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Parashat Balak: Foiling Bilam’s Plan

The Torah in Parashat Balak tells the famous story of the attempt made by Bilam, a gentile prophet, to place a curse on Beneh Yisrael and thereby enable Moab, the nation that hired Bilam, to annihilate them. G-d prevented Bilam from uttering a curse, and forced him to praise and bless them, instead.

After Bilam made three failed attempts to curse Beneh Yisrael, Balak – the king of Moab who had summoned him – despaired, and told Bilam to leave. Bilam replied, "I am hereby going back to my people; let me advise you as to what this nation will do to yours at the end of days" (24:14). He then proceeded to present a prophecy about Am Yisrael’s triumph and dominion over other nations, including Moab, in the Messianic era.

Syntactically, this verse – "let me advise you as to what this nation will do to yours at the end of days" – seems very difficult to understand. The word "advise you" ("I’asecha") indicates that Bilam here was giving Balak practical advice. But then he says, "what this nation will do to yours at the end of days," indicating that he is merely predicting the future, and indeed, in the verses that follow, Bilam gives a prophecy of what will happen in the end of days. Why, then, does Bilam begin by saying, "I will advise you"? What "advice" is he giving?

Rashi, based on Targum Onkelos, explains that this verse refers to two different things which Bilam told Balak. First, he gave him advice – to have the women of Moab lure Beneh Yisrael to sins of immorality and idolatry, which would evoke G-d’s anger and cause them to be annihilated. Sure enough, in the very next chapter, we read of how the women of Moab succeeded in luring Beneh Yisrael to sin, to the point where G-d punished 24,000 members of the nation, and would have annihilated the nation entirely if not for the heroic act of Pinhas, who killed two public violators. This was the successful implementation of Bilam’s advice. Secondly, Bilam gave Balak a prophecy about the events which will unfold in the times of Mashiah.

The difficulty with this explanation, however, is that the verse omits the content of Bilam’s advice. Bilam said merely, "let me advise you as to what this nation will do to yours at the end of days," without explaining what "advice" he was giving. Why would this be omitted from this verse?

A fascinating answer to this question is offered by the Nahalat Yaakob commentary (by Rav Yaakov Lorberbaum, author of the "Netibot Ha’mishpat," 1760-1832). He writes that if not for Beneh Yisrael’s sin with the women of Moab, Bilam’s prophecy would have been fulfilled then, in that generation. That generation would have been the generation of Mashiah, of the final, permanent redemption. Bilam knew this, and so he advised Balak how to see to it that the redemption would occur only "Be’aharit Ha’yamim" – "at the end of days," in the distant future. This, the Nahalat Yaakob explains, is the meaning of the verse – Bilam was advising Balak how to delay the events he described in his prophecy, and ensure that they would happen only much later in history.

This explanation sheds entirely new light on this entire story. Many commentators raised the question of why Balak was afraid of Beneh Yisrael, to the point where he frantically summoned Bilam to curse them, given that G-d had explicitly commanded Beneh Yisrael not to wage war against Moab (Debarim 2:9). In light of what we have seen, the answer is clear. Balak understood that Beneh Yisrael were on the brink of the Messianic era, and he wanted to prevent this. The attempt to annihilate Beneh Yisrael through a curse failed, and so Bilam advised Balak to do the next best thing – to delay the final redemption by luring Beneh Yisrael to sin. Unfortunately, this plan succeeded, as several millennia have passed and we still find ourselves in exile, longing for redemption.

If so, then this story reminds us of the great importance of maintaining proper standards of morality and Seni’ut as part of our effort to bring our final redemption. Bilam’s strategy for delaying the redemption was to lead Beneh Yisrael to engage in inappropriate relationships; the way we foil Bilam’s plan is by firmly adhering to the Torah’s standards of Seni’ut. Of course, this has become an especially difficult challenge in our generation, and particularly during the summer months. But this time of year is also the period when we mourn the destruction of the Bet Ha’mikdash and yearn for our final redemption. Thus, this is a time to reaffirm our commitment to Seni’ut and the Torah’s moral code, through which we bring our nation closer to our final redemption and the arrival of Mashiah.

Parashat Behaalotecha- Rectification is Always Possible
Parashat Naso- Emuna First
Shavuot- Celebrating the Eternal Torah
Shavuot- The Challenge – and Rewards – of Torah Commitment
Parashat Behar- Experiencing the Sweetness and Delight of Torah
Parashat Emor- Keter Shem Tob 'The Crown of Good Reputation'
Parashat Ahare Mot- Planting Our Spiritual Trees
Parashat Shemini- Respect and Reverence in the Synagogue
Pesah: Redemption Then and Now
Pesah- Its A Mirage
Parashat Vayikra- The Triple Sin of Dishonesty
Parashat Pekudeh- Counting the Things That Matter
Parashat Ki Tisa- The Sanctity of Every Jew
Purim and the Sale of Yosef
Parashat Terumah- The Torah’s “Footsteps”
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