Haftarah Parshat Hukat/Balak
June 22, 2002 in Israel (Balak)
In the haftarah, the protection that God proffered the people of Israel from Balaam’s curses was considered by the prophet Micah to be an act of considerable tzedakah (righteousness): “My people, remember what Balak king of Moab plotted against you and how Balaam son of Beor responded to you. [Recall your passage] from Shittim to Gilgal and you will recognize the gracious acts of the Lord.” (Micah 6:5 – NJPS translation) Micah’s intention, in this verse, was to convince the people of Israel that God deserves their loyalty.
This verse serves an entirely different purpose is the following Talmudic passage: “And Rabbi Yochanan said in the name of Rabbi Yose: From where do we know that one should not attempt to appease a person at the moment of his/her anger? For it is written: ‘My face will go and I will give you rest.’ (Exodus 33:14) [This means that] the Holy One Blessed be He said to Moses: ‘Wait until My anger has passed, then I will give you rest.’ [The Talmud asks:] ‘And does God get angry?’ [The Talmud replies:] “Yes, as it is taught in a baraita (a teaching from the period of the Mishnah): God becomes angry every day. And how long is His anger? A moment…. And no person can determine precisely when that moment is except for Balaam, the wicked one. For it is written about Balaam: ‘one who knows the mind of God’ (Numbers 24:16) Now he did not even know the mind of his animal, so how could possibly know the mind of God. Rather he knew the exact moment when God becomes angry [and was able to direct his curses to that hour.] And this is what the prophet Micah meant when he said to the people of Israel: ‘My people, remember, please, what Balak king of Moab plotted and what Balaam son of Beor answered him, from Shittim to Gilgal, so that you may know the tzedakot (benevolence) of God’ (Micah 6:5) Rabbi Elazar said: The Holy One Blessed be He said to Israel: Pay attention to the tzedakah that I have shown you for I refrained from getting angry all of the days of Balaam the wicked. Otherwise there would not have remained even a remnant of the people of Israel. This is the meaning of what Balaam said to Balak: ‘How can I curse? God has not cursed. And how can I cause anger? God has not become angry. (Numbers 23:8) This teaches that all the days [that Balaam wanted to curse the people of Israel], God did not become angry.” (adapted from Berachot 7a)
This story about the interaction between God and Balaam comes to teach a valuable lesson in human behavior. God serves in this story of a model of restraint. Despite the people of Israel’s sometimes recalcitrant behavior, God controlled His anger in order to protect Israel from Balaam’s curse. This story turns self control from merely a human virtue into a divine ideal. Each of us, when we manage our anger, in effect, is imitating God’s qualities as found in this midrash. God’s self restraint saved the people of Israel. This same self restraint may also serve this same role in our relationships with those we cherish.
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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