In addition to the many details and anecdotes founds within every weekly Torah portion, there is, between the lines, a main theme or message. Often times this central idea is reflected in the title of the parsha. The title of this week is Balak; the theme is transformation.
Before explaining the nature of this theme, let’s look at the background behind the title as related in the Torah and Jewish Tradition: As the Jewish people made their way toward the land of Israel they had to pass through many occupied territories and request permission to pass through.
This week discusses the encounter with the Moabite nation. Originally, the leader of Moab had refused to let the Jewish people pass through his land. But now the Jewish nation, who just effortlessly defeated and conquered the adjoining lands of the two mighty Amorite kings, Sichon and Og, are camped just beyond this nation’s border.
The first thing that the Moabites did was to contact their neighbors in Midyan. While they had previously been enemies, these nations decided to join forces to fight against Bnai Yisrael. Next, they selected a new leader by the name of Tzur, a famous prince from Midyan, an accomplished military leader and shrewd politician. Upon assuming leadership, he was renamed Balak. His primary task was to find a way to destroy the Jewish people.
He begins to gather information about this small but astonishingly successful nation of Israel. He discovers that their power lies not simply in the sword but primarily in their faith, their speech, and their prayer. Attempting to combat their spiritual strength and blessing, Balak contacts a non-Jewish necromancer and prophet from the land of Aram, known as Bilam, and employs him to curse the Jewish people.
Thus, Balak is the name of one of the most infamous characters, an individual who is described as detesting our people more than anyone in history. The big question that arises is: why would this week’s portion be called after one of our worst enemies, a character whose actions endangered the very existence of the Jewish people. In fact, the Talmud, when discussing the general approach to and influence of names or titles states: parents should be careful never to name their child after an evil person- “for the name of the wicked shall rot. (Proverbs 10:7) ” If so, why was this name chosen to represent an entire section in the Torah?
There are two answers given for this decision. The first is to signify that despite Balak’s intentions to destroy, his plan was foiled, and the Jewish people were protected. He went to great lengths to pay Bilam to curse the Jewish people. And three times, from three different vantage points, Bilam attempts to pronounce his curses, yet each time, blessings issue forth instead. The most famous of these words has made its way into the liturgy of Jewish prayer: “How goodly are your tents Yaakov; your dwelling places, Yisrael!”
The second, and more profound explanation, relates not only to a blocked attempt, or deliverance from danger, but with the power of transformation. G d did not simply prevent Bilaam from addressing the Jews, nor did he replace the attempted curses with blessings. Instead, He “transformed the curse into a blessing.” As the Talmud explains, Balaam’s blessings are the very curses he intended to assert—but slightly reworded to render them into blessings. Thus, the Torah portion is called by this name to convey the inspiration that from the height of evil can emerge the greatest of good.
And that’s also why it is these specific biblical verses, an apparently dark tale of potential descent, serve as the primary vehicle for the prophecy regarding the Messianic redemption: “I see it, but not now; I behold it, but not soon. A star [the Messiah] has gone forth from Jacob, and a staff will arise from Israel… and Israel shall triumph.”
This theme of transformation- of curses into blessings, of darkness into light, of bitter into sweet relates directly to the Jewish dynasty. Tradition relates that the messiah must be of the Davidic lineage. King David himself descends from Ruth, a Moabite convert, and a descendent from…”Balak”.
The message of transformation, as it pertains to our lives, is that the same element that initially poses as a negative force can transmute into profit. When someone encounters an event or period of distress, it is incumbent upon them to bear in mind that eventual good can come from the darkest circumstances. As we read the title of this week’s parsha we are reminded that if such good can arise from the wicked man like Balak, all the more so in our personal encounters can we change our personal evil to asset, and end up on a straight path filled with new blessings.