Haftarah Parshat Balak (Micah 5:6-6:8) outside of Israel
July 23, 2016 / 17 Tammuz 5776
Please note: in Israel we read Parshat Pinchas
In the second prophecy on this week’s haftarah, the prophet Micah challenged Israel’s disloyalty to God. He recounted God’s wondrous works for His people and their lack of gratitude. Among the divine acts mentioned by Micah was God’s deliverance of the nation from the malicious intent of Balak and his hired prophet, Balaam: “My people, remember what Balak king of Moab plotted against you and how Balaam ben Beor responded to him. [Recall your passage] from Shittim to Gigal, and you will recognize the gracious acts of the Lord.” (6:5)
This sentence gives a concise outline of the story found in the parashah but does not describe how Balaam intended to “disconnect” God from His people nor how God’s “graciousness” would be expressed. The traditional commentators focused largely on the question of God’s graciousness. For Rashi, God’s “graciousness” was displayed in his willingness to refrain His anger towards Israel during the duration of Balaam’s mission against them. Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra saw God’s mercy in turning Balaam’s curses into blessings.
Rabbi Shalom Noah Berazovsky, the Slonimer Rebbe, in his work, Netivot Shalom, focused instead on Balaam’s attempt to destroy the connection between God from His people, seeing in this event the most traumatic event in the history of Israel. What shaped this audacious characterization? Israel’s blessing and hence its “saving grace”, according to Berazovsky, was its closeness with God (devekut, literally, clinging to God). For this, they had Moshe as a guide. Balaam’s expertise was exactly the opposite. He was the master of the “curse” who knew exactly what to do to distance Israel from God.
One gets an inkling of Balaam’s intent from the blessings God’s forced upon him, curses transformed by God into blessings: “He has seen no harm in Jacob and has seen no trouble in Israel.” (Numbers 23:21) Berazovsky intuits from this verse that Balaam had intended to remind God of all of Israel’s sins, to heap it on so that God could no longer stand their presence. God answered in kind by forcing Balaam to bless Israel instead as a reminder that the relationship between God and Israel was unbreakable.
Berazovsky likens Balaam to other biblical villains like Lavan who, in Jewish lore, used similar tactics to try to bring down the Jews. It is uncanny how characters such as these rise up every once in a while, trying to pin the world’s problems on the backs of the Jews or on the backs of the Jewish state, Israel, not that we are without our problems, but it is uncanny how the accusers never look in their own backyard to check if their critiques can’t also be found in their own homes.
God’s answer is clear and definitive. Where you curse, I will bless. May the blessing help us fix ourselves and protect us from the world’s Balaams.
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.
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