Haftarah: Micha 5:6-6:8 (all) | When read together with Chukat, this haftarah, for Balak, is read.
[על-התורה] הפטרה: מיכה ה ו-ו ח (ע”פ כל המנהגים) | אם נקרא ביחד עם חקת, ההפטרה של בלק נקראת
- Moav Summons Bilaam
- Bilaam is Summoned a Second Time
- The Angel and the Talking Donkey
- Bilaam’s Seven Altars
- Bilaam’s Final Blessing
- The Affair of Baal Peor
- Pinchas’ Zeal
- Haftarah Summary: והיה שארית יעקב
Parashat Balak is an unusual section of Chumash, depicting the narrative from the vantage point of Bilaam,1 a sorcerer summoned to curse Israel by Balak, the king of Midian. In light of the military success of Bnei Yisrael against Arad and the Emori (Amorites) at the end of the previous parashah, Chukkat, Balak is alarmed and calls in this reinforcement. Bilaam, however, attempts to curse Yisrael, only to bless them, as per G-d’s word. The story of Bilaam is sufficiently strange that Chazal emphasize that this parashah was authored by Moshe.2 Bnei Yisrael than go astray in the affair of Baal Peor, sleeping with Midianite women and worshipping their gods. This is avenged zealously by Pinchas, who kills one of the offenders in the act, which is where this parsha leaves off.
Moav Summons Bilaam
After Bnei Yisrael’s successful battles in the region, Moav (מוֹאָב) and Midian (מִדְיָן), who lived in the area southeast of the Land of Israel, are alarmed. Balak son of Tzippor (בָּלָק בֶּן צִפּוֹר), the king of Moav, warns his neighbors, the Midianites, that they are next to fall to Israel. He sends messengers, elders from both Moav and Midian who are themselves sorcerers (u-kesamim be-yadam – וּקְסָמִים בְּיָדָם), to summon one Bilaam ben Beor (בִּלְעָם בֶּן בְּעוֹר) to curse these people who have come up out of Egypt. Bilaam tells the messengers to stay the night, and he will reply in the morning. That night, G-d appears to Bilaam, asks him about what is going on, and tells him not to go with the messengers or curse the people, because they are blessed. This is indeed what Bilaam tells them in the morning.
Bilaam is Summoned a Second Time
A second delegation approaches Bilaam at the behest of King Balak, promising Bilaam great reward. Bilaam tells them he cannot do anything contrary to the will of Gd despite the reward, but tells them, too, to stay the night. That night, Gd appears again to Bilaam and tells him that he may go with the delegation, but that he must do whatever G-d says.
The Angel and the Talking Donkey
Bilaam departs with the Moabite delegation, and Gd is incensed. Gd sends an angel to block (le-satan) the path on which Bilaam is riding, atop his (female) donkey. The donkey sees the angel, while Bilaam does not. She swerves to avoid the angel, and Bilaam beats her to get her back on the road. The donkey then squeezes herself against the wall, crushing Bilaam’s foot and impelling him to beat her a second time. The angel blocks the path completely, so the donkey lies down and Bilaam beats her a third time. Hashem then opens the mouth of the donkey and she speaks to Bilaam, asking him why he has beat her.3 Bilaam confesses that it is unusual behavior on the part of his donkey, and then is able to see the angel standing there with his drawn sword. Bilaam bows down, and then angel tells him he, not the donkey, is the cause, because the mission is contrary to him. The angel reiterates that Bilaam may go with the men, but must do what Gd says.
Bilaam’s Seven Altars
Balak comes out from Ir Moav (עִיר מוֹאָב) on the border of Arnon (אַרְנֹן) to meet Bilaam, asking Bilaam why he didn’t immediately agree to the mission. Bilaam tells him that he can only do what G-d says. They then travel to Kiryat Chutzot (קִרְיַת חֻצוֹת), where Balak dines Bilaam. In the morning, he takes him to look out over Israel at Bamot Baal (בָּמוֹת בָּעַל). There Bilaam tells Balak to build him 7 altars, on each of which Bilaam offers a bull and a ram. G-d appears to Bilaam, and Bilaam turns to speak to Balak and all the Moabite dignitaries that have gathered. Bilaam attempts to curse Yisrael, but is unable to do so, blessing them instead. Balak is upset, but Bilaam repeats that he can only say what words Gd has put in his mouth.
Balak theorizes that Bilaam has been unable to curse Yisrael because he couldn’t see all of them, so he takes Bilaam to a different location, Sedei Tzofim (שְׂדֵה צֹפִים) on the summit of a peak (pisgah, generally referred to as place-name). Again, Balak builds 7 altars and sacrifices a bull and ram on each. Bilaam tells Balak that he will go and seek G-d, but when he returns, he tells Balak that the word he received was to bless Israel. Balak takes a different tack and tells Bilaam neither to curse nor bless Yisrael. Bilaam reiterates that he can only do what G-d says, so Balak takes him to yet another overlook to see whether G-d will say differently there: the peak of Peor (פְּעוֹר), where they build another set of 7 altars, offering a bull and a ram on each one.
Bilaam’s Final Blessing
Bilaam at this point accepts his fate in blessing Yisrael. He begins chanting (va-yisah meshalo), uttering blessings upon Yisrael, including “how good are your tents, Yaakov, your dwellings, Yisrael” (מַה טֹּבוּ אֹהָלֶיךָ יַעֲקֹב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל). Bilaam also prophesies that Yisrael will be victorious in many battles. When Balak angrily objects, Bilaam reiterates yet again that he has already said he cannot do but what G-d says. He once again begins to chant, this time incanting about events in the far future: “A star rises from Yaakov, a scepter (shevet – שֵׁבֶט) comes forth from Yisrael” (דָּרַךְ כּוֹכָב מִיַּעֲקֹב וְקָם שֵׁבֶט מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל) which will defeat all the neighboring nations in turn, including utterly wiping out Amalek, among other mysterious predictions.
The Affair of Baal Peor
At this time, Bnei Yisrael are encamped at Shittim (שִּׁטִּים). It is there that they sleep with Midianite women, who invite them to worship their god, Baal Peor, which they do. Moshe is instructed to impale the leaders in the open, which he commands the officials of Israel (shoftei Yisrael – שֹׁפְטֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל) to do.
One of the Jews then brings a woman openly where the crowd has gathered, weeping, around Ohel ha-Mo’ed (the Tent of Meeting). Pinchas, the son of Elazar ha-Kohen (and grandson of Aharon), sees this and immediately takes a spear, follows the couple into their room, and kills both the Jewish man and the Midianite woman through the belly. The plague sent by Hashem then ceased, although it killed 24,000.
Haftarah Summary: והיה שארית יעקב
This prophecy by Micha (Micah) depicts a time when sorcery, soothsaying, and idolatry will be uprooted from Israel—that is, the very things in which Bilaam was engaged with, and which, later, Bnei Yisrael did with Ba’al Pe’or. This haftarah also explicitly recalls Balak’s plotting against Yisrael.