Fateful and fraught is the number 40 in the Torah. Forty days of rain in the flood story, 40 days for Moses on Mt. Sinai, and 40 years wandering from Egypt to the Promised Land prove the power of the number.
This Shabbat, as we read the 40th of the Torah’s 54 portions, Balak sustains all the drama that the Torah imbues in the number 40.
Unlike all of the other portions of the Torah once we have met the first Jews, Abraham and Sarah, in Genesis, Parashat Balak places the people of Israel secondary. Indeed the people of Israel are tertiary. The sedra’s namesake, Balak, King of Moab, is secondary. Balaam, the Midianite magician, is primary.
For the Israelites to be relegated to third in the sedra may reflect their deserved fate. Three Shabbats ago, the Israelites stood at the brink the Promised Land and resisted entering, despite the presence of God in their midst. God then condemned that generation to wander the wilderness until they perished. Two Shabbats ago, Korach and his cohorts led a rebellion against Moses and Aaron, in effect a rebellion against God. The rebellion was crushed, literally for Korach who was swallowed by an earthquake.
Almost 15,000 rebels died in the rebellion; measure this toll against the 3,000 executed after worshiping the golden calf. Last Shabbat, the condemned generation then perished without even a whimper. This Shabbat, the next generation is heading to the Promised Land. Only Balak and his kingdom of Moab stand between the people of Israel and their destiny. What does Balak do? He is “overcome with dread.”
Fear had led to the downfall of the Israelites three Shabbats ago. Fear led to Korach’s rebellion two Shabbats ago. Fear led to that entire generation perishing last Shabbat. God would not countenance disobedience, fear’s wicked offspring. Now, Balak reacts with fear.
Balak had ample evidence that resistance would be fruitless as well as faithless. He knew the fate of the nations who had resisted before, from the Egyptians 40 years prior to the Amorites last Shabbat. He could have permitted the Israelites to pass peacefully through Moab to the Promised Land. Balak is not the Torah’s first anti-Semite; Pharaoh earned that ignominious title. But Pharaoh’s anti-Semitism was born of ego and arrogance; Balak’s is born of fear.
In abject fear, Balak enlists the aid of Balaam, who is central in this sedra. Yet something is awry with the Midianite magician. Balaam says the right thing in four poems of praise of God and Israel, but he can’t seem to do the right thing on his own.
God must tell him what to do. Later in the Book of Numbers, Balaam will die by an Israelite’s sword, proof that left to his own devices, his magic, Balaam also is disobedient. So Balaam reverses the fear-disobedience formula. His disobedience is the prelude to his fearsome death.
Fear and disobedience in whatever order turn the Book of Numbers into the saddest of the five books of the Torah. Everyone who is undone is undone by their fear and/or their disobedience. Fear withers their faith. Their foes are faux, figments of their imagination. Disobedience fosters their downfall. Their downfall comes from within, not from without. This is true for the People of Israel to begin, and it is true for Moses too.
Parashat Balak makes it equally true for all peoples, including non-Jews, Moabites and Midianites, even powerful potentates and magicians.
Thus is the genius of Parashat Balak. It was not enough for our biblical ancestors to scrutinize their own conduct vis-a-vis divine obligations and expectations. Parashat Balak insisted that all humankind, created in God’s image, do so.
Why should it be less true for us? On balance, which animates our generation more: fear or faith? On which side of the ledger of Jewish practices and values do our actions fall: obedient or disobedient? God has not asked the impossible of us, only the right, the good and the holy. Parashat Balak asks the same of the whole world.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)