Parashat Balak, found in the book of Numbers, presents a compelling narrative that holds important lessons for a religious Jewish audience. This parashah revolves around the characters of Balak, the king of Moab, and Balaam (sometimes also called Bilam), a renowned pagan prophet. Through their actions and the unfolding events, we learn about the dangers of succumbing to temptation, the power of blessings, and the degree of importance good leadership must be.
Balak, the king of Moab has seen the Israelites arrive on the borders of his land, and fearing the Israelites’ encroachment, seeks to curse them to prevent their success of getting into Israel, despite their having no violent intention. He approaches Balaam, a renowned prophet known for his divination abilities, and requests his assistance in cursing the Israelites.
Balak hopes that Balaam’s curses will weaken the Israelites and allow Moab to triumph over them, given as just recently the kingdoms of Sihon and Og fell to the Israelites on their military might alone. Balaam, despite his questionable character and offering up sacrifices, is divinely constrained from saying a curse and is only able to utter the words that God puts into his mouth. Instead of cursing the Israelites, he pronounces a series of three blessings upon them after the fateful meeting of an angel, as Balaam rides over on his donkey.
Since God has stated that He cannot allow curses on this people for their righteousness, Balaam designs a plan to send in thousands of women, including Balak’s daughter, to seduce the Israelites and convince them to worship idols. While this does have a seriously damaging effect in the short term, only those who fell to temptation are punished via a plague while the rest continue with God’s blessing.
This does not bring about Balak’s intended result of hoping that leading the Jews astray and provoke God’s wrath upon the nation. It proves a point about the nature of covenant with God: that He will not curse his people, and still wants the best for His nation even if they act in ways they shouldn’t at times. They are punished only according to the individual transgressions but His love and protection does not leave the Jewish people.
Parashat Balak provides a crucial lesson for a Jewish audience. It underscores the potency of blessings and the significance of staying faithful to God’s commandments. Balaam’s inability to curse the Israelites highlights the divine protection that comes from remaining in alignment with God’s will.
On the other hand, the parashah serves as a warning against succumbing to temptation and falling into sin. The Israelites’ momentary lapse in morality led to grave consequences, demonstrating the importance of upholding their covenant with God. This is in many ways the eternal lesson for if it were not for divine intervention and the maintainance of the covenant, the Jews, exiled one land to the next, would have never survived with any sense of identity, independence, or Torah. Only an upstanding Jewish community could be expected to last for thousands of years, and even this is miraculous.