Greater than Moses?

Greater than Moses?

Jun 25, 2021 By Burton L. Visotzky | Commentary | Balak

Although this week’s Torah reading is named for the Moabite king Balak, who sought to curse the Israelites, the real star of the show is the gentile prophet Balaam ben Be`or—with a special comedy cameo by his talking ass. Three whole chapters of the Torah (Num. 22–24) are given over to the efforts of Balak and Balaam to curse the Jews. In the end, of course, God prevails, and on Friday nights in Schul we still sing Balaam’s blessing, “Mah tovu ohalekhah Yaakov—How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel.”

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Taking the Long View: Lessons of Leadership

Taking the Long View: Lessons of Leadership

Jul 3, 2020 By Shira D. Epstein | Commentary | Balak | Hukkat

The iconic story in our parashah of Moses striking the rock to bring forth water for the People of Israel is often framed as a morality tale, the consequence of a toxic—and disastrous—combination of unchecked rage and faltering faith. Indeed, God doles out the harshest possible punishment to Moses for flouting God’s directive to speak to the rock, in full display of the congregation: “Since you did not have faith in Me to sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly to the Land which I have given them” (Num. 20: 12).

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The Sorcery in Our Midst

The Sorcery in Our Midst

Jul 20, 2019 By Jonathan Milgram | Commentary | Balak

In this week’s Torah reading, Parashat Balak, we read a riveting story of the diviner, Balaam, who was commissioned by Balak, king of Moab, to curse the Israelites (Num. 22:2–24:25). Balak’s goal was to weaken the Israelites, encamped at the borders of Moab, so that he could defeat them in battle. Balaam is richly and, at times, inconsistently described in our detailed narrative. Part of the story’s complexity is due to the historical fact that two narratives about Balaam were conflated in the finally redacted text of the Bible. 

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The Seer Who Would Not See

The Seer Who Would Not See

Jun 29, 2018 By Marc Gary | Commentary | Balak

Anyone who is an aficionado of late night comedy shows with a strong dose of political and social satire such as Saturday Night Live or Last Week Tonight with John Oliver knows full well that comedy can be a very serious matter indeed. But can sacred narratives of the Torah be comedic? And if so, should we take that comedy seriously?

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Fear, Truth, and a Donkey

Fear, Truth, and a Donkey

Jul 7, 2017 By Joel Alter | Commentary | Balak

Bilam, the highly paid but visionless prophet, sits high in his saddle on his donkey’s back as she swerves off the path. She’s strayed, it seems, for no reason; an angel standing with sword drawn is as yet unseen by him. He beats the donkey to drive her back onto the path. The next time she stops short she traps her rider’s leg against a stone wall. He winces in pain. I imagine him throwing one hand down toward his leg and perhaps grabbing his headdress, by now slipping off, with the other. He frantically beats his donkey again, flailing to regain control. Bilam is coming undone: a prophet made a fool by an ass (Num. 22:22–25).

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Listening to Lions

Listening to Lions

Jul 7, 2017 By Alisa Braun | Commentary | Balak

[Lions] have personalities, temperaments, moods, and they can be voluble about all this, sometimes chatty, sometimes (when they are working) radiating a more focused informativeness. Nor are the exchanges and the work in question suffering-free. In particular, they are not free of the suffering that accompanies failures of understanding, refusals and denials of the sort that characterize many relationships.

Vicki Hearne, Animal Happiness: A Moving Exploration of Animals and Their Emotions (172–173)

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Baalam’s Tents

Baalam’s Tents

Jul 22, 2016 By Lilly Kaufman | Commentary | Balak

Tell me, where can I go today to see a deeply good community? How will I know it when I see it? Where can I go today and exclaim, Mah tovu?

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Dreaming of Being Balaam

Dreaming of Being Balaam

Jul 22, 2016 By Jan Uhrbach | Commentary | Balak

The story of the heathen prophet Balaam—hired by Moabite king Balak ben Tzippor to curse the people Israel—is altogether strange. It concerns events happening outside the Israelite camp and seemingly unknown to them, characters we’ve not yet met, and a talking donkey. Its tone ranges from burlesquely funny to surreal.

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Balam: Prophet, Sorcerer, Saint or Sinner?

Balam: Prophet, Sorcerer, Saint or Sinner?

Jul 3, 2015 By Jonathan Lipnick | Commentary | Balak

Reading Parashat Balak along with Rashi, the medieval 12th-century French exegete par excellence, one quickly discovers how vilified Balaam is in midrash. But not all biblical commentators side with Rashi. There’s a fantastic chapter by Nehama Leibowitz  in Studies of Bamidbar entitled “Prophet or Sorcerer?” Rabbi Jacob Milgrom, too, has an article on the subject entitled “Balaam: Saint or Sinner?” in his extraordinary JPS Commentary to Numbers.

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Character vs. Reputation and the Social Construction of Reality

Character vs. Reputation and the Social Construction of Reality

Jul 3, 2015 By Malka Strasberg Edinger | Commentary | Balak

It is easy to pigeonhole people and to dichotomize the categories into which we place people, such as good vs. evil. Myths and legends tend to portray characters in this one-dimensional manner, and it is considered remarkable when a character is portrayed as complex. But all humans are complex. The human condition is a multivalent one, and people are almost never so easily categorized. Everyone’s character has the capacity for both good and bad, and in fact, everyone realizes elements of both within themselves.

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Between Cursing and Blessing, Peace and Truth

Between Cursing and Blessing, Peace and Truth

Jul 4, 2014 By Tim Daniel Bernard | Commentary | Balak

That night God came to Balaam and said, “Since these men have come to summon you, go with them, but do only what I tell you.” Balaam got up in the morning, saddled his donkey and went with the Moabite officials. And God was very angry when he went. (Num. 22:20–22)

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Always Strive to Be Israel

Always Strive to Be Israel

Jul 4, 2014 By Matthew Berkowitz | Commentary | Balak

This week’s Torah reading, Parashat Balak, is primarily focused on the Moabite king’s efforts to curse the Israelites.

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A People Dwelling Apart

A People Dwelling Apart

Jun 19, 2013 By Arnold M. Eisen | Commentary | Balak

Balak’s mix of poetry, narrative, and prophecy raises questions about Israel’s status as “a people dwelling apart” that are still with us today—questions that, in my view, make Balak one of the most troubling portions in the entire Torah.

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The Strength of the Jewish People

The Strength of the Jewish People

Jun 19, 2013 By Matthew Berkowitz | Commentary | Balak

The opening of this week’s parashah centers around the desire of Balak, the king of Moav, to curse the Israelites as they make their way toward the Land of Israel.

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Being Guided by Fear

Being Guided by Fear

Jul 7, 2012 By Charlie Schwartz | Commentary | Text Study | Balak

The midrash cited above provides two answers as to why Balak, the king of Moab, would send out the prophet Balaam to curse the Israelites. Both answers state fear as the emotion that provokes the desire to curse the Israelites, but they differ in identifying the root cause of the fear.

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Living the Life Waiting for Us

Living the Life Waiting for Us

Jul 7, 2012 By Abigail Treu | Commentary | Balak

Each of us has our version of the story: the infertility, the divorce, the toilet flooding before the Rosh Hashanah guests arrive. Mentsch trachtgott lacht: man plans, God laughs, as the Yiddish expression goes. Only, most of the time it really doesn’t seem so funny.

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Balam: Prophet, Sorcerer, Saint or Sinner?

Balam: Prophet, Sorcerer, Saint or Sinner?

Jul 9, 2011 By Jonathan Lipnick | Commentary | Balak

Reading Parashat Balak along with Rashi, the medieval 12th-century French exegete par excellence, one quickly discovers how vilified Balaam is in Midrash. But not all biblical commentators side with Rashi. There’s a fantastic chapter by Nehama Leibowitz (1905–1997) in Studies of Bamidbar entitled “Prophet or Sorcerer?” Rabbi Jacob Milgrom (1923–2010), too, has an article on the subject entitled “Balaam: Saint or Sinner?” in his extraordinary The JPS Torah Commentary: Numbers.

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God is Gracious, Not Angry

God is Gracious, Not Angry

Jul 9, 2011 By Andrew Shugerman | Commentary | Text Study | Balak

So much for fire and brimstone!

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Modern Day Prophets

Modern Day Prophets

Jun 26, 2010 By Andrew Shugerman | Commentary | Balak

Twice during my teenage years, I felt that I’d witnessed a modern-day prophet speaking live on television. I grew up with the idea that such a phenomenon was not just possible but something for which we, as American Jews, yearn. We have watched how tremendous oratory can change history by reflecting the transformations taking place in our society and around the globe.

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The Sin of Moses

The Sin of Moses

Jul 4, 2009 By Deborah Miller | Commentary | Balak | Hukkat

Everyone knows how Romeo and Juliet ends, and yet we still cry when they die. The same is true of the first of the two Torah portions we read this week, Parashat Hukkat/Balak. In this portion, we learn that Moses will not enter the Promised Land. We have heard or read this story every year, and yet we are still upset, still angry that, on the threshold, Moses is denied admission to the Land to which he has been leading the Israelites for forty years.

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