Balak deals at length with the machinations of the King of Moab and his attempts to get Balaam, the gentile prophet, to curse the Children of Israel.
It contains a sustained piece of humour where Balaam tries to ride his she-ass to curse the people of Israel, only to be thwarted by the animal, which sees an angel with a fiery sword standing in the way.
The Midrash asks, why did the angel not just breathe on Balaam to kill him, as angels don’t need swords? The answer is taken from Genesis, where Isaac says: “The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau”.
Because Balaam wants to use his voice (Jacob’s tool) to curse the Children of Israel, so the angel uses the opposite, the weapon in his hands to oppose him.
The sedra also mentions the “opening” of the donkey’s mouth by God enabling it to speak.
Why make a donkey talk? The Kli Yakar says it taught Balaam a lesson. In his arrogance, he thought his gift of prophesy and ability to bless and curse was special to him. The gift of speech to the donkey is God’s way of saying that if God wills it, even an ass will see angels and make speeches recorded in the Torah!
Instead of cursing, Balaam blesses the Children of Israel, three times. This repeated inversion of his intent is enshrined in our liturgy, which quotes Balaam whenever we enter a synagogue: “How lovely are your tents O Jacob, how fine thy dwelling places O Israel.”
At the end of the portion we see Balak and Balaam abandoning their plot, and the Midianites find an alternative manner of creating havoc with the Jewish people, by enticing them into gross immorality and corrupting their morals.
This is successful, resulting in a plague only stopped by the extreme measures of Pinchas.
Rabbi Zvi Solomons serves the Jewish Community of Berkshire in Reading, JCoB.org
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