By Rabbi Yair Hoffman
Each part of this overview corresponds to one aliyah, with a summary followed by lessons.
I. Moav is frightened of Klal Yisrael. Balak, king of Moav, sends messengers to Bilam to curse them. Bilam tells the messengers to spend the night. Hashem asks who they are, and then tells him not to curse Klal Yisrael.
Why didn’t Balak seek to make peace with them instead of cursing them and planning battle after such a curse? The Malbim explains that Klal Yisrael had a different religion, and there is no hate more passionate than religious hate. From the Malbim we see that other forms of hate can be assuaged with reason and logic; not so, religious hate.
II. Bilam sends away this first delegation. Balak sends a second delegation. Hashem says Bilam can go with them but must do as He instructs.
Why did Hashem not allow Bilam to go at first but allow him to go with the second delegation? The Kli Yakar explains that the first group included officers of the lords of Moav who were biased toward making sure that Bilam would agree. The second group had only representatives of Balak and thus had no additional agenda. Hashem was concerned that the first group might influence Bilam to actually curse. We see from this Kli Yakar Hashem’s tremendous love for Klal Yisrael, as well as the fact that it is always necessary to analyze who can be a negative influence on others and to arrange logistics in such a manner as to minimize such influence.
III. Bilam goes with them. Hashem is angered and sends a hidden angel to block Bilam’s path. The donkey sees the hidden angel. Bilam strikes the donkey. Hashem opens the mouth of the donkey and they argue. Hashem allows Bilam to see the angel. Bilam tells the malach that he now sees that he has sinned. The malach tells him to only say what he tells him to. Bilam tells Balak this message.
Why did Hashem send the malach? The pesukim imply that it was to block Bilam’s path because Hashem was angry. Rashi, however, seems to understand “to block his path” to mean to stop Bilam from sinning, and that the malach was an angel of rachamim, mercy. We see from here Hashem’s concern even for a rasha, and we learn to never give up on someone. Perhaps it can even be said that we should channel “anger” into productive methods of ensuring that others don’t further sin.
IV. Bilam goes with Balak, who takes him to see a portion of Klal Yisrael. Bilam instructs Balak to build seven altars. He does. They offer a bull and a ram on each. Hashem puts words in Bilam’s mouth that bless Klal Yisrael rather than hurt them.
Why did he take him to see a portion of Klal Yisrael? The Ramban explains that he did so to focus and concentrate on them better, because the psychology of a person is to focus more when something is in direct sight. We see how Balak was so dedicated to ensuring that his plan work that he implemented psychological tools to counter anything that could go wrong. Kal v’chomer, we should do the same and even more when it comes to chesed and doing mitzvos. We should take into account the possible psychological reactions of others to ensure that nothing goes wrong.
V. Balak takes Bilam to another location, Sdei Tzofim. Again Bilam says only blessings and good things. Balak says, “If you can’t curse them, at least don’t bless them.” Bilam responds that he can only do what Hashem tells him to do.
Why did Balak suggest another place when Bilam had been unable to curse in the first place? The Ohr HaChaim explains that Balak knew that, in the future, they would suffer a great pirtzah, setback, at Sdei Tzofim. The setback they suffered there, however, was the loss of Moshe Rabbeinu. It seems, essentially, that Balak’s thought process was not incorrect. Our sins could and do prevent the fulfillment of berachah. We should keep this in mind when we are next tempted to do something improper.
VI. Balak suggests yet another location, and once again Bilam blesses them. Balak is furious and says, “I brought you to curse them, but you have blessed them three times.” Bilam responds that he can only do what Hashem says.
Why did Balak suggest yet a third place when Bilam had been unable to curse in the first and second places? The Seforno explains that in this third place, Bilam is seeing different people. Perhaps these people are on a lower level and the people of Israel can be cursed on their account. We see from this Seforno that even people of a lower spiritual level can affect other members of Klal Yisrael. We see from here that we have to worry about all segments of the community. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.
VII. Bilam says that he is returning home but will first tell Balak the future of how the other nations will eventually be destroyed. Bilam returns home. At this point some of the nation of Israel began to sin with the women of Moav and got involved with Baal Peor the avodah zarah. Hashem was angry with Klal Yisrael and sent a plague. Hashem tells Moshe that the leaders must do away with those who were involved in the idol-worship. Pinchas rams a spear through two of the violators and stops the plague.
How could a nation that saw the wonders of Hashem now sin with idol-worship? Rashi explains that they first stumbled in zima (unseemly activity). The women then required of them to first worship the idol that they removed from their laps. We see from this Rashi how one sin leads to another—to the point where we can forget the very essence of who we are. We should heed this lesson for ourselves. v
The author can be reached at Yairhoffman2@gmail.com.
This week’s lesson was prepared l’ilui nishmas the murdered yeshiva students: Yaakov Naftali ben Rachel Devorah, Gilad Michael ben Bat Galim, and Eyal ben Iris Teshurah.