Balak – The Rise and Fall of a Deaf Nation
Every year, for the last five years, Parshat Balak carries one message for me and no other. I can’t turn away and focus on another idea so long as this dominates my perception of this Parsha.
Six years ago I was a summer intern in Riverdale, NY, staying with Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt, the senior rabbi of the RJC. Every Tuesday evening he gives a Parsha class at the RJC and I accompanied him that Tuesday night in July, the week of reading Parshat Balak. During the discussion, Rabbi Rosenblatt casually mentioned that although the entire Parsha is about praise of the Israelite nation, the nation falls to a tremendous low at the Parsha’s end, succumbing to the honey-trap temptations of the Midianite women luring them to observe their practices of idolatry. Because they never heard the praise.
This idea lit a fire.
Bilam is unsuccessful in his attempts to curse the people, instead blessing them, inspired by their pattern of encampment and the powerful merit of their ancestry and the course of their destiny. The Moabites and Midianites crowd breathlessly around Bilam as his voice utters the prophetic word of G-d about the Israelite nation. Almost as fast as the words come out they are tweeted out to the rest of Midian and Moab. Every Moabite closely follows the events unfolding at the hilltop overlooking the camp of Israel. They hope and pray for a successful curse that will weaken the Israelites so they will no longer be a threat to the stability of the region. Time after time the Moabites are disappointed. Bilam does not come through. Every time he opens his mouth blessings pulse forth, deeply frustrating King Balak and his officers. Slowly this frustration turns into awe, as the people are exposed to the virtues of the Israelites, poetically described in the blessings of Bilam. They hadn’t realized what a nation this was, how great a people was encamped on their border.
Yet, we read at the end of the sins committed by this same virtuous people. We read about how they stooped to idolatry, worshiping the pagan gods of the Midanites after being lured into the tents by seductive temptresses. Where