Parashat Balak: The Story of Bilam as a Lesson in Emuna
Parashat Balak tells the famous story of the attempt made by Balak, the king of Moab, to annihilate Am Yisrael by hiring a gentile prophet, Bilam, to place a curse on them. G-d intervened and protected Beneh Yisrael by forcing Bilam to bless them, instead.
The Gemara in Masechet Berachot (12b) makes a startling statement, telling us that the Rabbis considered including this section of the Torah as part of our daily Shema text. They thought that this story is so vitally important that it should be read each and every day, as one of the paragraphs of Shema. The only reason why they did not include it, the Gemara tells, is because it is quite lengthy, and would inconvenience people to have them recite it each day.
The obvious question arises, why would this section have been selected for the daily Shema recitation? What is it about the story of Bilam that warranted its daily recitation as part of the text of Shema?
Rav Pinchas Friedman (contemporary) finds the answer in the connection between Bilam and another evil man who sought to destroy our nation – Laban, the uncle and father-in-law of Yaakob Abinu. As we read in Parashat Vayeseh (Bereshit 31:23-24), Laban pursued Yaakob, and just before he caught up to him, G-d appeared to Laban and warned him not to "speak with Yaakob good or bad" – implying that, like Bilam, Laban sought to kill Yaakob and his family with speech, by placing a curse on them. The Arizal (Rav Yishak Luria, 1534-1572) taught that Laban was Bilam’s grandfather – and, moreover, that Laban’s soul was reincarnated in Bilam. This explains several aspects of the story of Bilam, including the incident when an angel obstructed his path as he traveled, and the donkey veered to the side and crushed Bilam’s leg against the wall (22:25). Targum Yonatan Ben Uziel writes that this wall was the heap of stones prepared by Laban and Yaakob as a symbol of the truce that they eventually made (Bereshit 31:46-53). They pledged that neither would cross this collection of stones to inflict harm upon the other. Bilam – a reincarnation of Laban – violated this truce when he crossed these stones on his way to curse Beneh Yisrael, and so his leg was injured by these very stones.
One of the points of connection between Laban and Bilam is the fact that they both despised Beneh Yisrael, but ended up helping our nation. As much as Laban despised Yaakob and everything he stood for, he ended up giving Yaakob four wives with whom he produced the twelve tribes. In essence, Laban – who hated Am Yisrael – inadvertently built the foundations of the Jewish Nation. Bilam, too, set out to destroy Beneh Yisrael by cursing them, but G-d transformed these curses into beautiful blessings, some of which are used even to this day.
We can now understand why the story of Bilam was deemed worthy of being included in the text of Shema, when we reaffirm our faith in G-d. Shema begins with the proclamation, "Hashem Elokenu Hashem Ehad" – that G-d is one, that He is the only fully independent power in the world. Nothing else in the world has any independent control or authority; the sun rises each morning only because G-d has it rise. The greatest – or at least one of the greatest – manifestations of G-d’s exclusive power is the way He manipulates the wicked to achieve the precise opposite of what they set out to accomplish. The story of Bilam shows us how even when an exceedingly powerful or talented enemy sets out to destroy Am Yisrael, he not only fails, but ends up making Am Yisrael better and stronger. This is why the Rabbis considered including this story as part of Shema – because it serves as a powerful lesson in Emuna, teaching us that nobody and nothing has any power besides G-d.
Learning this story, then, should reinforce our faith in Hashem, and remind us that no matter what kind of problem we face, no matter what difficulties we struggle with, G-d, who exercises full, unlimited control over the world, can assist us. We never need to experience fear or anxiety, because, as the story of Bilam reminds us, G-d has the power to transform any situation – no matter how difficult – into a source of great blessing.