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  • Rav Yaakov Beasley




Our parasha recounts what is surely among the oddest episodes in the history of our people.  In the previous parasha, Chukkat, the fortieth year in the desert has arrived, and the decree of wandering is at its end.  The Jewish people march determinedly and inevitably towards their destiny – entry into the land of Israel.  They encounter and dispatch two powerful chieftains, Sichon and Og, whose defeat shatters the king of Mo'av, Balak ben Tzippor; he fears, in the beginning of Parashat Balak, that his kingdom will become the Jews' next target.  Despairing of victory through natural, military means (Rashi, 22:4), the king decides to hire a necromancer to curse the Jewish people.  Here, the story becomes surreal.  Until the end of the parasha, when the daughters of Mo'av succeeded in ensnaring the Jewish people in immorality and idolatry, the Torah's focus is on the hills surrounding the camp, where Bilam the sorcerer and Balak the king attempt to curse the Jews.  For three chapters, the Torah narrates not only the failed attempts to curse the Jewish people (with the significant insertion of a talking donkey), it also relates the entire blessings as they emerge from Bilam's mouth.  The reader may well ask: granted, the blessings are decidedly poetic; yet, are they any more significant than the failed hexes of a lame wizard?  Surely, even if God were to allow Bilam to curse away to his heart's content, the effect would be null!  Yet, something within these chapters is so significant that the prophet Mikha (6:5) enjoins the Jewish nation never to forget it:


Remember now what Balak, king of Mo'av plotted, and how Bilam ben Be'or responded to him; from the Shittim until the Gilgal – that you may know God's kindnesses!


The rabbis saw such tremendous value in these chapters that they even considered including Bilam's words as part of the Shema to be recited twice daily (Berakhot 12b): "There was a motion to insert Parashat Balak into Keriat Shema; it did not pass because it would have been a hardship to the congregation."  The proposition fails only because of Parashat Balak's great length!  (See also Yerushalmi Berakhot 1:5, which suggests a daily reading of the parasha, but not within Keriat Shema.)


One method by which a reader can unveil a text's meaning is by dividing the text structurally into its components.  This year, we will investigate the first third of Balak and reveal the message contained within its structure.


We can divide the bulk of Chapter 22, from the beginning of the story until Bilam's arrival in Mo'av, into four sections:


A.           Introduction (vv. 1-4)

B.            Balak's first entreaty and mission (vv. 5-14)

C.            Balak's second entreaty and mission (vv. 15-20)

D.           Bilam's journey to Mo'av (22:21-35)


We will first investigate the internal structure of each of these sections, and then return to the larger structure of the chapter.



A.            INTRODUCTION (22:1-4)


The chapter begins with the last verse of last week's parasha, "And Benei Yisra'el traveled, and they encamped in Arvot Mo'av, on the Yarden, across from Yericho."  The dyad "And they traveled… and they encamped" is a standard formulation of the Jewish people's travels in the desert.  Now they have apparently arrived at their final destination, on the east bank of the Yarden, looking at Yericho.  The text continues with several verbs in rapid succession: "And Balak saw…  And Mo'av was alarmed… and Mo'av dreaded…  And Mo'av said…  And Balak sent…"  Interestingly, "Balak" and "Mo'av" appear to be used interchangeably.  The Jewish people are also called by four separate names throughout – after the war with the Emori, they are called "Yisra'el;" they are called "ha-am," "the people," (horde?) when describing their numbers; they are called "Benei Yisra'el" when they inspire fear; and when they are poetically compared to an ox eating everything in its path, they become "ha-kahal," "the congregation."





We see that this section contains four subsections: (a) Balak's instructions to the delegation (vv. 5-6), (b) the first meeting between the delegation and Bilam (vv. 7-8), (c) Bilam and God's conversation (vv. 9-12), and (d) the second meeting between the delegation and Bilam (vv. 13-14).


We immediately see two parallels: between (a) and (c), comparing Balak's original instructions with the manner in which Bilam relates them to God; and between (b) and (d), comparing the two meetings between Bilam and the delegation.  In section (a), the first half provides very specific, dry details to the delegation (to whom, where, why), while the actual language of the charge borders on poetic.  The pharaoh who enslaved the Jews is hinted to with the phrase "it is too powerful for me" (see Shemot 1:9); there is a reference as well to the blessing given to Avraham Avinu (compare "I know that he whom you bless is indeed blessed, and he whom you curse is indeed cursed" here with Bereshit 12:2-3).  As the Jewish people's power and numbers are reflections of the blessings that God has given the Jewish people, we can see a mini-chiasm in verse 6 of curse/ blessing/ blessing/ curse.  Even more striking are the six mentions of "I" or "me" in these two verses.


The second subsection begins by describing the makeup of the delegation: both the elders of Mo'av and the elders of Midyan participate.  Noticeably, the elders of Midyan disappear for the rest of the story, an omission that Rashi attributes to their recognizing Bilam as useless immediately.  (The Chizkuni suggests that the omission is less significant: unlike the officers from Mo'av, the elders of Midyan found places to stay easily among their countrymen and did not require lodging from Bilam for the night).


We arrive at the third subsection of the story: the conversation between God and Bilam.  To God's simple request, "What do these people want of you?," Bilam responds by paraphrasing Balak's original request.  Comparing Balak's original words with Bilam's retelling yields some important insights into what Bilam is thinking:





Behold, a people came out of Egypt;

Behold, it has hidden the earth from view

And it has settled next to me.

Come  now, please,

Curse (Hebrew, "Ara") for me this people

For it is too powerful for me.

Perhaps, I can strike it

And I will drive it out of the land.

Behold, the people that comes out of Egypt


Has hidden the earth from view.


Come now,

Damn (Hebrew, "Kava") it for me



Perhaps I can battle it

And I will drive it away.


Significantly, Bilam attempts to transform Balak's request, which at first glance appears within the boundaries of legitimate self-defense, to one more severe in repercussions and scope.  In Bilam's speech, Balak's justifications ("it has settled next to me," "it is too powerful for me") have disappeared while a stronger form of imprecation appears (from "Curse" to "Damn").  Bilam hopes for a more total victory (strike vs. battle), and unlike Balak, who simply wishes to expel the Jewish people from his land, Bilam expresses a wish to completely do away with them.  Perhaps we see this most clearly in the first change.  Balak mentions "a people."  Their identity does not concern him; what upsets him is their presence near his land.  In some way, he is justified in seeking measures for wishing to remove them.  Bilam, however, refers to them as "the people."  Though they do not personally affect him, he recognizes the import and significance of the Jewish people.  Therefore, his personal wishes, though placed in Balak's words, reflect a desire to rid the world of them completely.  It is no surprise that God's response is clear and direct: "Do not go with them!  You must not curse this people, for it is blessed."  By reversing (in a chiastic structure) the final part of Balak's original entreaty to Bilam (bless/ curse) with the command "You must not curse the people, for it is blessed," God not only reverses Balak's words, but his intentions as well.


As he has previously told them, Bilam's reply is dependent on God's instructions to him, so he refuses to return with the officers of Mo'av to Balak.  However, the commentators notice here the subtle deletion of half of God's command.  Bilam states that "God refuses to let me go with you," but he ignores the second half, "You must not curse them."  Rashi explains that Bilam understands God's words as leaving the door open to go with greater, more noteworthy emissaries.





We see that the narrative of the second delegation also contains four subsections: (a) the description of the second delegation (v. 15), (b) the delegation's presentation to Bilam (v. 16-17), (c) Bilam's initial response to the delegation (vv. 18-19), and (d) God's second conversation with Bilam (v. 20).  Immediately, we note that Balak is sending a greater delegation, both in stature and in numbers.  Linking subsection (a) and subsection (b) is the word "honor" — the Torah describes the delegation as more honorable, and they promise Bilam great honor (in Hebrew, the word "honor" is doubled in this promise).  Honor, Bilam's desire for it and the eventual loss of it becomes this subsection's theme.  Balak's request "Please do not hold yourself back from coming to me" parallels the response given by the first delegation to Balak, "Bilam refused to come with us."  (Noticeably, they also change Balak's words, omitting that Bilam has told them that "God refuses to let" him accompany them.)  Balak's pronouncement that "I will do anything you say" foreshadows the contest with God, who states, "The word which I speak to you, that you shall do."


Bilam's response to them is predictable.  Though ostensibly swearing allegiance to God, he alludes to the potential riches that await him.  He tells them to wait the evening, as God will speak with him (trying to impress his guests, he uses a more intimate term than previously – "with me," not "to me" as before). 


God's response comes at night, as predicted.  Unexpected, however, is the response:  "If the men have come to call you, rise up, go with them; but only the word which I speak to you, that you shall do."  Some commentators point out that from the first dream to the second, when Bilam is told to go with them, the Hebrew term for "with them" changes from "immahem" to "ittam."   They suggest that "immahem" implies a unity of purpose, while "ittam" only means to accompany physically.  Again, however, God's ominous closing words, "Only the word which I speak to you, that you shall do," are ignored by Bilam.



D.           BILAM'S JOURNEY TO MO'AV (22:21-35)


The final part of this section, describing Bilam's journey, once again contains four subsections:  (a) Bilam's departure and the angel's first appearance (vv. 21-22), (b) the donkey's erratic behavior and Bilam's violent response (vv. 23-27), (c) the donkey's speech to Bilam (vv. 28-30), and (d) Bilam and the angel (vv. 31-35).  The surplus of verbs ("And he rose… and he saddled… and he went…") point to the alacrity with which Bilam goes on his journey; God's anger, swiftly kindled, appears immediately.  Thrice the donkey sees the angel standing in its way and tries to avoid it.  Only the pain from Bilam's whip causes it to resume its journey, albeit reluctantly.  Progressively, the donkey's refusal becomes more severe – first, it simply veers off the way; then it crashes into a fence; finally, it lies down, impervious to the beating it receives. 


The dialogue between the donkey and Bilam is filled with irony.  In response to the donkey's question "What have I done to you, that you hit me?," Bilam responds that were he to have a sword in his hand, he would kill his mount.  At the same time, the all-knowing seer cannot see the angel holding a sword in front of him!  Though the donkey tries to make Bilam understand that its disobedience is indeed a one-time occurrence, Bilam fails to comprehend the nature of the situation he faces.  It is only God's opening Bilam's eyes to the angel that provides Bilam with understanding. 





Having seen the subsections of the unit on their own, we can now distinguish a structural pattern that runs through all of the stories.  Each section contains what we shall label a thesis, an antithesis, and a synthesis.  Let us investigate fuller:







The first delegation (vv. 5-14)

They ask Bilam to go with them.

Bilam says he is prevented from going if God does not allow it. 

God's response – "Do not go."

The second delegation (vv. 15-20)

They ask Bilam to go with them.

Bilam reiterates that he is prevented from going if God does not allow it.

God's response – "Go."

Bilam's journey (vv. 21-35)

Bilam attempts to go. 

The angel (and the donkey) prevent Bilam from going. 

God's response – the angel reminds Bilam that he will be limited in what he can say.


We see that in the structure of each subsection, tension is created (Bilam's going vs. God's wishes) and then resolved clearly in the synthesis, with God's word prevailing in all three cases.  Conceivably, we could even suggest that the three sections serve as a thesis-antithesis-synthesis with each other: first, God does not allow Bilam to go; then, God allows Bilam to go; finally, God demonstrates that even when Bilam goes, he is subservient to God's will.  What we see is that the narrative of Bilam not only contains some of the most vivid and memorable imagery in Tanakh, but even the structure of the story points towards one central message: ultimately, we are all bound to God's will, and only by aligning our will with His do we maintain a modicum of freedom.