Balak is an unusual parsha for many reasons, not the least of which is the talking donkey. Not just a talking donkey, but a CLEVER talking donkey who knew how to make a fool of Bilaam, her master. At one point, it is not clear who was the REAL donkey.
It’s one of the few humorous and entertaining accounts in the Torah. The snappy talking donkey isn’t the only funny part. A smile is also evoked when Bilaam, after Balak goes to such trouble to curse the Jewish people, is forced to bless them. He actually opens his mouth to curse them, but a blessing comes out instead, much to Balak’s extreme disappointment and frustration.
It is also a very distracting story as well. When something negative directly involves the Jewish people in the Torah, we are forced to take mussar from it. We are their descendants with similar tendencies, so we acknowledge that their mistakes can easily be ours. How many people today perpetuate the sin of the spies?
Balak and Bilaam? They are two gentiles, two desperate anti-Semites whose souls are rooted in the same spiritual as that of Amalek. What do they have to do with us, other than the fact that there are people like them in every generation who want to do the same thing to the Jewish people that they did? It is easy to feel so different from them that we disassociate ourselves from all that they did.
The Torah however goes to great trouble to detail the story. It makes a point of telling us their thoughts and plans, right down to Balak’s effort to woo Bilaam out and Bilaam’s trouble with accepting his offer. It may be entertaining, but that is never the Torah’s goal.
For the longest time, I just assumed that the Torah was showing us how God protects the Jewish people in ways that we can’t even know. It’s not like the Jewish people were watching the entire episode on closed circuit TV. Moshe Rabbeinu probably knew about the events beyond eyeshot, but the rest of the nation probably didn’t.
We tend to celebrate our Heavenly protection when we see it with our own eyes, either in person or in the media. How many times has God thwarted the plans of our enemies in places we can’t even go, like in the Iranian parliament, or in the secret places of terrorists that we have no idea about?
I still thought this even after seeing the Talmud countless times that says the following:
Rav Yehudah said in Rav’s name: “One should always occupy himself with Torah and good deeds, even not for their own sake . . . As a reward for the 42 sacrifices offered by Balak, he was privileged that Rus should be his descendant, [as] Rebi Yosi bar Huna said: ‘Rus was the daughter of Eglon, the grandson of Balak, king of Moav.’ ” (Sanhedrin 105b)
Enough questions could be asked on this to create an entire book. This teaching is right up there with Rus coming from Moav who came from the incestuous relationship of Lot and his daughter. It goes together with Boaz coming from Peretz who was born from Yehudah who had thought he had hired a woman of ill-repute, not his own daughter-in-law, Tamar.
We are told that anyone who attacks the Jewish people is like someone who attacks God Himself. Balak intended to curse the Jewish people and offered sacrifices to God in order to “buy” the right to do so. Learning Torah for the wrong reason is one thing. Sacrificing to God for the wrong reason is sacrilege, and Rus came from that?
Yes, and here’s why.
Balak and Bilaam, in spite of all their crazy and evil plans, still believed in God, the REAL God. For all their arrogance, they still acknowledged that it was HE Who ran the world. They did not try and stop the Jewish people by offering sacrifices to one form of idol worship or another. They did it by offering sacrifices to the true God, and THAT, is spite of its evil, was good.
In fact, Balak did not really get punished for his attempt. Bilaam also would have gotten off somewhat scot-free had he not gone the extra step of advising the sending in of the Midianite women. That led to idol worship by Jews and their illicit behavior. Had he not done that, he could have escaped with only a downgraded reputation. (Apparently, not everyone he cursed was cursed!)
I’m not looking to vindicate Balak or Bilaam in ANY way. Make no mistake about it: they were EVIL, and their connection to Amalek drives the point home. I’m looking to vindicate a concept that, if it can apply to two clearly evil people it can certainly apply to decent people.
It reminds me of a story. Someone, in his first year as a ba’al teshuva, had been hoping to have a very heartfelt Yom Kippur. Instead, he found his heart as cold as ever, especially compared to those around him. In frustration, he left shul to sit outside and mourn his lack of spiritual progress.
He noticed as he sat there almost in tears, how much it meant to him to having a meaningful Yom Kippur. He realized that though he may have had a tough time connecting through the prayers, he was certainly connecting to God in his own personal way. If he didn’t want to pray, he certainly wanted to want to pray.
Immediately he calmed down. It was enough of a start for him. He saw that somewhere inside of him, he was going in the right direction. It may take a while to get to where he wanted to go, but at least he WANTED to get there. There was something assuring about that, and he felt ready to return to shul once again. Where there is a spark, there can later be a flame.
Likewise, that spark of good, though it did not amount to much in Balak and Bilaam, was passed on to Eglon, who then gave it to Rus. She took it, nurtured it, and made a passionate fire out of it. Her devotion to God is legendary, and as a result she merited to become the ancestress of Moshiach Ben Dovid.
THAT’S a lesson for everyone.