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Balak – A thought for the week by Michael Lewis

It is curious that the Sedra is named after the instigator of the proposed curses against us, Balak, rather than his agent, Bilaam. Rabbi Hertz mentions that the majority of the reading, up to the section describing the actions of Pinchas, was originally called the “Sefer Bilaam”, the book of Bilaam and his talking donkey.

Here, in the first blessing that Bilaam utters, we are described as a nation.

אֲשׁוּרֶ֑נּוּ הֶן־עָם֙ לְבָדָ֣ד יִשְׁכֹּ֔ן וּבַגּוֹיִ֖ם לֹ֥א יִתְחַשָּֽׁב:
it is a nation that will dwell alone, and will not be reckoned among the nations

In the second blessing we read

הֶן־עָם֙ כְּלָבִ֣יא יָק֔וּם
a people that rises like a lioness

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsh commented that there is a distinction between being a nation circumscribed by physical boundaries and a people living within a society bound by culture and by law. On Saturday night it will be 17 Tammuz, traditionally a day of fasting commemorating the three weeks of mourning and the destruction of both Temples. It would be as a “people” we would survive not just that physical damage but also generations of oppression and hate.

It is, of course, the third blessing that we recall in our daily services when Bilaam proclaims

מַה־טֹּ֥בוּ אֹֽהָלֶ֖יךָ יַֽעֲקֹ֑ב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶ֖יךָ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל:
Ma tovu ohalekha Ya'akov, mishk'notekha Yisra'el
How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel

Re phrasing that statement as a question so it reads”How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel?” is a powerful message even to this day. Continuing to question who we are and what we do reminds us of our history, our traditions and the Torah which guides our law.

Mr Bumble, the character in Dickens’ Oliver Twist, famously cries out “the law is an ass”. In the Sedra this week Bilaam comes to realise that the “ass” may be a source of wisdom.

As a footnote: Balaam’s talking friend is described as a “she-donkey”. A male donkey would be a jackass! As we read in the Eshet Chayil prayer describing a wife

She opens her mouth with wisdom
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