In this week’s Torah portion, Balak, (Num. 22:2 – 25:9) Balak, king of Moab, goes to the Midianite prophet Balaam to hire him to curse the people Israel. Balak, we are told, saw what Israel had done to the Amorites and was alarmed at their growing numbers. Balaam, after hesitations and refusals, agrees to do Balak’s bidding, but he cautions Balak, “I can utter only the word that God puts into my mouth” (Num. 22:38).
Three times, Balak leads Balaam to view the Israelites, and three times, Balaam opens his mouth to curse them, and blessing comes from his mouth instead. Balak is furious. What is this prophet doing? But Balaam repeats that he can only say the words that God puts in his mouth. He then puts forth another prophecy which envisions a bright future for Israel and doom for its enemies. Enraged and defeated, Balak returns to his home, and Balaam does the same. At the very end of the parshah, we learn of an Israelite man who brings a Midianite woman home with him, and for a reason not made clear at this time, either idolatry, immorality or both, the high priest Pinchas kills them both.
In his book Torah Today, Rabbi Pinchas Peli raises the question, since Balak knows Balaam’s reputation, saying, ”he whom you bless is blessed indeed and he whom you curse is cursed” (Num. 22:6) why did he not request the blessing of his own people rather than a curse on Israel? Rabbi Peli’s answer is as follows: “Then, as always, the enemies of Israel preferred its destruction, even at the expense of the destruction of their own peoples, to concentrating on constructive matters which would benefit both themselves and their neighbors.”
This past week, we learned of the tragic murder of three Jewish youths and the additional tragedy of the killing of a Palestinian youth in Israel, purported to be a revenge killing for the three Israelis. These deaths have brought the situation in the area, already tense, to the brink of war. Fury and blame are everywhere, even as facts and solutions are few. May we remember, as the parshah teaches us, that Israel is blessed only when we act in accordance with God’s Torah. When we too fall into the cycle of vengeance and retribution, only more sorrow and bloodshed can result. May cool heads and hearts which respect life prevail in this sad and frightening time.