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Dvar Torah delivered by Lenore Levin, Shabbat, 10th Tamuz 5776, 16th July 2016
Balaam – Prophet or Sorcerer
This week we read parsha BaIak. It is one of my very favorite stories in the Torah. It is fascinating and at times funny, but it raises many interesting questions and suggests many significant issues we seldom think about. For example, Balak, king of Moab asked Balaam to curse the Israelites and Balaam responded: I can only do what God wants me to do. Although, in that time people believed in many gods, here Balaam is clearly referring to the God of the Israelites, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Nowadays, most people assume that in biblical times only the Israelites worshipped the one Almighty God. What evidence do we have to the contrary? Are there any records or other information that even in biblical times one or more non-Israelite communities or individuals existed who worshiped the God of the Israelites? Are there any historical records from our tradition that even suggest God had also communicated with non-Israelite believers, or are there records of people who may have learned about our concept of God, or even about some of our traditions, from an Israelite traveler or other contacts with an Israelite community?
There actually is an old tradition that a community of people existed who, from the time of Noah, believed in the God of Israel and followed the seven commandments which God gave to Noah after the great flood. These seven commandments are identical to seven of the most basic and important of our ten commandments. From this Parsha it is possible to believe that Baalam may have followed this tradition, since he was able to communicate directly with God like our prophets.
When this parsha begins, the Israelites are traveling toward the promised land. At that time the King’s highway was the only possible way anyone could travel north and south to anywhere in that part of the world. This road stretched for many miles, passing through the lands of many tribes who feared strangers. They all refused to let the Israelites pass through their territory under any conditions. Israel had no other way to reach the Promised Land. Since this was the only road that existed in at that time, their only option was to conquer each and every one of the tribes that controlled a section of the route. With God’s help their conquests were very successful.
After the Israelites had conquered the powerful Amorites and several other powerful tribes, they began moving down the road, getting closer and closer to Moab every day. Word of their powerful army, their great numbers, their victories and their successful conquests spread. The Moabites heard of their great success in conquering neighboring tribes and became terrified that Israel would soon conquer them.
Balak, king of Moab had military knowledge and experience. He saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites and saw that the Israelites were exceedingly numerous. He also found out that in their last successful battle, they had been victorious without having had a viable plan of action. This was extraordinary and he was very frightened. Balak sent messengers to Balaam, the famous sorcerer, requesting Balaam’s help to “please come and curse them because they are too powerful for me. It is known that whoever you bless is blessed and whoever you curse is cursed.” The messengers came to Balaam and spoke to him. He said: “Stay with me this night and I will give you an answer in the morning”. What follows is very strange.
The Torah was given to us as a guide to help us live better lives. On the surface it speaks of a rich and powerful king, a sorcerer who clams to speak to God and a donkey that talks back to her master. This seems too strange and childish to teach us much of importance. However, if you look at this wonderful story symbolically, then it makes sense for every generation. It warns us of the real dangers in life, like war and greed. We must protect the innocent, like the faithful donkey who is beaten for going off the road in order to save her master’s life.
The Torah is both a source from which we learn what God wants from us and know what is right and what is wrong, and to help us do what is right. God wants us to be faithful to Him and do what is right.
When the Israelites first came to Moab they had been in the desert for many years, and in their isolation they were faithful to God. However, after they won the war against Moab, the Moabites wanted revenge. The Moabites understood what the God of the Israelites wanted. They had learned that Israel’s God would punish them if they were not completely faithful to their God. The worst punishments would come if they worshiped other gods. The Moabites had a plan to get even. They had all the attractive young ladies flirt with them and promise them great sexual rewards. All had to do was enjoy a nice ceremonial dinner with them, which involved sacrificing animals and praying to their gods. At the end of this Parsha we read about the horrible punishment for this ultimate religious sin of betraying God. Battles between fellow Israelites followed. Thousands of Israelites died.