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Parshas Balak discusses the story of Balak, the Moabite King, who hired Bila’am, a wicked gentile prophet, to curse the Jewish people. Rashi (Parshas Balak, 22:2) quotes the Tanchuma (#2) who explains why Balak engaged in a preemptive strike against the Jewish people to begin with.
He says that it is because Balak witnessed how the Jewish people destroyed the Amorite kingdoms of Sichon and Og (Parshas Chukas, 21:24 & 35). Balak was frightened that the Jews would do the same thing to Moav. Therefore, he hired Bila’am to annihilate the Jewish people by cursing them.
This raises a question. If Balak already saw how victorious the Jews were against Sichon and Og, which were arguably stronger than Moav, how could he (Balak) think that he would overpower the Jewish people?
There is another strange idea about Parshas Balak that we are going to explore right now.
In Meseches Berachos, (chap. 1, “M’aimasai”, pg. 12b) it cites Rav Yehuda bar Zevida who said that the Sages wanted to institute the recitation of Parshas Balak together with the daily Shema. The only reason why they voted against it was because davening would take too long for the average person to bear.
This begs us to ask another question. What is it about Parshas Balak that the sages wanted it read with the Shema on a daily basis?
Let us explore some other fascinating material regarding Parshas Balak. The Rambam in his Pirush Hamishnayos to Meseches Sanhedrin (chap. 11, “Cheilek”) lays down the Thirteen Principals of Faith that every Jew must believe in. The twelfth tenet states that we believe in and anticipate the coming of Moshiach.
The Rambam in Hilchos Melachim (11:1) goes on to tell us that the source in the Torah concerning the coming of Moshiach to redeem us is found in Parshas Balak. When Bila’am said, “I will see him but not now” (Parshas Balak, 24:17), he was referring to Dovid Hamelech. When Bila’am went on to say, “I will look at him but it is not clear” (ibid), he was referring to Melech HaMoshiach.
The Rambam continues when Bila’am said, “A star has issued from Ya’akov” (Parshas Balak, 24:17), he was referring to Dovid. When Bila’am went on to say, “And a scepter has risen from Israel (ibid)”, he was referring to Moshiach. When Bila’am said, “And he will pierce the nobles of Moav (Parshas Balak, 24:17), he was referring to Dovid, and when Bila’am went on to say, “And undermine the Children of Seth” (ibid), he was referring to Moshiach.
The Rambam continues when Bila’am said, “Edom will be a conquest” (Parshas Balak, 24:18), he was referring to Dovid, and when he went on to say, “And it will be a conquest,” he was referring to Moshiach.
We see from the Rambam that the source of Moshiach is found in Parshas Balak. This brings us to another question. Why would Hashem place the faith that we are supposed to have in Moshiach’s arrival in Parshas Balak?
The Shvilei Pinchas answers this question in a simplistic way. He says that it is because Rus was a Moabite (Rus, 1:4), and Dovid was a descendent of Rus (Rus, 4:18:24), which means that Moshiach is also a descendent of Rus. Therefore, it is fitting to mention Moshiach in Parshas Balak, who was the King of Moav, because the origins of Moshiach began from Moav (see Baba Kamma, chap. 4, “Shor Shenagach Dalet v’Hey”, pg. 38b, Parshas Devarim, 2:9. Also see Meseches Nazir, chap. 4, “Mi She’amar”, pg. 23b).
As we proceed, we will see a deeper reason as to why Hashem revealed Moshiach specifically in Parshas Balak. We are going to see why Hashem arranged that this prophecy concerning Moshiach would come about through such a contaminated man like Bila’am. To do so, let us share some fascinating information about Bila’am himself.
In Parshas Mattos (31:8) it says that Bila’am was slain with the sword. Targum Yonasan (ibid) shares some of the historical backdrop surrounding Bila’am’s death. He says that when Bila’am saw Pinchas running after him, he (Bila’am) performed a certain magical spell and began to fly in the air to escape.
Immediately, Pinchas uttered God’s Great Name and began flying after him. Pinchas overtook Bila’am, grabbed him by his head, and brought him back down to earth. Pinchas drew his sword in order to kill Bila’am when Bila’am began to speak words of supplication.
Bila’am said that if Pinchas were to spare his life, he promises never to curse the Jewish people ever again. Pinchas responded, “Aren’t you Lavan the trickster who wanted to destroy Ya’akov Avinu? When that did not work, you descended down to Egypt with Ya’akov’s offspring in order to destroy them.”
This idea fits into the Gemara in Meseches Sota (chap. 1, “Hamekaneh”, pg. 11a) where Rav Chiya bar Aba said in the name of Rav Simai that Bila’am (Lavan) was one of Pharaoh’s advisors who advised Pharaoh to murder the Jewish people.
Pinchas continued, “When the Jewish people left Egypt, it was you who instigated Amalek to attack them. Then you incited the Jewish people by trying to curse them. When you saw that all of your efforts failed, you advised wicked King Balak to send his daughters out by the crossroads to cause the Jewish people to sin with harlotry. Because of that sin of prostitution, 24,000 Jewish people died. Because of this, you no longer deserve to have your life spared.” Targum Yonasan concludes by saying that Pinchas drew his sword from its sheath and killed Bila’am.
One difficulty which this Targum Yonosan this raises is that, according to this report, Lavan would have to be hundreds of years old. This is because Lavan makes his first appearance in the Torah when Avraham had sent Eliezer to find a wife for Yitzchak (Parshas Chayei Sara, 24:29). In addition, the Jews spent two hundred and ten years in Egyptian bondage (Rashi Parshas Miketz, 42:2, citing Bereishis Rabba, Parshas Miketz, 91:2, Rav Aba bar Kahana). This would indicate that Lavan was hundreds of years old.
Although technically there is nothing surprising about living so long in light of other Biblical personalities who have lived even longer periods of time; nevertheless, there is a source which tells us that Bila’am was killed at a relatively young age.
In Meseches Sanhedrin (chap. 11, “Cheilek”, pg. 106b) it relates that a certain heretic once asked Rebbi Chanina how old Bila’am was when he was killed. Rebbi Chanina responded that this information is not written down anywhere explicitly; however, there is a verse which says, “Men of blood and deceit will not live out half of their days” (Tehillim, 55:24).
Rebbi Chanina concluded by saying that since the average lifespan of a person is seventy years (Tehillim, 90:10), it must be that Bila’am was killed when he was either thirty-three or thirty-four because then he would not have lived out even half of his days.
The heretic was impressed with this response and told Rebbi Chanina that he had spoken correctly because he (the heretic) had come across a document that was called, “Bila’am’s Chronical” in which it said explicitly, “Bila’am the lame was killed by Pinchas when he (Bila’am) was thirty-three years old.”
Now we are faced with a contradiction because according to Targum Yonasan, Bila’am was hundreds of years old when he died, whereas according to the Gemara in Sanhedrin, Bila’am was only thirty-three years old when he died.
The Arizal (Eitz Chaim, sha’ar 38, chap. 3) reconciles this apparent contradiction by stating that Targum Yonasan never meant to say that Bila’am was literally the same person as Lavan, but rather Targum Yonasan meant to say that Bila’am was a gilgul (reincarnation) of Lavan.
Once we have established that Bila’am was a gilgul of Lavan, we will be able to understand the reason why Bila’am’s leg got crushed on a wall of stones. In our parsha it reports that when Bila’am was riding on his donkey through a vineyard to go and curse the Jewish people, an angel of God stood in the path of the vineyard, where there was a fence on one side and on the other side (22:24). The verse goes on to say that the donkey saw the angel of God and pressed itself against the wall which crushed Bila’am’s leg (Parshas Balak, 22:25).
Targum Yonasan (22:24) says that this was the very same place in which Ya’akov and Lavan had erected a pile of stones as a monument. Back in Parshas Vayeitzei it says that Ya’akov and Lavan made a peace-treaty with each other and they erected a “gal shel avanim” (pile of stones) which served as a sign and as a witness testifying to this truce between them. They vowed not to cross that pile of stones for the purpose of harming each other or each other’s descendants.
The Midrash Tanchuma (Vayeitzei, 13) adds that this explains the reason why Bila’am got his leg crushed specifically on that gal shel avanim. It is because Bila’am transgressed the oath which he himself had made when he was Lavan in that very spot. Therefore, Bila’am, alias Lavan, was punished by that pile of stones because that pile served as a witness to their treaty, as the pasuk says, “The hand of the witnesses will be upon him first” (Parshas Shoftim, 17:7). This means that when witnesses testify against someone, they (the witnesses) are the ones who carry out the sentence issued by the court. Therefore, the gal shel avanim, who were the witnesses to the treaty that Lavan made with Ya’akov, carried out the sentence issued by God and crushed Bila’am’s/Lavan’s leg.
The Arizal (Sha’ar Hapesukim; Likkutei Torah) adds that this explains why Bila’am was killed when he was specifically thirty-three years old. It is because Bila’am was a reincarnation of Lavan, and Lavan swore to Ya’akov that he would not pass by that pile of stones [which was called, “gal-eid,” meaning “pile” (gal) of stones which serves as “witnesses” (Eid)] to harm Ya’akov or his descendants. Since Bila’am/Lavan did pass by that pile of stones to harm the Children of Israel (Ya’akov), he was punished with death at the age thirty-three because the number thirty-three is the numerical value of the word, “gal” (spelled gimmel Lamed). The age thirty-three demonstrates that he deserved to die on account of transgressing the oath he made at the “gal” (numerically 33) of stones.
The Shvilei Pinchas adds that this is why Ya’akov chose a pile of stones to begin with to be used as the sign between them. It is because a “pile” is a “gal,” and the word gal is spelled gimmel lamed, and gimmel lamed is the acronym for “Gilgul Lavan” (the reincarnation of Lavan). This teaches us that Ya’akov did not just forge a covenant with Lavan himself, but Ya’akov also made this treaty with Gilgul Lavan (Lavan’s reincarnation) who was Bila’am. Therefore, when Bila’am/Lavan transgressed his oath by passing by the gal to harm Ya’akov’s descendants, Bila’am was killed at the age of thirty-three, which is the numerical value of the word “gal.”
The Shvilei Pinchas says that this explains why Balak specifically chose Bila’am to curse the Jewish people. It is because Balak, through his own magical powers, knew that Bila’am was a gilgul of Lavan. Therefore, Balak lodged a complaint against Bila’am. Balak said that it was Bila’am who brought Ya’akov into his home when he (Bila’am) was Lavan (Parshas Vayeitzei, 29:13). It was Bila’am/Lavan who gave his daughter’s hands (Rochel and Leah) in marriage to Ya’akov when he (Bila’am) was Lavan.
As a result of those weddings, the Shevatim (tribes of Israel) were born (Parshas Vayeitzei, 29:32-30:25). Therefore, Balak claimed that it was Bila’am’s/Lavan’s fault that there were Jewish people to begin with. Since Bila’am built the Jewish people, he would have the responsibility of destroying the Jewish people.
Perhaps this answers the question about how Balak thought that he would be victorious over the Jewish people even after witnessing how they (the Jews) just destroyed the Amorite kingdoms of Sichon and Og. It is because Balak thought to himself that if Lavan built the Jewish people, he (Bila’am/Lavan) would know how to take them apart. Just as a mechanic knows how disassemble his own creation, so would Bila’am/Lavan know how to obliterate his own creation.
Speaking of Lavan building the Jewish people, imagine how happy Lavan was when he married off his daughter, Leah, to Ya’akov instead of Rochel. After that wedding, when Ya’akov took Leah to his home, Lavan must have gone out drinking at the local bar with his buddies. After a few shots and some smokes, they must have been laughing at how they had just tricked Ya’akov into marrying Leah.
As Lavan laughed below, Hashem must have been laughing Above because from this union between Ya’akov and Leah would come a son called Levi from which all Kohanim and Leviim would stem. Ya’akov and Leah would also produce a son named Yehuda who would be the progenitor of kings including Dovid Hamelech and, eventually, Melech HaMoshiach. They would also give birth to Yissachar and Zevulun thereby creating the tribe of Torah learners and their supporters. How is that for turning a curse into a blessing?
Now we are going to see why Hashem chose to build the Jewish people from Lavan. The Midrash (Bamidbar Rabba, Parshas Chukas, 19:1) expounds upon the verse in Parshas Chukas (19:2) which says, “This is the chok (decree) of the Torah.” The Midrash says that this verse is reminiscent of another verse which says, “Who can produce purity from impurity, Lo Echad.”
The simplistic translation of those last two words, “Lo Echad,” is “no one.” Meaning, no one can produce purity from impurity. However, the Midrash offers an alternative translation to those words (Lo Echad) which is, “Is it not the Only One?” Meaning, only Hashem could bring purity from impurity. The Midrash provides several illustrations to support this idea. For example, Avraham (the pure one) came from Terach (an impure one). Olam Haba (the coming world; pure) comes from Olam Hazeh (this world; impure).
The Midrash concludes, “Who did this, Who commanded this, Who decreed this? Is it not the Only One, the Unique One of the world?”
The Avnei Neizer (Rabbi Avraham Bornstien, 1838-1910, Poland, the first Sochotchover Rebbe; Naos Desheh, vol. 1) explains this Midrash as follows. He says that the Sitra d’Achara (evil forces from the dark side) are called “Elohim Acheirim” (other gods; Parshas Yisro, 20:3). This is because they try to make themselves out to be gods so that people will think that they possess independent powers.
However, we believe that there is no power in the world which does not receive its energy from Hashem. Meaning, everything in this world must receive its life force from Hashem. This is because Hashem created everything, including good and evil as it says, “Who forms light and creates darkness, Who makes peace and creates evil” (Yeshaya, 45:7).
The reason why Hashem created evil was so that we could exercise our free will to choose good over evil and life over death (Parshas Netzavim, 30:19). In fact, this is the message of the Shema in which we conclude with the words, “Hashem Echad” (God is One; Parshas Vaeschanan, 6:4). This means to say that Hashem is the Only Power Who has complete control over all forces, including the dark forces of evil.
The Avnei Neizer goes on to say that this is why Hashem uses wicked people to build the Jewish people. It is so that the entire world will come to recognize that the forces of evil have no independent power of their own. Hashem wants the entire world to realize that the life-support system of the dark side comes from Hashem.
This is why Hashem orchestrates that purity comes from impurity. It is to show that Hashem Echad (Hashem is One)! Hashem demonstrates this by forcing wicked people to build the Jewish people. Hashem displayed this when He had Lavan build the Jewish enterprise, and Hashem proved this again when He forced Bila’am to assist the Jewish people by blessing them.
Rashi (Parshas Vaeschanan, 6:4) elaborates on this when he explains the words, “Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad” (Hear O’ Israel, Hashem is our God, Hashem is One). He says that this means that Hashem, Who is our God now but not yet [recognized as] the God of the idol worshippers, will one day be recognized even by them (the idolaters) as the One and Only true God, as it says, “For then I will change the nations to speak a pure language so that they will all proclaim the Name of Hashem” (Tzafania, 3:9).
Rashi goes on to quote another verse, “On that day Hashem will be (recognized as) One and His Name will be (recognized as) One” (Zecharia, 14:9). This means to say that even the nations of the world will recognize the Unity of Hashem. This complete power of Hashem is manifested when He manipulates wicked people to build and assist the Jews, as He did with Lavan and Bila’am.
The Shvilei Pinchas says that now we can understand why the sages wanted to institute the recitation of Parshas Balak together with Keriyas Shema. It is because in Parshas Balak we see how Hashem manipulated wicked people to help the Jewish people. This shows us the Oneness of Hashem because even the forces of evil are subservient to Hashem.
This is precisely the message of Shema; namely, that God is One! Therefore, since we see Hashem’s Echad’ness from Parshas Balak, the Sages wanted us to read Parshas Balak together with Keriyas Shema because they share the same theme; demonstrating the Unity of God.
The Shvilei Pinchas says that this will also offer a deeper reason as to why Hashem placed the source of Moshiach in Parshas Balak. It is because when Moshiach comes, he is going to reveal to us how Hashem manipulated even wicked people to assist the Jewish people. At that time, the whole world will recognize that Hashem and His Name are One (Zecharia, 14:9).
Since Moshiach will teach us about this total control of Hashem, Hashem placed the source of Moshiach specifically in Parshas Balak because it is in this parsha where we see this total dominion of Hashem.
As a means of a practical application of this teaching, when we recite the Shema, let us keep in mind that even the forces of evil in this world have been enlisted by God in Hashem’s army to carry out that which is beneficial for the Jewish people. This thought alone can help strengthen our Emunah that Hashem is indeed Echad.
So, may we, B’nei Ya’akov, all be blessed with such success that even the nations will participate in assisting us further in our Torahdika way of life, and may the entire world recite the verse of Shema Yisrael, testifying to God’s unity, when Moshiach ben Dovid arrives and “gals” (reveals; spelled gimmel lamed) to us all that everything they did was ultimately for the Jews.