Parshat Balak by Rabbi Shmuel Knopfler
Fearing an Israelite takeover of Moabite territory should the People
of Israel pass through his realm, King Balak of Moab summons the
prophet Bil'am and asks him to curse the Jewish people. Try as he
might, Bil'am proves unable to do the king’s bidding, and the Parsha
draws to a close with a host of marvelous blessings, perhaps the most
beautiful things ever said about the Jewish People.
Bil'am also plays a crucial role in why this Parsha concludes on such
a dramatically dismal note. “Israel settled in Shittim, and the people
began to commit harlotry with Moabite women”. Nothing in this verse
could prepare us for the depravity that resulted in the terrible
plague that cost the lives of twenty-four thousand Israelites.
The juxtaposition is striking. We have just finished reading about
Bil'am’s wonderful blessings, only to discover that the people
faltered on an epic scale, publicly fornicating with gentile women.
And a short while later, they worship idols of Baal Peor, committing
some of the basest forms of idolatry in the ancient world. How did
The Torah’s description is rather vague: “Bil'am arose, went, and
returned home, and Balak went on his way.” This cryptic account of
Bil'am simply returning home contains no allusion to Bil'am's
influence on the Israelites’ behavior.
Yet a few chapters later, when Moses criticizes the nation for sparing
the women in reprisals against the Midianites, he says: “They were the
same ones who were involved with the People of Israel on Balaam’s
advice to betray the Lord over the incident of Peor, resulting in a
plague among the congregation of Hashem.”
In other words, Bil'am was the one who devised the idea of ensnaring
the Jewish People, sending Midianite women to the Israelite camp to
entice the men. If things were so bad, why did the Torah not simply
relate all of this when this week’s Parsha’s main event transpired?
Often, the Torah expands on certain issues while glossing over others.
Why, then, is the Torah silent about Bil'am’s attempts to cause the
Israelites to sin, while going into such great detail in its
description of Bil'am’s blessings?
Logic would have it that it should have been the other way around.
Faced with this problem, some commentators suggested that Bil'am was
not directly involved in the Israelites’ behavior, an idea alluded to
in one of Bil'am’s blessings: “He does not look at evil in Jacob…”, as
if to say that Bil'am had not seen anything sinful in their behavior.
This blessing implies that once the Israelites could be brought to
committing a sin, its enemies would find a way to successfully fight
This is, however, an enormous departure from the simple meaning of the
text, and Talmudic sages have also explicitly stated that Bil'am was
the one who devised the scheme of causing Israel to sin with the
Why, then, does the Torah not divulge this information when the event occurs?
The Torah is teaching us a central tenet in how a person is to take
responsibility for his or her actions. If, for example, scientists,
historians, sociologists and anthropologists were to study the
assimilation of North American Jews in the twentieth century, they
would undoubtedly discover many reasons for the phenomenon, such as
their financial situation, the disconnect from their Eastern European
roots, a desire to fit into American society, and just amalgamate.
We can safely assume that all of the above are correct. Yet when
individuals do their own soul-searching, they would need to answer
questions such as, “What did I do right, or what did I do wrong, in
contending with this issue?”
The easy way of evading personal responsibility is to simply state the
causes of assimilation, as mentioned above. But that is precisely what
the Torah wants to prevent. Had it elaborated on Balaam’s contribution
to Israel’s sinful conduct, a case could be made for those who pinned
the blame on this great heathen prophet who instigated the Jews’
licentiousness with the Midianite women.
Who could resist such temptation? What were the Jews to do once the
very man who penned the phrase, “It is a nation that shall dwell
alone, and will not be reckoned among the nations” now calls for doing
away with Israel’s unique status and intermingling with native women?
The Torah, therefore, describes this as a standalone event, one that
has nothing to do with Bil'am.
Each of us has to stand in front of the mirror and ask ourselves what
we could have done differently. Thus, it is only later, as the book of
Bamidbar concludes, that the Torah mention Bil'am role in this
We may come up with a slew of political, theological, and technical
excuses – some of which may be true – as to why so many Jews in the
Exile or comfortable Diaspora feel estranged from Judaism, the Jewish
People, and the State of Israel.
But such analyses, on their own, certainly will not help in any way.
We need to ultimately decide what we can do, and have not yet done, to
ensure that more Jews remain connected to their Jewish identities.
Those who live in Eretz Israel are the true Lovers of Zion whether
"observant" or "not-yet observant."
In 1948 we had 500 Yeshiva bachurim; with Jewish population of 600,000
now we have 50,000+ out of a population of 7 million+ "Ken Yirbu."
In the Goldene Medina USA we currently have 5.5 Million Jews. Before
WWII we also had 5.5 Million. (Core Jewish). With normal geometric
progression we should have 55 Million. Granted we have Yeshivot and
nice pockets of "frum" Jewish neighborhhods; that does not set off the
attrition rate due to ZPG (zero population growth) which is 1.8
Children per family; coupled with assimilation & intermarriage; we are
left with a Large "Beis HaChayim"
Contrast that with Israel. Despite the "visionaries of doom" of the
"Secular State" not to be created, Israel thrives on with miracles.
There is more Torah learning in Eretz Yisrael than the entire world
combined. Over 300 Seforim per month published. In World Economy
Israel is No# 1 to invest in just ask Warren Buffett who is looking
for more firms in Israel besides Iscar purchased for $10 Billion
Dollars with management intact & promised NOT to move the firm outside
Israel. A simple gentile from Omaha Nebraska who is fascinated with
The Holy Land of Eretz Yisrael & its people.
בברכת התורה והארץ
B'Birchat Hatorah V'Haaretz