Every week’s Torah reading has a name. A name can be just an important word from the first sentence, like “B’reyshis” – In the Beginning – or the name of the principal character who appears in that reading, like Noah, or Jethro or Korach. This week our reading is named Balak, and tells of a king by that name who saw the dreaded alien Israelites approaching his country, and felt he had to do something about it. Rather than face them on the battlefield, since they already defeated other local rulers who tried to fight them off, Balak decides to go for supernatural help. He hires a well-known sorcerer from Midian named Bilaam (rendered Balaam in the English Bible) to curse Israel. Most of this week’s reading deals with Bilaam’s adventures in the effort to carry out that task. First, he has to warn Balak’s messengers that “only what G-d puts in my mouth can I say.” Then he has to deal with a heavenly threat to block his path, an angel of death that is invisible to him although his donkey sees the sword-wielding angel clearly. In a unique scene, the donkey opens her mouth and speaks to him, distinguishing her passenger Bilaam as the only man in the Torah who had his life saved by a talking donkey.
Eventually he reaches Balak’s camp, and offers sacrifices before speaking his message. Three times, in three different places, he views the Israelite camp from mountain lookouts, then goes into his trance and comes out with not a curse but a blessing. Totally frustrated, Balak gives Bilaam one more chance, and this is when he comes out with the classic line “Mah tovu ohalekha Yaakov” – “How fair are your tents, Jacob!” – the same words Jews say to this day on entering a synagogue. Finally Balak gives up and goes home without paying Bilaam any reward.
This story certainly treats Bilaam, not Balak, as the central character. So why is this week’s reading called “Sedrah Balak?” Shouldn’t it be “Sedrah Bilaam?” Another challenging attitude is the traditional description of Bilaam as “Bilaam haRasha” – Balaam the wicked. Here he blessed Israel four times, predicting a triumphal future and even providing the classic greeting for a Jewish sanctuary, so how can he be called wicked? And that’s not all. Two weeks from now we will read about Moses’ last battle, conquering Midian, where the Israelites “kill Bilaam with the sword.” Is this the end he deserves?
What happens in between these two stories provides the answer to all of these questions. At the end of this week’s reading, we learn that the people camped near a place called Shittim –(no, it just looks like Shiites) – and the Israelite men took to “whoring around with the girls of Moab.” Their seduction involved orgiastic idol-worship in the cult of Baal Peor, and resulted in an epidemic. Before Aaron’s grandson Pinkhas takes violent action to stop this contact, 24,000 people die. Who organized this mass seduction? Bilaam. If he couldn’t beat them with a hex, he’d try sex.
Intentions outweighed action in his case. He refrained from speaking hatred of Israel. But he could plot ways to take advantage of human weakness to try to destroy them. He has modern disciples. Today’s Bilaams sound off about their regard for the Jewish people, but boycott Israel, divest from companies that do business with Israel, coddle our Muslim enemies as practitioners of a “religion of peace.” Etc.
So why is this reading named for Balak and not Bilaam? Try this. Balak was an enemy but he was honest. Bilaam was a hypocrite. G-d save us from the likes of him.