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Parshat Balak

A tongue-tied wizard. A talking donkey. An enraged king. Game of Thrones? Aesop's Fables? No, it's this week's confounding (at least for Shabbat mom) parsha Balak. Balak, king of the Moabites, is terrified (with good reason) that the approaching Israelites will destroy his kingdom. He calls upon Balaam (a wizard of sorts) "son of Beor in Pethor" to "'Come then, put a curse upon this people for me, since they are too numerous for me...'" G-d appears before Balaam and tells him not to follow Balak's messengers who have come for him because "'You must not curse that people for they are blessed.'" Dutiful Balaam refuses to join Balak's men despite their offerings of great riches; but when they come a second time, he follows. "But G-d was incensed at his going; so an angel of the Lord placed himself in his way as an adversary." Balaam, "riding on his she-ass" does not see what his donkey does: "the angel of the Lord standing in his way, with his drawn sword in his hand." The terrified animal refuses to continue and a frustrated Balaam beats her; this cycle repeats itself three times. "Then the Lord opened the ass's mouth" and she confronts her master. "'I am the ass that you have been riding all along until this day.!'" G-d "uncovered Balaam's eyes and he saw the angel of the Lord" who tells him to continue on his journey but "' must say nothing except what I tell you.'" When Balaam meets Balak, from a spot where they can see the Israelites, Balam instructs the king to "'Build me seven altars here'" and make sacrifices. But rather than cursing the people, as Balak wants, Balaam instead blesses the Israelites since "the Lord put a word in Balaam's mouth". This, too, happens three times. "'When He blesses, I cannot reverse it.'" says Balaam. "'No harm is in sight for Jacob, no woe in view for Israel. The Lord their G-d is with them, and their King's acclaim in their midst...How fair are your tents,O Jacob! Your dwellings, O Israel!'" Balaam predicts the destruction of the Moabites, the Amalekites and the Kenites. At the end of the parsha, we learn that while camped at Shittim, "the people profaned themselves by whoring with the Moabite women", leading to idol worship. G-d orders Moses to "impale" the "ringleaders" and "slay those of his men who attached themselves to (the god) Baal-Peor'". At the same time Phinehas, "son of Eleazar son of Aaron the priest" sees an Israelite man take a Midianite woman alone into a "chamber". He stabs them both and thus "the plague against the Israelites" that ultimately claims 24 thousand people "(is) checked". Even a story that some commentators suggest may have a comic cast ends with a stark, haunting message about what happens when the people ignore G-d's words and stray from His path.

Shabbat Shalom!

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