In recent weeks we have seen how the People of Israel faced enemies and defeated them one by one, with the help and spiritual support of Adonai and guided by Moshe: an unbeatable duo.
And we come to Parashat Balak. A confusing parashah. A story in which a foreign king, Balak, king of Moav, puts together his own duo with Bilam: a pagan sorcerer with supernatural powers, among which is the ability to dialogue with Adonai. Our God. The God of the People of Israel—a strange fact in itself.
And this new duo faces the duo that was unbeatable, Moshe and the Kadosh Baruch Hu.
In this parashah, we find the second animal that speaks in the Torah. The first was the serpent in Gan Eden, the realm of Adam and Eve. The second is the donkey on which Bilam was transported and that talks to its owner when he goes to curse the People of Israel by order of Balak... We find that there are too many ingredients in this story and all of them are somewhat disorienting. In fact, our sages tell us that the combination of the two names, Balak and Bilam, make up the word “bilbul”, which means confusion.
Now let's tidy up a bit. Balak saw the triumphs of Bnei Israel and understood that the next one to face them was going to be Moav, his own people. He knew that the source of his enemies' strength came from their god. And that the one who made pair with that god was Moshe.
He only had to go to the origins of Moshe—to the Midianites, with whom he lived when he escaped from Egypt when the people were still slaves—to understand that Moshe's power lay in his word and in his bond with God (and so the Midrash Rabbah tells us).
Balak understood that hiring someone like Bilam, a sorcerer expert in handling words, both to curse and to bless, could dismantle that power that Moshe wielded.
The story is ordering. Except that Bilam consults with Adonai and he is denied the possibility of cursing the people that He Himself brought out of Egypt. Balak, the king of Moav, insists on offering a payment in exchange for the curse—and this is where the sorcerer, far from cursing, blesses the people with the prayer with which we open our morning prayers, Ma Tovu Ohalecha Iaacov.
The story of the Torah tells us that the king of Moav wants to condition Bilam so that his curse arises, taking him to a rock from which he can only see a part of the camp of Israel. Surely he would want the sorcerer to see only one part, probably that "bad" part of the people that would generate the spirit of cursing it. But it was not like that.
Bilam looks at the beauty of the organization of Israel, looks at its spirituality, sees that connection of a people with its leader and with God, and he can’t help it, but bless.
Perhaps that is exactly why we open our prayers with Ma Tovu: because it is the sincere blessing of one who sees everything and recognizes it; one who looks from the outside and can leave what seems defective to appreciate what is truly worth.
God willing, we will be able to order ourselves when we see bilbul, confusion around us or in our lives. May we change the words of evil to words of good and blessing. But above all things, may we learn to be objective, to be able to see the bad and the good in their proper measure and to value EVERYTHING that we have with the possibility of improving what is wrong and maintaining and enriching what is right.