla helps us understand what Rashi is trying to say:

1. Evil can never truly destroy Israel for Israel belongs to a divine category, as is written in Devarim 14, 1: “Ye are the children of Hashem your God, banim atem laShem Eloheikhem.” This exposes the emptiness of Christian theological thought which tried to deligitimize Israel based on

- the arrival of the “son” of God,

- as though this was a new concept of theirs.

But every Jew is considered a “son of God” and this fact can never be changed either by his sins or God’s anger.

2. Put into context, the punishments or negative consequences (destruction of the Temple, exile) suffered by the Jewish people have a precise goal: the good of Israel, as in parent-child relations.

3. Israel, in the future, will repent and make teshuva.

4. And Israel will return to its original state of absolute purity, which deep down it never really lost.

The internal process of converting a curse into a blessing

The Shla is referring to a long process which will end in a “conversion.” The word “conversion” here does not mean “adhesion to another credo or religion,” but refers to a “change of direction, a reversal,” like a piloting maneuver. Indeed the process of internal transformation is more a “mutation, metamorphosis and transformation” of oneself.

The sin is not “followed” by repentance but transforms itself into something good, something luminous. Balaam does not correct his curse, which was his original intention: instead he maintains his ambiguity, which transforms itself into praise and benediction.

The Shla bases himself on Psalm 30, 2 which describes this problem in detail:

“Aromimekha hashem ki dilitani, ve losimahta oyevai li

I will extol thee Hashem, for thou hast lifted me up and hast not made my foes to rejoice over me.”

The word dilitani does indeed mean “thou hast lifted me up” but the Hebrew word has other meanings which are lost in translation: dilitani means “thou has lifted me up,” “thou hast impoverished me” and “thou has opened me the door.” Thus the Psalm clearly describes what happens when one undergoes suffering, persecution and momentary destruction: destruction is inextricably linked to renewal, just like the rise and fall of a wave, just like our legs make a backward movement before going forward.

Applications

1. This is what Rashi means: horban (ruin, destruction) marks the beginning of reconstruction. This is why our ancestors, who knew this text well, were able to survive for centuries and were full of confidence in the face of continued religious attacks and persecution.

2. Now we can understand what the prophet Zachariah said (8, 19): the dates marking catastrophes, the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av (refer to the calendar and to the commentary on the month of Tammuz) will become dates of great rejoicing when the Temple will be reconstructed.

3. We now also understand that the Jewish people never renounced and will never renounce their land, particularly Jerusalem and the site of the Temple, even when they are temporarily occupied by others. The problem cannot be resolved by political agreements or by politicians who have no knowledge of these dimensions.

- Furthermore, the story of Balak and Balaam demonstrates that politicians who believe they have the means and the power to resolve on their own the fate of Israel will find that they and their actions are in the hands of God.

Those who have lived through the lightning reversals of fortune experienced by Israel in times of war know that this land is protected by a divine hand. The transformation which Rashi analyzed is clearly apparent in the history of Israel: in the space of a few days darkness turned into light, abandonment by the world turned into victory. And we will never forget how each nation reacted during these times when Israel was so vulnerable, who was a friend and who was not, who was a Righteous Among the Nations, who was Balak or Balaam.

4. Our Sages tell us that it is for this reason that the 9th of Av and Pesah always fall on the same day of the week. For the same reason, the prophet Micah says kimei tzetekha meeretz mitzrayim, as in the days of the coming out of Egypt (7, 15).

5. a) Even before the times of great catastrophe, our Sages knew that the forces of Israel could be vanquished by other nations but that this would only be a temporary phase, for Israel would succeed in extirpating herself from their clutch and re-build herself. Those who know this characteristic of Jewish history (based on ancient teachings, original texts and historical proof) will understand the intangible nature of Israel and its leaders.

b) They will also realize that leaders who do not know their own culture and the ancient history described in the Bible, will be willing to conform to the policies and goals of foreign nations. This is an important point which enables us to understand the fluctuating political situation in Israel.

) Another important point should be made: even if a political leader has not studied and learnt about these important elements of his heritage, he carries them within him and he will receive God’s help at the opportune moment, for “he that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep” (Psalm 121, 4).

) It goes without saying that it needs a special man to understand the meaning of history and the enormous complexity of the Jewish tradition. Interpretations must be left to the Sages as a group.

) When the Jewish people, or part of it, return from exile, most have only a vague understanding of the essence of their tradition. Great humility and prudence is therefore required and the first rule is to study the tradition and be humble in respect of the Torah and of Hashem.

6. Balaam was the spiritual leader of the nations aligned against Israel. The Shla notes that this tells us that Israel will always face attacks stemming from the world’s spiritual and moral leadership (today, the United Nations is the main source of criticism and condemnation of Israel and the number of resolutions against Israel is endless, far outnumbering any other country). The fact that this historical phenomenon is described in the Torah is a point of strength for Israel: it shows that the Torah is not something ethereal but is a text which describes in very specific terms facts and phenomena of history.

7. Balaam describes himself as a visionary prophet close to God (24, 4) and his utterances are worshipped (just like many Jews are impressed by the moral arguments which are put forward today urging Israel to abandon its heritage and hurry to abide by them). Our Sages demonstrate (Baba Batra 14 and Zohar on this parasha) that the elegant utterances of Balaam, prophet of the nations, are not so extraordinary. The words of Moshe are far more superior.

8. a) Baba Batra 14 furthermore tells us that Moshe wrote his book as well as that of Balaam and Job. This means that Moshe experienced the awesome struggles described by Balaam and Job.

) This teaches us once again that the Torah is not simply a doctrine; it poses deep questions on human existence and it confronts us at a deep emotional level. The Sages devoted tremendous analytical efforts to applying the Torah to human experience so that they would not be fooled by their own illusions, nor by the illusions which other nations try to exert on us. The entire Talmud is a result of this effort.

) It is not beholden to Jews therefore to read current political commentaries while ignoring the immense treasure of our ancient texts and then to pass quick judgments on the situation in Israel. We expect a minimum of training from doctors, since they are responsible for the lives of others; we should have the same sense of responsibility when it comes to the existence of our people.

9. The Shla shows us how our Sages analysed every word uttered by Balaam and found that every compliment and blessing hid a criticism or threat. This ability to analyze in depth is very important.

10. Our Sages also teach us that we should show the same prudence when we make negative criticisms of others (Sanhedrin 105b).

11. They show (Tractate Taanit 7) how only those who are truly humble can attain the heights promised in the Torah: we can only elevate ourselves by starting at the lowest level and passing through difficulties, just as Avraham lived like dust and Moshe was the most modest of men. This is the opposite approach to that of the spies, to that of Korah, Balak and Balaam.

12. Last but not least, our Sages show that the hostile efforts of nations towards Israel can also be transformed into something positive, for their own good; thus Balak offered 42 sacrifices in order to destroy Israel and yet he came to have among his descendants Ruth (Sanhedrin 105b) who was the ancestor of David and the Messiah.

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Links on the theme of slander against Israel

WE ALSO HAVE A RESPONSE “BY THE MOUTH” TO THESE ATTACKS AGAINST ISRAEL ‘BY THE MOUTH” -- THIS IS PRAYER.

REFER TOTHE PAGE: “How to pray for Israel

Slander and the response to slander: refer to the section “shaping good traits” in the Table on “Phases of life.”

Refer here to the language of love for Jerusalem

Refer here to the Israeli site on what the Israeli press writes about Israel (objectivity, morality and antisemitism in the press).

Refer also to the official site of the present Israeli government (Prime Minister Barak and not his parliamentary opposition) on the language used against Israel by its Arab neighbors

Refer here to the Israeli site on the activities of Christian missionaries, particularly among economically deprived groups in Israel.

3 memorization exercises on the teachings of the parasha:

Bamidbar 24, 5:
Ma tovu ohaleikha Yaakov, mishkenoteikha Yisrael!
How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob, thy dwellings, O Israel!

Devarim 14, 1:
Banim atem laShem Eloheikhem
Ye are the children of Hashem, your God.

Psalm 30, 2:
Aromimekha hashem ki dilitani, ve losimahta oyvai li
I will extol thee Hashem, for thou hast lifted me up and hast not made my foes to rejoice over me.

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Suggest a discussion group on this commentary to those who are close to you: your spouse, family members, friends or colleagues.

This commentary will help you to reflect together on the history of the Jews, on their persecution, on the Jewish response to pressure from other nations, on the divine character of Jewish history, on punishment, exile, return, etc. The aim should not simply be to express and discuss one’s views: the true aim should be to help each of you to understand your views in respect to what the Torah says.

You can insert your views on the section - forum-discussion and in this way you will contribute to teaching the Torah which is a mitzva.

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- Psychology and Repentance
   (in french)

Part 15
STUDY HEBREW

Part 16
JERUSALEM

- Jerusalem excavations
- Terror and counseling
- Peace and peoples
- Israel and Iran
- Visual study & song on snow
for, through our union with the song of nature, the plan of Creation will be fulfilled

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Poem: to be moon

In french

Avec Modia, vivez
vos vacances en Israël,
Texte et photos

- Par Modia, arrivez au Kotel
- La vie du Kotel
- Prières au Kotel
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- Vacances en Israël sur Modia
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- et ici aussi, autre caméra

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Part 17
ISRAEL AND
THE NATIONS

- Love towards all people
- Light in war
- Before the hanukiah
- Land of Israel
- Jerusalem excavations 2007
  Proof of the lies propagated
  by the media

In french - Hope in Israel



Part 20
PHOTOS
"Encounters with God
in the real"

- You are planning a tour in Israel - Photos
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Gallery photos


Part 21
SONGS

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Dedication

Rav Professor
Yehoshua Rahamim Dufour
(Dipur, in hebrew)

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