י״ג בתמוז ה׳תשע״ג (June 21, 2013)
Pinchas the son of Elazar the son of Aaron the kohen has turned My anger away from the children of Israel – Num 25:11
“I hope you heard that? She called me a noble steed … she thinks I’m a steed!” – Donkey in Shrek I
Long before the Shrek script was written, the idea of a talking donkey was making the rounds. But this one was not for comedy effect, it was for real.
In the parsha today we read of one such event in yet another perilous chapter in the history of the Jewish People. On the way from the Sinai desert to claim their inheritance – the Land of Israel – they pass near Moav, the territory of King Balak. They had no intention of going to war with Balak, but he had other plans. Still smarting from the Jewish victory over fellow monarchs Sichon and Og, he decided to stop the people in their tracks – but with the power of the tongue, not the power of the sword, by hiring Bilaam.
Bilaam was a mercenary, a hired gun, and a prophet to boot. He possessed the power to curse others and cause them real harm. As he also despised the Jews he agreed to Balak’s proposal to clear the Middle East of Jews by hurling imprecations upon them from afar. He was warned by G-d that he would only be permitted to say the words that G-d placed in his mouth – but presumably reasoned he would find a way to get around that, and set off on his mission.
Bilaam and his retinue headed for Moav by donkey and en route we witness a strange event, where man is suddenly able to communicate with beast. We read of a fascinating dialogue which takes place between Bilaam and his donkey, as an angel with a drawn sword obstructs their way.
The mission then continued and Balak introduced them to the first vantage point, Bamot-Baal, whence to curse the Jews. Preparations were made, sacrifices were offered, but to no avail: When Bilaam finally opened his mouth the words that formed were blessings rather than the curses he intended.
Twice and three times this happens and each time Balak gets more angry as his guest showers involuntary blessings upon the Jewish people – beautiful blessings which are printed verbatim in the Torah and have even been absorbed into some of our daily liturgy.
One of the famous sentences declaimed by Bilaam from his lofty vantage point overlooking the Israelite camp is: Mah tovu oholecha Yaakov, mishke’notecha Yisrael – Your tents are so good, O Jacob, (and) your dwellings, O Israel!
After three unsuccessful efforts at getting Bilaam to curse the Jewish people, Balak is furious. He claps his hands together in frustration and orders Bilaam to leave. Plan A has failed.
There was, however, a Plan B (detailed in the Midrash): As Bilaam was about to leave he gave an irate Balak a small piece of advice. “Remember,” he told Balak, “there is another way to destroy the Jews. The G-d of the Jews cannot bear immorality. Corrupt them with sins of the flesh and their own G-d will destroy them!”
Sad advice indeed, but efficient. The Moabite women were now enlisted as a secret weapon in the bid to tempt the men of Israel, and sure enough it worked. The tragic results are detailed at the end of the parsha.
So the great gentile prophet Bilaam succeeded in his task – the demoralisation and devastation of the Jewish people. The secret weapon he shared with Balak was truly a potent one, with the ability to spread havoc and devastation, to break down marriages and split communities. Without morality we lose our natural defences and our Divine protection, like Samson shorn of hair.
Only one man was able to stop the nation from self-destruction … Pinchas. Pinchas stood up and forcefully put a stop to the flagrant transgression of one particularly well known individual, when even the great Moses had seemed at a loss what to do. Although violent, and without Divine instruction or prior approval, his behaviour shocked the crowd out of their immoral behaviour, and even brought to a halt the punishment G-d had begun to wreak on the Israelite camp — a plague which killed twenty-four thousand people.
The depravity and debauchery stopped, and Pinchas received his reward from Heaven … he and his descendants were brought into the Priestly fold, to become Kohanim in perpetuity.
We learn a few important messages from this parsha. We learn of the power of evil, and the overwhelming desire some of our enemies possess to do us harm, without cause or provocation. At the same time we learn of the constant thwarting of their plans behind the scenes.
We learn that we have the capacity to do more harm to ourselves than others could ever wish to do, and that immorality is one of the greatest causes of that harm.
Finally, we learn that sometimes even great and respected leaders don’t have the correct solutions, and that those who do need to stand up and be counted.
Let us hope that if we can keep the first part of Bilaam’s blessing, “Mah tovu oholecha Yaakov, mishkenotecha Yisrael” and we keep our homes pure and good, that we will merit to the later blessing — “A star has gone forth from Jacob, and a staff will arise from Israel” – referring to the advent of the Mashiach, may it speedily in our days. Shabbat Shalom.
Rabbi Zalman Lent
Rabbi Zalman Lent is a Community Rabbi in Dublin and director of Chabad of Ireland.
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