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Balaam’s Unlikely Prophecy
Mon, 06/30/2014 - 20:00
Special to the Jewish Week
Shlomo Riskin
Shlomo Riskin

Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 8:12 p.m.
Torah: Num. 22:2- 25:9
Haftarah: Micha 5:6-6:8
Havdalah: 9:12 p.m.

At the conclusion of the Torah, which is also the conclusion of Moses’ physical existence on earth, the text records: “Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face” [Deuteronomy 34:10]. Our Sages comment, “Never did such a prophet arise among the Israelites, but among the nations of the world such a prophet did arise — Balaam son of Beor” [Yalkut Shimoni]. This stunning statement indicates that Balaam was not only gifted with prophecy but could even be compared to Moses! If the task of the prophet is to communicate God’s words to the people, we must then take seriously the words of Balaam and learn from them.

Indeed, in synagogues throughout the world for thousands of years, daily prayers begin with the words of Balaam, “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your Sanctuary, O Israel [Numbers 24:5].” Apparently, Balaam himself was inspired when “he saw the Israelites dwelling according to their tribes” [Num. 24:2]. Rashi explains that Balaam was especially moved by the modesty of their family lives, “that the doors and windows of the respective homes did not face each other.” And the Israelites brought the unique quality of their family life, the sanctity of their homes, into their national institutions: our Temple and our study halls are Beit HaMidrash, a home of sanctity; our synagogue a Beit HaKnesset, a home of “gathering” for prayer and festival celebrations (national togetherness). What is it about the familial home which makes it so cardinal to Jewish life? What has the familial home to do with our national institutions?

I write these lines at a time when family as an institution is severely embattled. Many family gatherings feature “his” children, “her” children, and “their” children, and more and more couples are opting to have no children, or opting not to get married at all!

Why family? It’s an institution that limits one’s sexual partners, producing children who require much time, energy and expenditure and often give back heartache.

One of God’s earliest judgment calls, immediately before the creation of Eve, is: “It is not good for the human being to be alone” [Genesis 2:18]. “Alone” means first of all, social loneliness; the human being, endowed with a portion of God from on high, has the ability and the fundamental need to reach out beyond himself to an “other” in communication and love [Gen. 2:7, Targum]. And “alone” also means existential alone-ness, our being limited to our own circumscribed individual bodies, and our mortal dread of the time when that individual entity which is “me” will cease to be.

And why children? Balaam sees that ultimately Israel will triumph; our compassionate righteousness will triumph over Amalek’s cruel grab for power [Num. 24:17-20]. Balaam prophesies, “From the tops of the rocks I see [them]” [Num. 23:9], which Rashi interprets, “I see your origins and roots firmly entrenched in your matriarchs and patriarchs.”

God charged Abraham to become a great nation and a blessing to the world [Gen. 12:3]. Abraham will command his children and household (his historic family) to do compassionate righteousness [Gen. 18:18-19], with each Israelite generation commanding the next until we finally succeed when all the nations accept a God of morality and peace [Isaiah 2:2-4]. We receive our identity and mission from our forbears, and remain optimistic and hopeful because of our progeny.

We are deeply rooted in our past and highly responsible for our future; we are each a golden link in an eternal chain of being; we are each a crucial part of the great Unfinished Symphony that is Israel. All past generations live in us; we live in all future generations. The Yiddish word for grandchild is ein’i’kel, a combination of two Hebrew words, “ein kul” (“there is no destruction!”) We are our grandchildren, and our grandchildren are us.

In Jewish love and marriage and children, we give ourselves to our life-partners, we give ourselves to our past and to our future, and what we receive is God’s promise that the nation of Israel and its mission will never be destroyed.

Our God-given task is to pass the baton to our children, our students, and to people we may touch along the way. And our synagogues, our learning academies and even our Holy Temple are passing down those traditions which emanated from the House of Abraham and Israel, which our forbears bequeathed to the children of Israel, and which we know contains the roadmap to a future redeemed.   

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and Chief Rabbi of  Efrat.


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I know Moses got quite upset when he was given the news of Balaam's death, saying it was for another reason. But I like to think of a mother, perhaps grief stricken, hiding the real reason for her tears from her children.