Some thoughts and resources for exploring the Torah portion, Balak (rarely spelled differently, sometimes: Balaq), Numbers 22:2-25:9. This is part of a series of weekly “gathering sources” posts, collecting previous material on the weekly Torah portion, most originally part of a 2010 series called “Opening the Book.”
Balak is next read in most of the Diaspora the week of Shabbat July 20, beginning with mincha July 13.
My original plan, when I was assigned Parashat Pinchas (Numbers 25:10-30:1) to offer a dvar Torah, was to skip over Pinchas and his spear and the matter of God and human vengeance. But that’s not how things worked out. I was drawn in to the Pinchas story first by a brief commentary:
And Israel attached itself unto the Baal of Peor [Numbers 25:3]. R. Eleazar ben Shammua said: Just as it is impossible for a wooden nail to be wrenched from a door without loss of some wood, so it was impossible for Israel to be wrenched from Peor without loss of some souls.
– from The Book of Legends (Bialik & Ravnitsky, 628:175)
— based on Babylonian Talmud Eiruvin 19a
Perspective — who can see what? who is MEANT to see what? and what might it all mean, anyway? — is a key element in parashat Balak. No one (except God, who is not sharing everything) has the “whole view.” And we are reminded of this even in the words which have become part of our morning prayers.
[I realize that this note is arriving in the week of parashat Pinchas, BTW. Sorry. These remarks on the prayers will, I hope, be relevant at most any time.]
“How goodly [fair, wonderful] are your tents, O Jacob,” the seer Balaam pronounces (Numbers/Bamidbar 24:5), making clear that he can see the entirety of the camp…during this attempt to curse the Israelites; during the previous attempt he could see only a “sliver” (Bamidbar/Numbers 23:13-24) The Israelites, in their own tents in the valley below, have no such vantage point.
In a similar vein, Lawrence Kushner and Nehemia Polen note that in many synagogues, “Mah Tovu” — Numbers/Bamidbar 24:5, followed by Psalms 5:8, 26:8, and 69:14 — is recited while participants are gathering and donning their own prayer shawls. Therefore:
…people rarely have an opportunity to survey the entire scene. To someone watching is (from above) however, all those Jews would appear to have literally made their own personal tents! “How wonderful are your tents, Jacob!”Continue Reading
The Torah: A Women’s Commentary includes a “Contemporary Reflection” with each weekly portion. Sue Levi Elwell’s essay on Balak offers a challenge “to move beyond the narrow, dichotomous thinking that blinded Balak and Balaam in this portion” (pp.956-957):
Are we ready to open our tents and our hearts to those who wish to dream — and then to build sacred communities that not only tolerate diversity and difference but also celebrate them?
The “Opening the Book” series was originally presented in cooperation with the independent, cross-community Jewish Study Center and with Kol Isha, an open group that for many years pursued spirituality from a woman’s perspective at Temple Micah (Reform). “A Song Every Day” is an independent blog, however, and all views, mistakes, etc. are the author’s.
When Balaam speaks poetry given him by God — 23:7, 23:18, 24:3, 24:15 — the text says he “va-yisa m’shalo.” Alter and JPS (and The Women’s Commentary) say, “took up his theme.” Stone has it, “declaimed his parable.” Fox says, “took up his discourse.” (For references, see Source Materials.) Continue Reading
In the last verses of this portion, beginning with Numbers/Bamidbar 25:1, “the people” [ha-am] and “daughters of Moab” [b’not moav] become involved in a way that is dangerous to Israel: Continue Reading