Parashat Balak contains some fascinating narrative about the nature of the Jewish people, and some uncensored insight into the duality of human existence.
In the parasha we learn of the desires of Balak, the King of Moav, to eliminate Moshe and the Israelites. Balak is terrified by reports of the chosen people’s military victories over neighboring monarchies and, although not directly threatened by Israel, decides to take action . Since Moshe, the celebrated Israelite leader, spent his formative years under the tutelage of his father in law Jethro ,the high priest of Midian, perhaps the Midianite elders would have insights into his weaknesses as well.
Rashi (Num. 22:4) explains that the Midianites told Balak that Moshe has “no power except for his mouth”. Recall that the Torah says that G-d speaks to Moshe “Mouth to Mouth” (Num. 12:8). Yet, instead of assembling an army to destroy Moshe and the Israelites, Balak sends for the evil prophet Bilaam. Quoting the midrash Rashi writes, “We, too, will confront them with a man whose power is in his mouth”.
Bilaam is hired to use his mouth to curse the Israelites.
The parasha details how the mouth of Bilaam fails, and repeatedly offers blessings instead of curses. The power of the mouth is highlighted by the famous story of Bilaam’s donkey speaking, having a prophetic encounter beyond the ability of her owner.
In the end a frustrated Bilaam advises that Israel’s downfall would be through their eyes instead.
The Talmud explains the process, starting with lusting after articles of clothing, until physical lust takes over with an infamous episode of idol worship and debauchery.
The results are catastrophic, leading to the death of 24,000 Israelites via a divine plague.
Similarities with the episode of the golden calf abound.
Although the number of casualties (3000) is less, the conditions are almost identical. In Parashat Ki Tisa the Torah says “They arose early the next morning, and offered burnt offerings, and brought peace offerings. They sat down to eat and drink, and got up l’tzachaik.” (Ex. 32:6) Although commonly translated as playfulness and laughter, Rashi informs us that this means licentious behavior.
Here too, in our parasha, the illicit activities are preceded by eating and idolatry. “They (the Moabite women) invited the people to their idolatrous sacrifices, and the people ate and prostrated themselves before their gods (Baal Peor).”(Num. 25:2)
Rav Kook describes the worship of Baal Peor as the epitome of idolatry. Unlike the shiny and polished Golden Calf, Peor was worshipped in a disgusting ritual described in the Talmud (Sandedrin 64a).
After the Calf, the Torah tells us the people had exposed themselves spiritually, by their idolatry. Moshe issues the challenge, “….Mi Ad-nai elee, whoever is for G-d, come with me!….” (Ex. 32:26). All the Levites gathered round, and delivered justice.
In our parsasha the episode culminates with an Israelite having relations with a Midianite woman at the entrance to the Mishkan, in full view of all the Israelites, a physical exposure. Once again, the tribe of Levi stands up, as Pinchas takes action to stop the public desecration of the holiest spot on earth.
Once again, those who would deny the will of G-d tried to silence G-d’s witnesses, but in the end it is only the Jewish people themselves responsible for their downfall .
Even today, assimilation and intermarriage are able to achieve what no foe could ever do. We are our own worst enemy.
These days idolatry has shifted to the worship of money and power, and it is painfully obvious how this kind of worship leads to further erosion of the moral fabric of our society.
How many headlines over the past few years were filled with the rich and famous falling from grace due to the inability to control their basest urges!
Judaism teaches that humans are both physical and spiritual beings, and that our physical desires can be channeled, through the Torah’s teachings, into tools to help us reach our full potential.
Our mouths can create great beauty, and pray for divine assistance in the challenges of our earthly existence, or create damage and destruction worse than we can imagine.
Our eyes can keep us inspired by observing the presence of G-d in the world, or lead us into a world void of holiness and spirituality.
The choice is ours.