Sedra Shorts

Ideas and commentaries on the weekly Torah readings.

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Location: Bet Shemesh, Israel

I taught Tanach in Immanuel College, London and in Hartman, Jerusalem. I was also an ATID fellow for 2 years. At present, I work for the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education in the Diaspora, in Bar-Ilan University, Israel. The purpose of this blog is to provide "sedra-shorts", short interesting ideas on the weekly Torah reading. Please feel free to use them and to send me your comments.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Parsht Ballak

Ballak the Stubborn

Throughout this week's parsha, Ballak is pushing Bilam to curse Israel. Yet, from the very first time that Bilam was approached he responded: "the Lord has refused to let me go with you" (Bemidbar 22:13).

Yet, Ballak persists with his plan and goads Bilam to curse Israel. Why doesn't he understand that God won't let Bilam do it.

By examining the conversations between Bilam and Ballak, we will see that Ballak was constantly misled by Bilam and by others, and therefore had no reason to assume that the mission would fail.

To begin with, God told Bilam the very first time: "You shall not curse the people because they are blessed" (ibid 12). However, Bilam never relates this information to Ballak. Had Bilam done so, Ballak might have given up straight away, for he knows: "whomever you bless is blessed" (ibid 6).

All Bilam said was: "Return to your country, for the Lord has refused to let me go with you (ibid 13). Yet, Ballak does not even know that God does not permit Bilam to join him. All the messengers tell Ballak upon their return to Ballak is: "Bilam refuses to come with us" (ibid14).

Therefore, Ballak legitimately assumes that Bilam won't come because he has not promised enough riches. (Note: it is very possible that this was the impression that Bilam gave the messengers.) Therefore, Ballak says: "I will honor you greatly and do whatever you tell me to do" (ibid 17) and sends "dignitaries, more and higher in rank than" the previous ones.

Indeed, that is exactly what Ballak says to Bilam when they first meet. Nevertheless, even at that point, after God had spoken twice to Bilam in dreams, and then via an angel with his donkey, Bilam still does not tell Ballak that the mission is futile. He just says: "Behold I have come to you, do I have any power to say anything? The word God puts into my mouth - that I will speak" (ibid 38). Ballak has no reason to assume that God will not allow Bilam to curse Israel.

Therefore, Ballak is truly shocked when at the first attempt, Bilam blesses Israel: "What have you done to me? I took you to curse my enemies, but you have blessed them!" (ibid 23:11).

Bilam again says: "What the Lord puts into my mouth that I must take care to say" (ibid 12). Bilam, however, still does not say that Israel is blessed. Therefore, Ballak, with his pagan outlook, believes that if he brings many offerings to God, than God can be persuaded to change His mind.

And so, Ballak builds another seven altars, offers the sacrifices in order to tempt God. So, when Bilam returns from his meditation to God, Ballak asks: "What did the Lord speak?" (ibid 17). Bilam responds: "God is not a man that He should lie, nor is He a mortal that He should relent (ibid 19). He then proceeds to again bless Israel.

However, Ballak still does not realize that it is a fait accompli: "Perhaps it will please God, and you will curse them for me from there" (ibid 27). He now understands that Bilam's power only comes from God, but does not yet understand that God does not change His mind. And so he tries one more time to appease Him.

If only, Bilam would have told him from the very beginning that Israel was already blessed, he could have saved everyone a lot of bother.

Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat Balak, entitled: "Bilam and his Talking Ass” appears at

Another Sedra Short on Parshat Balak, entitled: "Pinchas’ Legal Precedent” appears at

A further Sedra Short on Parshat Balak, entitled: "Balak's Fear” appears at

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