Balak, Numbers 22:2-25:9
In this week’s Torah reading, Balak, King Balak of Moab retains the sorcerer Balaam to curse the Jewish people. Instead of curses, though, only blessings come out of his mouth.
When I read this portion I usually think about two themes:
• Why did God pick this seemingly unworthy guy, Balaam, to bless the Jewish people?
• Why I love camping in a tent each summer?
It is difficult to say why God chose Balaam as a prophet. Unlike Moses or Abraham, Balaam does not seem to be particularly worthy. However, he also does not appear to be purely evil. Instead, he seems to be an ordinary man. He knows that he can only prophesize what is true, but he really wants the money, power and position that comes with fulfilling Balak’s wishes. An impulse that is very human.
Possibly the lesson we learn from God’s willingness to speak to and through regular people such as Balaam is one that can empower all of us. Maybe we will realize that we can all hear God’s voice and understand what God wants. It is our choice what to do with that knowledge. Most of us are normal people, neither righteous nor evil.
Like Balaam, we may be fortunate to be blessed with gifts that we can use for the good of all people or we could create misfortune. As we go on our life journey, we have to make decisions every day whether to follow what we know is right or try to bend that knowledge to allow us to do what we want. These routine decisions ultimately define who we are.
Every summer, my family and I go camping in Baraboo, Wis., with about 60 of our friends from the Chicago area. We all arrive either on Wednesday or Thursday for our five-day retreat. As each family arrives, the first thing we do is unpack and pitch our tents. There is an unwritten rule, however, about how we set up our tents. And this rule is also illustrated in a midrash about our current Torah portion.
The midrash states that Balaam blesses the Israelites instead of cursing them because he sees something amazing. He notices that each tent is set up as to make sure that no one’s tent door faces the tent door of the family right beside them. Why is this so amazing? Balaam explains that he has never seen such respect and humility in a community that lives so close to each other. The doors of each tent do not face one another in order to maintain the privacy of each family. At our campsite, we automatically do the same. Maybe this is part of our DNA.
There are many lessons to learn from each Torah portion. I hope that the lessons I shared speak to you and also encourage you to seek out lessons in your lives that are meaningful and bring our history alive in the world we live in today.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)