Parshat Balak

Torah Reading for Week of June 16-22, 2013

“Moses and Balaam” By Wynne R. Waugaman, PhD,
AJRCA Third Year Rabbinical Student


Why does the Torah include this story about Balak and Balaam?  It doesn’t seem to have any real relationship to the chapters before or after it except for the very end, where we are introduced to the plague that descended upon the Israelites who were seduced to worship the idols of the Midianite women.  One possible purpose is to provide a story about a man that was the complete opposite of Moses.

However, Balaam, the only non-Jewish prophet we read about in the Torah, and Moses were actually alike in many ways.  Both had the gift of prophecy, although Moses used his for good while Balaam used his for evil.  Balaam and Moses faced similar challenges in their lives. While both had the power of their own voices, G-d controlled their tongues.  Moses and Balaam both tried to ignore G-d’s wishes, which made G-d very angry: Moses refused to accept the responsibility of gathering the Israelites as G-d requested, while Balaam disobeyed by saying he was turning back when, in reality, he fully intended to go forward on his course to curse the Jews.  Further, both Balaam and Moses blamed their own shortcomings on others.  When the angel stood in front of him, Balaam claimed the reason he sinned was because he didn’t see the angel.  It wasn’t really his fault; if he would have seen the angel, he wouldn’t have sinned!  Moses, on the other hand, blames the Israelites for causing G-d to forbid him to enter the Promised Land!

How then do these two prophets really differ?  Examining more closely, we can see that they differ in their personalities and their overall behavior.  Moses is a shepherd who cares about the sheep under his watch. Indeed, isn’t this what led him to his first meeting with G-d during which he is selected to lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt? He also pleaded with G-d on behalf of the people at the golden calf and the incident of the spies. In contrast, Balaam demonstrated great cruelty to animals by beating the donkey who apparently served him well except for this one transgression.  The punishment hardly fit the crime in this case.  Moses is an open and straightforward man; you know what he is thinking.  When he is angry, he wears his anger on his sleeve.  Balaam is a devious man; he pretends to obey G-d, but in reality, doesn’t. 

This brings us back to the original question.  Why is this story inserted here?  Was Balaam a real person or is this just a midrash?  Is this to make Moses seem a more desirable prophet and perhaps make his punishment by G-d, of not being able to enter the Promised Land, seem extremely harsh and inappropriate?  Are we supposed to feel sorry for Moses? 

I think not.  I believe that Moses wanted us to learn a message from Balaam, that G-d’s Will prevails.  A prophet, a sorcerer, or a soothsayer cannot override the Will of G-d.  We have seen this time and time again throughout our history: even a clever person like Balaam, who schemes to destroy the nation of Israel through dishonesty with G-d, does not succeed.  The ultimate source of wisdom needed in our daily decision-making comes from G-d.  We ask G-d to provide what we lack. 

G-d’s Will touches every aspect and moment of our lives: goals, attitudes, and means — why, how, and what.  We have a choice.  We can follow the Will of G-d according to Moses, or we can choose the path of Balaam.

Leave a Reply