Parsha (BALAK) begins with the Israelites continuing their journey to Canaan. They have already defeated their enemies in many nations and have settled their next encampment on the border of Moab. Based on the victories the Israelites had achieved in other nations, Balak, the King of Moab, was justified in his fears and anxieties. He said to his princes: “Now this assembly will eat up everything around us, as the ox eats up the greens of the fields” (1).
A decision was made to find a man named Balaam, a renowned ‘prophet’ who had successfully contracted his talents for use in other neighboring lands.
Balaam’s skills were clearly impressive: he was a religious virtuoso, a sought-after shaman, spell-binder, and miracle worker. Balaam agreed to meet with Balak, who said to him, “I know that whoever you bless is blessed; and whoever you curse is cursed…you will be well-paid for cursing the Israelites” (2). Balaam was quick to accept this assignment, totally unaware of the words which God had spoken to Abraham so many years before: “I will bless those who bless you, and those who curse you, I will curse” (3).
He immediately saddled his donkey and began riding towards the place where the Israelites were dwelling. God, in his omniscience, seethed in anger and sent down an angel who stationed himself on the road to thwart Balaam. The donkey saw the angel and turned aside from the road into a field. Balaam beat the donkey; two more times the donkey swerved and again was beaten.
Finally, the donkey rebelled and said to Balaam, “Am I not your donkey on which you have always ridden? Why are you striking me, when I am trying to protect you?” (4). At this point Balaam noticed the angel of the Lord and conjured a curse in his mind, but instead uttered a blessing.
Three more times, from three different vantage points, Balaam attempted to pronounce curses on the Israelites, but each time his words were reversed into blessings. The third time, Balaam went so far as to say, “How grand are your tents, O Israel, your dwelling places” (5). When King Balak heard of this incredulous and absurd turn of events, he was overwhelmed with anger. He called for Balaam and said, “You were to be paid for cursing my enemies; instead, you blessed them repeatedly” (6).
Balaam protested against Balak’s outburst and told him that even for a house of gold, he was incapable of cursing the people who had been blessed by their God. However, as a consolation, Balaam claimed that he could predict the future: “The people of Moab will be annihilated; Edon will become possessed; as will the land of Seir; and the Israelites shall triumph over all of their enemies” (7).
In Chapter 25 of Parsha (BALAK), we read the ironic sequel to the episode of the curses/blessings. The Israelites suffered a self-inflicted tragedy by allowing themselves to be enticed by the women of Moab. Later, it emerged that it was Balaam who devised this strategy. Balaam is mentioned in the Mishna as an evil-doer who would be denied a share in the world to come (8). “Those who have an arrogant spirit; and, an insatiable thirst for money, are pupils of Balaam” (9).
(1) NUMBERS (22:4)
(2) NUMBERS (22:6)
(3) LECH-LEHA (12:3)
(4) NUMBERS (22:30)
(5) NUMBERS (24:5)
(6) NUMBERS (24:10)
(7) NUMBERS (24:17-18)
(8) MISHNAH SANHEDRIN (10:2)
(9) AVOT (5:22)