Torah for the Times

Friday, July 6, 2012 - 16 Tammuz, 5772

Torah Reading: Balak (Numbers 22:2 - 25:9)
Candle Lighting Time: 8:11 PM
Shabbat ends: 9:20 PM

Honey or Sting?

The Choice

Our Parshah tells us that Balak, the King of Moab, was terrified of the Jewish people. Their triumphant victory over the two mighty kings, Sichon and Og, instilled terror in the hearts of the Moabites. To deal with the “Jewish problem” and threat, Balak hired a heathen prophet and professional “curser” named Bilam to bestow his most vile curses on the Jewish nation. In the end, Bilam was unable to utter even one curse. Moreover, the curses that he intended to utter were transformed into the most beautiful blessings, including predictions of the ultimate Redemption through Moshiach!

In the beginning of this narrative, when the elders of Moab (and Midian) approach Bilam with their request, G‑d came to Bilam in a dream and ordered him not to go with the Moabites and not to curse the Jewish nation “because they are blessed.”

Balak, however, did not take no for an answer. He sent a more distinguished delegation to implore Bilam to curse the nation. That night, G‑d appeared to Bilam once more and [and] instructed him: “If the men have come to call you, rise up and go with them, but only the word which I speak unto you that shall you do.”

What did G‑d have in mind when He told Bilam in the second dream that he could indeed go with this delegation? Nachmanides explains that G‑d was, in effect, instructing Bilam to tell the Moabite emissaries that they had to make a choice. Either they return without Bilam, who not only lacks permission to curse the Jews, but might actually be compelled to bless them, or go with Bilam, despite his likely inability to perform the curse. In the end, Bilam did not transmit G‑d’s message, leaving the emissaries, under the impression that G‑d was going to permit Bilam to curse the Jews.

Commentators are baffled at the choice that was given to the Moabite emissaries. Why would they want to go with Bilam if they knew that he could not curse the Jews and he might even bless them? What benefit would they reap from simply going along with Bilam? And if G‑d wanted Bilam to tell them that under no circumstances would he be able to curse the Jews, He could have stated just that. Why did G‑d seem to leave some room for a “change of heart,” and perhaps plant false hopes by suggesting that they may go along with Bilam? Wasn’t He teasing them?

Whose Sting and Whose Honey?

In truth, it may be suggested that the Moabite emissaries would have agreed simply to go along with Bilam in the hope that he would do something, even if it were blessing the Jewish nation. This premise is based on Rashi’s earlier comment in which G‑d tells Bilam not to curse the Jews “because they are blessed.” Rashi observes that Bilam asked G‑d if he could at least bless them. G‑d’s response was, “they do not need to be blessed because they are already blessed.” Rashi then adds a parable of what one would tell the bee: “I don’t want your sting or your honey.”

At first glance, this entire response is difficult to grasp. Why would we reject the bee’s honey? Indeed, we don’t normally reject it. Honey is a delicacy and a sought-after commodity that sweetens our lives. Indeed, there are bee keepers who are more than willing to sustain bee stings as a way to procure this food.

Upon deeper reflection, it becomes apparent that the blessing of Bilam is not really honey; it is just another façade to obscure the sting. When an evil person blesses us, beware. It might be a subterfuge that, in the end, will prove to be a curse. Hence, the emphasis, “I don’t want your sting or your honey.” Honey from a friend—and even an occasional rebuking sting from a well-intentioned person—is desirous, but neither is welcome when it comes from a villain like Bilam.

Identifying with the Enemy

On a deeper level, the danger of Bilam blessing the Jews is valid even if he meant to bless them because they might ascribe their blessings to him. This is often a problem in our lives as well, instead of realizing that G‑d is the true source of blessing, we can sometimes think that our good fortune is associated with outside forces—with the Bilams of the world. This phenomenon of identifying with our enemies when we receive some measure of good from them is a well-known psychological phenomenon known as the “Stockholm Syndrome.” When a Jew identifies with and pays homage to exile forces (or in the language of this week’s parsha, “Bilam’s honey”), he digs himself deeper into exile.

This explains why G‑d says to Bilam, “Don’t bless them for they are blessed.” Offhand, this response is difficult to understand. What is wrong with giving a blessing to one who is already blessed? Is there a limit to G‑d’s blessings? Aren’t we all encouraged to bless one another? Isn’t there a Biblical obligation for the Kohanim to regularly bless the Jewish people?

The answer is that when a blessing comes from G‑d, it is infinite; one could never exhaust all of G‑d’s goodness and kindness. However, as soon as one attributes their blessings to forces that are not G‑dly, it actually decreases the blessings he or she already possesses. Instead of drawing from the reservoir of G‑d’s infinite blessings, we identify with the finite, prosaic and utterly limited notion of a blessing. (The Hebrew word for blessing, beracha, is related to the word that means to “draw down”. The word beracha is also related to the word breicha,a reservoir, because G‑d is the source of all blessing.) In effect, Bilam’s blessing is not really honey. Rather, it is another form of a sting because it deprives us of the real sweetness of G‑d’s blessing.

We can now understand why the Moabite emissaries would agree to go along with Bilam knowing that he might bless rather than curse the Jews. In their mind, Bilam’s blessing would be almost as good as his curse. It would strip the Jews of their connection to an infinite G‑d and blessings. Instead, the Jews would be “hostages” to the conventional blessings that are associated with Bilam. Once the Jews lose their connection to the true and infinite source of blessing, they are then reduced to the level of every other nation which would make them vulnerable to all the forces that threaten their existence.

Transforming Bilam’s Curses into the Ultimate Blessing

However, two questions still persist.

First, if Bilam’s blessings were not much better than his curses, why did G‑d give the emissaries the option of going along with Bilam, who would then “bless” the people?

Second, why did G‑d eventually allow Bilam to bless the Jewish people? If Bilam’s blessings make us vulnerable and are more sting than honey, why did G‑d put such exquisite blessings in his vile mouth?

The answer is that there are actually two models for Bilam’s blessings. The first model is a negative one because it reduces true blessings into tainted ones, because we begin to ascribe them to Bilam and his powers. To diminish the blessings that they already enjoyed is, in truth, a curse.

But there is a second model in which the blessing is magnified when it issues from the mouth of a lowly and vile individual such as Bilam. This model conveys a powerful idea. When the lowliest forms of existence express the most exquisite words of praise of G‑d and of the Jewish people—as do Bilam’s blessings—it reveals G‑d’s omnipotent aspect; nothing can stand in the way of His blessings. It demonstrates that G‑d’s power is so great that it can even “reach down”, break through all the barriers and even transform the lowest forms of existence into conduits for G‑d’s greatness.

This explains why Bilam focuses so much on Moshiach and the future Redemption in his predictions of the future. In the present era of exile, we have to avoid identifying with Bilam and his “honey sweet” blessings. A Jew does not grow spiritually when he attributes his good fortune to the forces of nature. When a Jew exhibits obsequiousness towards the various institutions that provide for our wellbeing and blessings, such as government, business or insurance, he or she is identifying with Bilam’s sting, albeit subtly, and not with the Divine honey. Groveling to the forces of exile—even if they are necessary conduits of G‑d’s blessings—demeans us and denies us the ultimate blessings that assist us in breaking out of exile.

However, as we stand now on the threshold of the future Redemption, we are witnesses to the beginnings of a new phenomenon. We have seen how some of the most distant and nether forces are starting to recognize the blessings of the Jewish people. Even the Bilams of the world are evincing respect and admiration for Judaism, Jews and their special role and relationship with G‑d. This process of the Bilam’s total transformation to good will be complete with the imminent arrival of Moshiach.


Moshiach Matters


In Pesikta D'Rav Kahane, it is stated, the Holy One Blessed Be He said, "You loved my Torah but did not actively await my Kingdom." "The most basic of all basics" is the belief in the coming of Moshiach, for it is then, that G‑d will reign over all the lands, and everyone will recognize his Kingdom. Although he tarries, nevertheless we are obligated to await, expect, beg and demand, "When will You reign in Zion?" (Chofetz Chaim-Parshat Noah)

Moshiach - It’s a Jewish issue. For more info, visit