Parsha Balak

JULY 23rd, 2016


Numbers 22:2 — 25:9
Numbers 23:27 — 25:9


Micah 5:6 — 6:8


Parashat Balak is one of only 5 parshiyot named for a person, in this case, Balak, the king of Moab. What’s interesting is that Balak really isn’t the central figure, Bilaam, the prophet, is.

It’s most famous because of Bilaam’s donkey, who sees an angel with a fiery sword and prevents him from carrying out his mission, which is to curse the Israelites so that the Moabites and Midianites will be able to attack and defeat them in battle. When Bilaam – a gentile prophet – tells King Balak that he can only say what God tells him to say, he takes Bilaam to one place after another, hoping each time that Bilaam will be able to curse the people. The constant change of scenery doesn’t change the situation, it just adds to Balak’s frustration. What Bilaam ultimately says, among other nice things, is something many synagogues begin their services with, ma tovu ohalekha Yaakov, mishk’notekha yisrael, “How good are your tents Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel.”

No matter how hard Bilaam tries to utter a curse, the words change to blessings when they leave his mouth. Isn’t that amazing, the rest of us have to stop and think before we speak!

Lately I’ve been doing a lot of reading and thinking about aging. One saying goes, “growing older is inevitable, growing old is optional.” Growing “up,” well, that I’m not so sure about. I’m at a point in my life where many of my friends are enjoying grandchildren, thinking about downsizing their homes, even planning for retirement in a not-so-distant future. Unfortunately, it’s also a time when we’re losing parents, partners and friends, and feeling more aches and pains, and wondering what’s next. In my case, I’m starting a new chapter and a new career, which is thrilling and terrifying at the same time.

Apropos to this week’s parashah is a quote attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt, that “It is better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness.” To me this means turning something bad into something good, or at least something not-so-bad. Bilaam didn’t have a choice, but we do. That’s a good thing, but it also means that unlike Bilaam, who in some respects was a puppet, we have to think about how to turn our lemons into lemonade, and then do it. We have to work at cultivating a practice of blessing, and finding blessing in our lives. It’s definitely not always easy, and we won’t always be successful. But it doesn’t mean we don’t have to try. And try.

The Talmud tells us that we should say 100 blessings per day, and to get us off to a good start, we have a set of 13 or 14 blessings that are to be said each morning when we get up. We start our Shabbat morning services here with them. Throughout the day, we have brachas to say when we see something wonderful like a rainbow, before we eat, when we see someone we haven’t seen in a very long time, and after we use the bathroom. We even bless God when we hear of a death. Saying blessings and finding blessings in our lives are different things, but aren’t mutually exclusive. Both are habits that can be cultivated, and should be.

Blessings don’t have to take the form of baruch ata ado-nai, but they can, it’s familiar to us. Finding blessing in our lives may mean taking time out of a busy day to breathe, to stop and smell the roses, so to speak. It might mean that if our physical bodies can’t do what our minds think they should, that we turn our attention to new activities that might be even more rewarding. There are plenty of possibilities, and it’s an ongoing effort.

According to Midrash Ruth Rabbah, King Balak is the father of King Eglon, who is the father of Orpah and Ruth. This transforms them from mere Moabite women who marry the sons of Naomi and Elimelech, to royalty. Neither of these men were people that we’d want our kids to emulate, but from their lineage comes Ruth, whose acts of loving kindness to Naomi and then to Boaz give her the merit of being the ancestress of King David.

A few verses after ma tovu Bilaam says, m’varakhekha varukh v’orarekha arur, those who bless you will be blessed and those who curse you will be cursed. As we move through Shabbat and the coming week, may we be aware of the blessings in our lives. May we bless others with our words and actions, and may we be blessed.