(Numbers) 22, 2 - 25, 9
1. The position of the
2. Curses which becomes blessings Listen
to the parasha
3. Summary of the parasha (Ashkenazi chants,
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
1. Blessing over ruins
2. Rashis proof
3. The Shlas elaboration
4. The internal process
a curse into a blessing
6. Memorization exercises
7. Discussion on the commentary
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
The curse which becomes a blessing
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 Israels 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.
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 Balaks 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,
How goodly are thy tents Yaakov,
thy dwellings O Israel! (Bamidbar 24, 5).
We shall study Balaams 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.
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.
optimistic outlook emerges
The following facts are obvious
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
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.
The most terrible trials which
Israel confronts are always linked by our Sages
to a failing in the peoples 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.
raises many important themes
- the perennial recurrence, throughout
history, of identical forms of persecution against
- the recurrence of periods when
Jews strayed from the Torah and the recurrent
periods of persecution or vulnerability which
- the fact that many Jews are unable
to draw lessons from this and continue to deny
that divine protection is possible.
Level: blessing over ruins
based on the Shlas 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 Balaams 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 peoples 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.
The Shla bases himself directly
on Rashis commentary (24, 4) in order to
affirm Gods 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 Rabbas commentary on Lamentations
The Shlas 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
- as though this was a new concept
But every Jew is considered a son
of God and this fact can never be changed
either by his sins or Gods 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
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.
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
- 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 Gods 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 worlds 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.
on the theme of slander against Israel
WE ALSO HAVE
A RESPONSE BY THE MOUTH TO THESE ATTACKS
AGAINST ISRAEL BY THE MOUTH -- THIS
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.
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).
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.
exercises on the teachings of the parasha:
Ma tovu ohaleikha Yaakov, mishkenoteikha Yisrael!
How goodly are
thy tents, O Jacob, thy dwellings, O Israel!
Banim atem laShem Eloheikhem
Ye are the children
of Hashem, your God.
Psalm 30, 2:
Aromimekha hashem ki dilitani, ve losimahta
I will extol thee
Hashem, for thou hast lifted me up and hast not
made my foes to rejoice over me.
a discussion group on this commentary to those
who are close to you: your spouse, family members,
friends or colleagues.
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 ones 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.