By Rabbi Dan Lewin
In addition to the instructions and anecdotes found within every Torah portion, there is, between the lines, a main theme and message being conveyed. Often this central idea is reflected in the title of the parasha. The title of this week is Balak; the theme is transformation.
Before explaining the specifics of this theme, let’s look at the background behind the title: As the Jewish people made their way toward the land of Israel they had to pass through many occupied territories and request permission to travel through. This week discusses their encounter with the Moabite nation.
Originally, the leader of Moab had refused to let the Jewish people into his land. But now the Jewish nation, who had just spectacularly defeated and conquered the adjoining lands of the two mighty Amorite kings, Sichon and Og, are camped just beyond this nation’s border.
The first thing that the Moabites did was to contact their neighbors in Midyan. While these two nations had previously been enemies, they decided to join forces to fight against b’nai Yisrael (a situation that we’ve unfortunately seen play out in modern times). Next, they selected a new leader, a famous prince from Midyan, an accomplished military chief and shrewd politician. Upon assuming leadership, he was renamed Balak. His primary task was to find a way to destroy the Jewish people.
He begins to gather information about this small but astonishingly successful nation of Israel. He discovers that their power lies not simply in the sword but primarily in their faith, their speech and their prayer. Attempting to combat their spiritual strength, Balak contacts a non-Jewish necromancer and prophet from Aram, known as Bilaam, and employs him to curse the Jewish people.
An infamous character with a message
In Jewish tradition, Balak is described as detesting our people more than anyone else in history. The question that arises is: Why would an entire portion in the Torah be named after one of our worst enemies, a character whose actions endangered the very existence of the Jewish people? In fact, the Talmud, when discussing the general approach to names, states: Parents should be careful never to call their child after an evil person — “for the name of the wicked shall rot.” (Proverbs 10:7)
The simple reason, aside from arbitrarily being one of the opening words, is to signify that despite his power and persistent attempts to destroy the Jewish people, his plans were foiled. Three times, from three different vantage points, Bilaam attempts to pronounce his curses, yet each time, blessings issue forth from his mouth instead. It’s as if the greatest enemy, for that moment, becomes the greatest admirer. The most famous of these words has made its way into the liturgy of Jewish prayer: “How goodly are your tents, Yaakov; your dwelling places, Yisrael!”
The second and more profound explanation relates not only to highlighting a blocked attempt or deliverance from danger, but to teach us about the power of transformation. In this story, the change in fate happened in an unusually clear way, in the form of a transmutation. G-d did not simply prevent Bilaam from addressing the Jews — by inflicting him with weakness or silencing him — nor did he replace the attempted curses with words of blessing. Instead, as the Talmud explains, Bilaam’s praises were composed of the very curses he intended to assert — slightly reworded to render them into blessings. Thus, the title of the Torah portion conveys the idea that the greatest good can emerge directly from the most potent evil or darkness.
And that’s also how these specific biblical verses, relating a tale of potential threat and dark forces, serve as the primary vehicle for the prophecy regarding the Messianic redemption: “I see it, but not now; I behold it, but not soon. A star [the Messiah] has gone forth from Jacob, and a staff will arise from Israel… and Israel shall triumph.” This theme of transformation — of curses into blessings, of darkness into light, of bitter into sweet — speaks directly to the Jewish dynasty. Tradition relates that the messiah must be of the Davidic lineage. King David himself descends from Ruth, a Moabite convert and a descendant of none other than…Balak.
Reversal and transformation
The message of transformation, as it pertains to our lives, is that the same element that initially poses as a negative force can transmute into profit. In a more benign framework, within our private inner world, one’s weaknesses can also be strengths. Someone, for example, whose sensitivity causes them to get hurt easily can, for the same reason of being in-tune, develop heightened self-knowledge and awareness. Conversely, a strong-willed and thick-skinned individual, seemingly immune to criticism or introspection, possesses a certain hardness that leads him to persevere in the business world. Likewise, wonderful creativity often flows from deep pain or a distorted perspective of the world. Most weaknesses, if recognized and handled with wisdom, can be transformed into strengths.
As it pertains to our practical interaction with the world, when someone encounters an event or period of distress (not a death) or seemingly surmountable challenge, it is incumbent upon them to bear in mind that eventual good can emerge from the challenging circumstances. The title of this week’s parasha, therefore, serves as an eternal reminder that if such good can arise from a wicked man like Balak, all the more so can we change our personal evil to an asset and wind up on a path filled with new unexpected blessings.
Rabbi Dan Lewin is director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai Foundation. For information, visit www.maayanchai.org.