Parashat Balak is the fortieth weekly portion in the Torah and the seventh in the Book of Numbers (22:2-25:9). Except for its last nine verses, the portion is all one unbroken paragraph in the Torah scroll. It is arguably the first portion to be singled out in Talmudic sources, as Tractate Bava Batra states: “Moses transcribed his book and the Portion of Balaam.” Balaam the Prophet is the other protagonist of the portion, a prophet whom King Balak of Moab attempts to hire to curse the Israelites, who have just taken over the neighboring Amorite territories of Sihon and Og.
At first glance, Balaam appears to be a righteous person. In Chapter 22, he initially resists the overtures of the elders of Moab and Midian, piously declaring that he cannot go anywhere with God’s permission. When Balak sends more distinguished representatives, God relents and lets him go. However, along the way, Balaam encounters an angel — which the donkey he is riding can see but he cannot, at least at first. This angel repeats the warning of saying anything against God’s will.
In Chapter 23, Balaam arrives in Moab and seeks the message of God — which turns out to be a blessing for Israel, time after time after time. Finally, in Chapter 24, Balak fires Balaam, but the latter does not leave without issuing his prophetic warnings to all the nations of the region.
It is therefore shocking that Balaam is presented as the epitome of evil in the Mishna — as the villainous antithesis of Abraham in Ethics of the Father and as one of the few people who has no portion in the World to Come in Tractate Sanhedrin.
However, if we recall that “Moses transcribed his book and the Portion of Balaam,” this begins to make sense. Because Balaam was a prophet in his own right and a contemporary of Moses, the latter might have hesitated to rewrite the prophecies of the former. Thus, the Portion of Balaam is written with him as the hero when it is absorbed into Moses’ book, the Torah. Still, in other portions, Moses gives us some hints to Balaam’s true nature, as we will see in the coming weeks.
Ultimately, Balaam represents a paradox we face in life all too often: a person of questionable character who crafts beautiful and inspiring work. Indeed, the Talmud says that, the Portion of Balaam is so magnificent and moving that, were it not for its daunting length, the Rabbis would have mandated its recital twice daily. Thus, we condemn Balaam’s evil acts, but we celebrate the splendor of his words.
The portion from the Prophets is Micah 5:6-6:8, which contains the charge: “My people, remember now what Balak king of Moab consulted, and what Balaam the son of Beor answered him from Shittim to Gilgal; that you may know the righteousness of the Lord.”