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עשה תורתך קבע – אמור מעט ועשה הרבה

Parshat Balak – The Certainty of Faith

Posted by rabbiart on June 24, 2010


This week’s parshah presents us with numerous wonders and the challenges that come with them. Seeing and speaking donkeys.  Sword bearing angels.  Foreign prophets who author Jewish liturgical texts.  Zealots who are rewarded for (what appears to be) cold blooded murder.  This parshah is truly a kol bo – there is something to challenge all but the most fervent and unquestioning believer.

We begin with Balak seeking out a prophet who can perform some magic that will save Moab from impending destruction by the hordes of Israelites coming his way. His delegation of elders goes to Balaam with magic charms – or an omen – to beg Balaam to curse the Israelites. Balak knows, or fears, that the Israelites are too powerful for him.

Immediately Balaam declares that he must get an answer from HaShem before he can give his response to the delegation. HaShem gives his instruction ‘you cannot curse them because the people are blessed.’

This is wonder number one; Balaam, a non-Israelite, will only do what the G-d of the Israelites will allow. On the second request, his response is even stronger ” I cannot do anything small or great that would transgress the word of the Lord, my God.” Balaam gets permission to travel, but HaShem will be speaking through him.

We proceed to the donkey with a mind of her own (OK, that’s normal behavior) who can perceive a sword-bearing angel blocking the road while Balaam cannot. In addition to the ability of second sight, the donkey can speak! And understands relationships!!

Repeatedly Balaam declares he can only say what HaShem will allow. Of this he is certain.

After several poetic utterances by Balaam – including some famous lines that have entered the liturgy, Balaam goes home, Balak goes back, and the story proceeds to another episode of sexual debauchery and idol worship. (Shocking, I know). HaShem responds by commanding that the idol worshippers be hung in order to quiet HaShem’s anger. Rubbing salt in the wounds, as it were, Cozbi the daughter of Zur and an unidentified Israelite go and do the deed in, of all places, the entrance to the Ohel Mo’ed. Pinhas sets himself up as judge, jury and executioner in the space of two verses – and is rewarded with the brit shalom.

So there you have it.  The two main characters of the parshah – Balaam and Pinhas – absolutely know what will be said and what must be done. No doubt. No hesitation. No ambiguity. No shades of gray.  Faith is all they need.

In the self-contained world of this parshah, faith can be the guide.

In our world we know all too well that one man’s faith is another man’s folly, or foolishness, or downright evil and reprehensible behavior.  And we might be the “another man”. How are we to know when to trust our faith, or when to question our certainty?

That is the question this parshah presents to me.

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