Why is this Parsha named after Balak, a man who set out to destroy the Israelites? If anything, the Parsha might have at least borne the name of Bilam, who at least communicated with Hashem and who blessed the Jews. Chazal teach that for all of Balak’s wickedness, he possessed at least one good attribute — honesty. Rabbi Mordechai Katz explains: Balak made no attempt to conceal his hatred of the Israelites. At least everyone knew where he stood. Bilam, however, did not possess even this attribute. He pretended to be a holy man and to aspire to fulfill only Hashem’s desires. Yet, his actions proved how hypocritical he was. When Balak’s messengers came and offered him wealth and honors in exchange for his curing the Israelites, he didn’t flatly refuse them. Rather, he told them to lodge with him overnight to await Hashem’s verdict, hoping that Hashem would give him permission to comply. The permission was denied, but when the messengers returned with offers of even greater wealth and honors, Bilam again welcomed them into his house. He hadn’t learned his lesson and remained hopeful that he might be allowed to fulfill their wishes. How could he turn down all those riches, even if it required cursing Hashem’s chosen people? And when Hashem did grant him permission this time, he left to fulfill his mission with astonishing swiftness. Nothing could stop him now. His mask of holiness and his greed came through. Unfortunately, there are many who have adopted Bilam’s tactics of pretending to have high moral values and then throwing them aside at the first chance to earn money. They mobilize all of their efforts in an attempt to become wealthy and forget that wealth is a means with which to benefit mankind.
“How goodly are your tents, Oh Yaakov; your dwelling places, Oh Israel.” This blessing (the Mah Tovu prayer) came from Bilam’s lips when he saw the Israelites’ camp. This same blessing is recited daily by Jews throughout the world. Its great importance lies in the fact that it offers appreciation for the foundation of Judaism — the Jewish family. The interaction between family members provides the structure on which Judaism needs to thrive. It is the Jewish family that provides one with love and a sense of worth, and that passes down Hashem’s traditions from generation-to-generation. It is the Jewish family that makes the individual feel part of a group and part of the Jewish nation. The Jewish people are, in reality, one big family and we should emphasize our similarities. This cohesiveness has enabled the Jewish people to survive throughout the hardest of times. It has been the Jewish family that inspired this cohesiveness and tradition.
Why did the Sages choose these words to open up the daily prayers? Rabbi Moshe Kamenetsky comments: Our Sages wanted to teach us a lesson — first thing in the morning, every day. How? Bilam, accompanied by Balak, set out to find a good vantage point from which to curse the Jews. As they traveled, they thought about the supposedly horrible character of the Jews. The two aroused their evil spirits for the worst curse of all time. But, when they looked what the two saw startled them. The tents of Israel were positioned so as to conform to the highest standard of morality: not one tent opening faced another. Those tents epitomized modesty. Bilam, a very spiritual person, was dumbfounded, and his curse would not work. The sight of these tents (and, of course, Hashem’s intervention, left him not a detractor but a advocate for Israel). Every day as we enter shul, or when children pray in school, we say the words of the “Ma Tovu” and remind ourselves that all eyes are upon eyes — what we say, what we do are observed. We are not only on this earth to see — we are also hear to be seen. Our daily actions can transform the curses of our detractors into blessings.
Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim