Shabbat Balak

Candles - June 29th @ 8:11pm
Havdalah - June 30th @ 9:05pm
Fast of the 17th Tammuz - Sunday, July 1st
Starting @ 4:20am, Ending @ 9:05pm

This week’s reading is named after Balak king of Moab in alliance with Midian. He invited Bilaam the renowned magician to come and curse the Israelites because Balak did not think he could defeat them using conventional means.

The whole of reading focuses on the character of the magician and how instead of cursing he ends up praising the Children of Israel and forecasting a great if difficult future. The narrative shows how although Bilaam thinks he is in control, infact it is God who pulls the strings of human life. Magic is just a human tool, unreliable and unpredictable.

Did Bilaam really exist or was he a myth? In 1967, archaeologists in Jordan found an inscription describing the visions of a prophet of Baal and Ashtoreth called Bilaam, the son of Be'or, who may be the same Bilaam mentioned here and in other passages of the Bible. They dated the inscription to around 840–760 BCE which is some four hundred years after the biblical narrative.

Clearly, Bilaam was an important character throughout the ancient Middle East. But was he really a magician or just a symbol of magic? Like Satan, a word also used in his context this week. The Torah diminishes him. Shows how his ass sees things he can’t and is wiser than him. The whole narrative is a polemic against magic and an assertion that Divine directions are the only ones that can be relied upon.

This Sunday we have the fast of the 17th of Tammuz in memory of the destruction of Jerusalem that led to the loss of two Temples and our national freedom. God may give us directions, even tell us that we will survive long term. But if we screw up, we face the consequences. It is not magic that gives us victories or defeats. It is our capacity to make the wrong decisions.