Haftarah Parshat Balak
June 22, 2013
14 Tammuz 5773
The connection between this week’s haftarah and the Torah reading is obvious. The parasha recounts Balaam’s attempts to curse the children of Israel only to have God thwart his attempts and turn his curses into blessings. Generations later, the prophet Micah recounts this episode in order to remind the children of Israel that God deserves their gratitude: “My people, remember what Balak king of Moab plotted against you and how Balaam son of Beor responded to him. [Recall your passage] from Shittim to Gilgal and you will recognize the gracious acts of the Lord.” (6:5)
Micah expected the memory of this past event to rekindle his people’s faith in God. Generations later, Hasidic thinkers looked at these same biblical events and found in them existential meaning meant to keep these stories relevant to the faith life of all future generations. In a drashah on Parshat Balak, Rabbi Shalom Noach Barezovsky, the Slonimer Rebbe (20th century Jerusalem) asks why of all the events that Micah could cite, he chose the story of Balaam.
In response, he notes that the Zohar speaks of this story hyperbolically, calling it the worst event ever to befall Israel. Since the Balaam story is one of curses transformed into blessings, Barezovsky seeks his answer to this perplexing question by determining the difference between a blessing and a curse. To be blessed, according to Barezovsky, is to be connected to God (devekut) while to be cursed is to have this connection broken. Balaam, in his desire to curse Israel, sought to destroy this connection between God and Israel. To accomplish his goal, he wanted to destroy Israel’s moral life, their connection to God and their ability to restore their relationship with God through repentance. On a Jewish existential level, this is the worst possible fate. God, of course, removed this opportunity from his hands. )See Netivot Shalom Parshat Balak – Ami Z’chor Na)
The Balaam story has been transformed into a parable about the life of the modern Jew. Balaam represents those forces which would strip the Jew of his connectedness to the Jewish tradition and as a consequence, God. These forces are inimical but God is there as a bulwark to give the Jew the strength to foil them. How is this accomplished? According to Berezovsky, the remedy is to have steadfast faith in God. If one maintains faith, one will never be far from being close to God. This relationship will nourish the strength necessary to maintain the kind of life which will keep a person close to God, the true source of our strength.
This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. The United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem offers students of all backgrounds the skills for studying Jewish texts. We are a vibrant, open-minded egalitarian community of committed Jews who learn, practise and grow together. Our goal is to provide students the ability and desire to continue Jewish learning and practice throughout their lives. Rashei Yeshiva: Rabbi Joel Levy & Dr. Joshua Kulp. Rabbi Joel Roth, Rosh Yeshiva Emeritus . Sponsors – The Conservative Yeshiva would like to thank the following for their generous support of the Haftarah Commentary: