OzTorah: Torah reading – Balak



Judaism owes a debt to the heathen prophet Bilam. Not only did he coin the immortal words,

“Mah Tovu Ohalecha Yaakov” – “How goodly are your tents, O Israel” (Num. 24:5).

He also epitomised the world’s fascination with the Jewish people when he said,

“How can I damn (the people) whom God has not damned? A people that dwells apart, not reckoned among the nations. Who can count the dust of Jacob, number the dust-cloud of Israel? May I die the death of the upright: may my fate be like theirs!” (Num. 23:7-10, JPS translation).

Jews too muse on their own enigma. Whether Judaism chose us, or we chose Judaism, there is something distinctive about being Jewish that is hard to explain. Our numbers have always been small: yet our spiritual and cultural achievements are massive.

Judaism won’t let us go: we won’t let Judaism go. We don’t all fulfil the whole of the commandments, but Jewishness has us in its thrall even if some of us tinker with our heritage and experiment with eliminating one or other aspect of the tradition.

Every now and then there are Jews who try to escape, but they almost all come back. The Jewish destiny has a powerful hold.



Though Balak seems to have been a rather important tribal ruler, we are not certain how he got his name. Possibly it is from a root that means “to lay waste”, which might connect with his plan to destroy the Israelite camp.

His father was called Tzippor, which normally means a bird. Perhaps it can be linked with a Semitic root that means “morning”, symbolising new energy and resourcefulness.

Hoopoe – Israel’s national bird.

According to Midrashic speculation, Balak was a prince – not even an important one – but not the son of a king. He gained the throne of Moab because of a combination of ambition (he believed he could stabilise the kingdom), prophecy (Bilam had foretold Balak’s rise to power), warrior-strength and political machinations within the kingdom. He acknowledged Bilam’s gift of divination but realised that Bilam loved money, so he offered him vast rewards for cursing Israel.

The question is why he hated Israel so much; the answer may be that he thought they had had a charmed journey through the wilderness and feared they would overtake his kingdom.

Why did Balak want Bilam to curse them? Like many ancient figures, he believed that prophetic blessings and curses could change the course of history. The defeat of Israel would not be brought about by military might alone. It needed metaphysical strength.

What Bilam found, however, was that God’s spiritual power was greater than his. If God opposed him spiritually there was nothing he could do, and his words of execration turned to blessing in his mouth.



Popular thinking regards “Sh’ma Yisra’el” and “Mah Tovu” as prayers. Actually both are declarations, addressed not to God but to the people of Israel.

The “Sh’ma” (Deut. 6) is Moses calling upon the people with a proclamation:

“Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord alone”.

“Mah Tovu” in this week’s portion is Bilam, the heathen prophet, telling Israel how impressed he is with them:

“How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling-places, O Israel”.


On one level the tents and dwelling places are the homes in which the Israelite people live. According to the rabbinic sages, what made Bilam so impressed was that there was an instinctive principle of privacy and respect for other people that led to the Israelite tents being arrayed in such a manner that no-one could see straight into anyone else’s tent. A community with an inbuilt sense of modesty and respect was worthy of praise. The praise was also warranted, say the sages, by the sight of the synagogues and places of study of the people. Even in unpromising surroundings they refused to abandon their prayer and study.

Bilam saw from outside what the Israelite people themselves probably did not notice, that they were a wonderful people precisely because when they did what they saw as perfectly natural they were endowing themselves with survival power.

If Bilam were alive today he would also find a great deal to praise. Jewish identity and commitment are strong, visible and growing. The temptations of the environment cannot extinguish the little light of Judaism. The drift and apathy that characterise the minority of Jews cannot overwhelm the faithful majority.

Years ago one had reason to bemoan that Jews were to be found everywhere, but not in Judaism. Today the picture is being reversed. Jews are to be found everywhere, especially in Judaism. And all by voluntary choice. No-one is coercing us to be Jewish, nor to desert Judaism. The choice is ours. Fortunately, most Jews choose to count themselves in. The so-called “Non-Jewish Jew” about whom so much has been written in gradually becoming a thing of the past.

How goodly are our tents and dwelling places!


Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, and was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and the leading spokesperson for Jews and Judaism on the Australian continent. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem.  Blog: http://www.oztorah.com




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