Balak 5775: What You Don’t Know….
“When you’re a carpenter making a beautiful set of drawers, you’re not going to use a piece of plywood on the back, even though it faces the wall and nobody will ever see it.
You’ll know it’s there, so you’re going to use a beautiful piece of wood on the back. For you to sleep well at night, the aesthetic, the quality, has to be carried all the way through”
— Steve Jobs
Perashat Balak is unique in more ways than one. We have a king, petrified at the thought of having to face a rapidly advancing Israel, who hires a potent and renowned prophet to fatally curse them. Yet, the prophet, despite his greatness, can’t even see the divine visions which are seen by his own donkey. We also have a near comical case of verbal mix-ups whereby the soothsayer can’t express any curses, replacing them instead, with the highest praise and blessings for the fledgling nation. This, of course, drives the king mad. It is, at least, among the more entertaining parashot of the Torah.
At times, we read an entertaining story and get caught up in the narrative, while focusing little on the setting and circumstance in which it takes place. Balak’s setting is unique in all of Torah. In no other parasha do we find Israel entirely passive and essentially oblivious to occurrences happening around them, but that are focused entirely upon them. The nation sits peacefully encamped, unaware of the fact that their enemies are peering down at them from the hills above, plotting their annihilation.
Thankfully, the dark cloud that was forming over the people was diffused. This salvation is certainly attributed to the fact that G-d did not allow the curse to be uttered by Bil’am, but how it happened is important. We are told that a great deal had to do with what Bil’am saw when viewing the people. He attempted to look at the people from various angles in order to try to hone in on a weak spot in order to curse them.
Balak said to Bil’am: “What have you done to me? I took you on to curse my foes, and here, you have blessed them!…Please go with me to another place from where you can see them — you will see only their edge — curse them for me from there! (23:11,13)
Yet, no matter the perspective, he saw Israel as a nation of integrity and spoke of them that way.
Bil’am lifted up his eyes and saw Israel, dwelling by their tribes, and there came upon him the spirit of G-d. He took up his discourse and said: “How goodly are your tents, Yaakob, your dwellings, Israel! (24:2,3,5)
A subtle, but nonetheless potent, lesson one can glean from this parasha is that there is something to be said for the identity that we present without trying to present it — the aspect of who we are that comes across to others when we are least aware that they are observing us. The character that comes across in those moments is often our truest. It is the aspect of self that emerges from the integration of all that we are and do. In this instance, the character of the nation of Israel was one of wholesomeness and integrity.
Each tribe was encamped in peace with one another and G-d’s presence was at the heart of the encampment. The internal struggles of the nation that we read of throughout the rest of Torah were precisely that — internal. But what the onlookers saw was a nation striving for greatness, and it was greatness that shined forth from its dwellings.
The most powerful and wholesome image that anyone could portray is one which emerges from the careful, deliberate and consistent building of a faithful and robust character. When we achieve this, or in the rare circumstance that a nation of people achieves it, it becomes the proud and true expression of who we genuinely are rather than the expression of how we wish to be seen. It stands as our greatest defence — even when we are wholly unaware of those who might seek to exploit our weaknesses. It is an identity that allows the presence of G-d to rest with us and flow through us.
Such an identity is not an easy one to construct, but it is the most valuable and powerful. In this world we can exert great effort in building and maintaining peripheral constructs that may stand for a time, or we can exert effort in building, step by step, a true and robust identity that itself is our greatest armour and true splendour.
Law and Lore
About the Prayers
Before the blessings of the Shema Yisrael are said during Shaharit (the morning prayer) and Arbit (the evening prayer), The Hazan invites the congregation to pray with him by saying Brekhu et Adonai haMeborakh. — Bless the Lord Who is Blessed. The congregation then answers: Barukh Adonai haMeborakh le’olam va’ed —The Lord is the Source of Blessing and Blessed forever and ever! The Hazan then repeats the line that the congregation answered.
The Hakhamim write that the idea behind calling the congregation to do so comes from the verse (Deut, 32:3) For I shall call the name of G-d, let us exalt our Lord.
Barekhu is considered a dabar shebikdusha — an ‘item of holiness’ — that is only recited in the presence of a minyan (a quorum of ten Jewish men).
Some congregations have the custom to stand and bow when answering Barekhu. This is the custom among the Ashkenazim. It is the custom of the Sepharadim to neither stand nor bow.
Some Sepharadim have the custom to stand for the Barekhu that is said in Arbit on Friday night out of respect for accepting Shabbat.
1] Sifrei Ha’azinu, 306
72b Bilaam, backed by Balak, tries to curse Yisrael (22:2-24:25)
The first deputation to Bilaam (22:5-14); A second Deputation (22:15-20);
Bilaam and the ass (22:21-35);
Arrival and reception (22:36-41); Preparations for the curse (23:1-6); Bilaam’s first prophecy (23:7-10);
New cursing arrangements (23:11-17); Bilaam’s second prophecy (23:18-24); Remonstrations and new cursing preparations (23:25-24:2); Bilaam’s 3rd prophecy (24:3-9);
Balak’s anger (24:10-14); Oracles concerning the nations (24:18-25).
73 The sin of Ba’al-Peor (25:1-9)