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Parashat Balak ("Devastator")

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July 4, 2015
Tammuz 17, 5775

Fast of Tammuz

Balak
 

Num. 22:2-25:9
[Table Talk]

Micah 5:6-6:8

Rom. 11:25-32

 

Chukat

Overruling the Wicked...

This week's Torah portion (Balak) is named after a fearful Moabite king (בָּלָק) who sought to curse the Jewish people by hiring the services of a wicked Midianite "prophet" named Balaam (בִּלְעָם). King Balak's plan was to employ Balaam's sorcery (כַּשָׁפוּת) against the Israelites to prevent them from entering the Promised Land. Similar to the delicious irony that befell the villain Haman in the Book of Esther, however, King Balak's scheme was upended, and the curse he sought to put on the Jewish people was repeatedly pronounced as a blessing by Balaam instead.  After several foiled attempts to curse the Israelites, Balak finally dismissed the prophet from his service, but before departing from the dejected king, Balaam ironically prophesied the destruction of the Moabites and the victorious establishment of Israel. The shameful story of Balaam reveals that "there is no enchantment against Jacob, no divination against Israel" (Num. 23:23). Ein od milvado (אֵין עוֹד מִלְבַדּו) - no weapon or scheme devised against God will ever prosper (Isa. 54:15-17).

But who was this mysterious prophet named Balaam?  According to Jewish tradition, Jacob's wicked uncle Laban had a son named Beor (בְּעוֹר), who became the father of Balaam.  In other words, the "cursing prophet" Balaam was none other than the grandson of Laban:


 

Note that the name "Beor" first appears in connection with a king of Edom (Gen. 36:32), which suggests that Balaam might have once been a king of the Edomites (i.e., the descendants of Esau). Further note the phonetic similarity to Peor. If Beor and Peor are the same, then Balaam was actually a prophet of Baal Peor, a local Semitic god.

Balaam was regarded as a great seer, magician and an adept in the occult. He had an "evil eye" and drew the spirit of demons to anything he gazed upon (Avot 5:22).  His notoriety made him famous, and powerful people asked him to invoke curses on their enemies. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 106a) states that Balaam became so famous as a magician that he later became a chief advisor to Pharaoh. It was Balaam who advised the new Pharaoh to enslave the Israelites and to afflict them with brutal taskmasters (Exod. 1:8-11). For more information about the identity of Balaam, see the entry entitled, "The Curses of Balaam."

The Fast of Tammuz

According to Jewish tradition Moses shattered the tablets on the 17th day of the 4th month, after he came down from Sinai and found the people worshipping the golden calf. Today, this tragic date is commemorated as a fast day (i.e., the "Fast of Tammuz"), which marks the beginning of a three week period of mourning that culminates on Tishah B'Av (i.e., the date when the people tragically believed the evil report of the spies and were sent into exile).

During this three week period of national mourning, the weekly readings from the prophets are all "Haftarahs of Rebuke" that warn the people about imminent judgment from heaven, and therefore the theme of most Jewish religious services is teshuvah (repentance). In addition, weddings or other joyous events are usually not held during this time of year. Indeed, among the very Orthodox, the last nine days of the three weeks are the most rigorous and solemn. Beginning on the first day of the month of Av, traditional mourning customs are practiced in anticipation of the most solemn fast day of Tishah B'Av, when the Book of Lamentations (Megillat Eichah) is plaintively recited during the evening service.

Three Weeks of SorrowThree Weeks of Sorrow

This year the Fast of Tammuz begins at dawn on Sunday, July 5th and lasts until sunset. Tishah B'Av begins Saturday, July 25th and ends Sunday, July 26th at sunset.

Blessing before Torah Study:

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Some terms:

  • Parashah is the weekly Scripture portion taken from the Torah. Each parashah is given a name and is usually referred to as "parashat - name" (e.g., parashat Noach). For more information about weekly readings, click here.
     
  • Aliyot refer to a smaller sections of the weekly parashah that are assigned to people of the congregation for public reading during the Torah Reading service. In most congregations it is customary for the person "called up" to recite a blessing for the Torah before and after the assigned section is recited by the cantor. For Shabbat services, there are seven aliyot (and a concluding portion called a maftir). The person who is called to make aliyah is referred to as an oleh (olah, if female).
     
  • Maftir refers to the last Torah aliyah of the Torah chanting service (normally a brief repetition of the 7th aliyah, though on holidays the Maftir portion usually focuses on the Holiday as described in the Torah).  The person who recites the Maftir blessing also recites the blessing over the Haftarah portion.
     
  • Haftarah refers to an additional portion from the Nevi'im (Prophets) read after the weekly Torah portion. The person who made the maftir blessing also recites the blessing for the Haftarah, and may even read the Haftarah before the congregation.
     
  • Brit Chadashah refers to New Testament readings which are added to the traditional Torah Reading cycle. Often blessings over the Brit Chadashah are recited before and after the readings.
     
  • Mei Ketuvim refers to a portion read from the Ketuvim, or writings in the Tanakh. Readings from the Ketuvim are usually reserved for Jewish holidays at the synagogue.
     
  • Perek Yomi Tehillim refers to the daily portion of psalms (mizmorim) recited so that the entire book of Psalms (Tehillim) is read through in a month. For a schedule, of daily Psalm readings, click here.
     
  • Gelilah refers to the tying up and covering the Sefer Torah (Torah Scroll) as an honor in the synagogue.
     
  • Divrei Torah ("words of Torah") refers to a commentary, a sermon, or devotional on the Torah portion of the week.

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