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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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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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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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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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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Words Are Sacred

Words Are Sacred

Jul 12, 2003 By Matthew Berkowitz | Commentary | Balak | Hukkat

Words are sacred. I remember the sanctity of words being inculcated in me as a high school student. My history teacher, Mr. Reilly, an admired, knowledgeable and articulate pedagogue (not to even mention his black belt in karate), instilled within us the fear of God with regard to proper attribution of words. His definition of plagiarism was ‘two or more words copied and unattributed.’ I remember being shocked by this Puritan definition, but it also instilled a respect for the written word. So valued are words that numerous violations, in addition to plagiarism, are attributed to their misuse. On occasions, words are distorted – in transmission, either knowingly or unknowingly; such distortion leads to the promulgation of lies and deception. And words are used to hurt – to curse, to destroy, and to instigate.

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What Happens to Us After We Die?

What Happens to Us After We Die?

Jun 22, 2002 By Lauren Eichler Berkun | Commentary | Balak | Hukkat

We are challenged to reflect upon death when we read parashat Hukkat/Balak. Our double parashah begins with the elaborate purification ritual for one who has come into contact with a corpse; it ends with Pinchas’ zealous killing of an Israelite man and Midianite woman; and in the middle we learn about the deaths of both Miriam and Aaron. As we confront mortality throughout our Torah reading, it is natural to question Jewish views of the afterlife – a topic which has been the subject of many books of late.

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