THOUGHT FOR PARSHAT BALAK 5780

BY RABBI CHAIM FACHLER

 

A huge question arises as we study the beginning of this week’s dramatic narrative.

 

The facts are well documented. King Balak sends his ministers to offer the corrupt prophet and sorcerer Bilaam a handsome reward to curse the Children of Israel. They had just conquered the mighty Og King of Cheshbon en route to the Promised Land, and were now encamped on the border of Moab and Midyan.

 

Initially, Bilaam cunningly and greedily plays hard to get, and sends his visitors packing. So Balak in desperation sends “higher ranking” ministers to offer Bilaam unlimited riches, if only he would come and curse this threatening nation.

 

Bilaam suggests they stay the night so that he can get HaShem’s permission to curse His Chosen People (yeah, right …). HaShem tells Bilaam: “If the men came to summon you, arise and go with them, but only the thing that I shall speak to you – that shall you do.” So on the surface, Bilaam received express permission to go with Balak’s VIP representatives. Which explains the very next verse “Bilaam rose in the morning (maybe a little too eagerly) and saddled his donkey (himself – too eager?) and went with the officers of Moab.”

 

And yet the Torah immediately reports: “And HaShem’s wrath flared because he (Bilaam) was going (with them) and an Angel of HaShem stood on the road to impede him.” This of course is followed by the incident of Bilaam’s speaking donkey and Bilaam’s eventual apology. But surely the question must be asked, after HaShem gave Bilaam explicit permission to accompany Balak’s people, why was HaShem so very angry with Bilaam for going? And to make it even more complicated, after the entire episode of the donkey, HaShem repeats His earlier permission almost word-for word “Go with the men, but only the word that I shall speak to you – that shall you speak.”

 

So what are we missing here?

 

Both the Kli Yakar (16th century) and the Netziv (19th century) explain with a brilliant lesson in grammar, which shows just how rich the Hebrew language really is.

 

In English, according to the Thesaurus, the preposition “with” can mean “by means of”, “among”, “in the company of” or “in addition to”. When HaShem tells Bilaam he can go “with” Balak’s emissaries, obviously the connotation is “in the company of”. But even “in the company of” doesn’t necessarily tell the whole story. A prisoner can go “with/in the company of” his captors, but it’s with obvious reluctance. But when a politician claims he is “with” a specific party or faction, it means he also identifies with them. It’s not just “in the company of”.

 

In Hebrew, there are two ways of saying “in the company of”. Come with me can be said “Bo iti” or “Bo imi”. Both are correct. But according to the Kli Yakar and the Netziv, “iti” means in the physical company of, whereas “imi” signifies a high level of identifying with.

 

When HaShem gave Bilaam permission to go, He tells him “Lech itam”, go with them. When the Torah relates that Bilaam did go with them, it states “Vayelech im sarei Moav” – he went with using the term “im”, implying that Bilaam totally identified with the task at hand.

This is reinforced by the terminology used much earlier on, when HaShem tells Bilaam not to accompany the original junior ministers sent by Balak. “And God said to Bilaam, you shall not go with them!” “Lo telech imahem”, as opposed to “Lo telech itam”.

 

The Hebrew language is indeed rich, and our better understanding of the Torah in all its never-ending splendour can and should be enhanced by our own deeper study.

 

Shabbat Shalom,