Yisrael’s exploits and adventures (including the surprise attack of the Canaanite King of Arad, who defeated Yisrael) in the last Parasha, terminated with victory over the Amorites, which caused Balak, King of Mo’av (Moab) quite a concern. He therefore solicited the services of Bil’am (Balaam) son of Be’or the Midianite sorcerer, who was commissioned to put a curse on the people that constituted so great of a threat to the Moabite monarch. "Now this company will lick up everything around us, as an ox licks up the grass of the field …a people has come from
. See, they cover the face
of the earth, and are settling next to me! …they are too mighty for me” (22:4, 5, 6 italics added), says Balak. In other
words, ‘these numerous multitudes are liable to devour my land and my people,
just like a hungry ox would eat up green grass in a field. There are so many of
them, that they cover every visible part of the land.’ The “face of the earth”
or the ‘visible part’ is rendered here in the original text as “the eye
of the earth.” The multifaceted imagery of the “eye” is not utilized in this
case for that which sees, but rather for that which is seen. Egypt
Since the central theme of the Parasha is Bil’am’s visions, it is not surprising that sight and eyes are mentioned frequently. Thus, in the beginning of chapter 24 we read that Bil’am “lifted his eyes…” and said about himself: “The utterances of Balaam the son of Beor, the man whose eyes are open [and] who has heard the words of Elohim, who saw with uncovered eyes the vision of the Almighty…” (literal translation, vs.3, 4 and 15, 16). Interestingly, the term for, “whose eyes are open” is “sh’tum ey’na’yim.” With a slight modification “shatum” becomes “satum,” making it “that which is covered, or not revealed” (e.g. Ez. 28:3). Truly, Bil’am’s assurance about his inherent ability to ‘see’ is more than questionable. This is demonstrated very graphically in the episode with the mare of the donkey. Thus, it was only after YHVH “opened the eyes of Balaam” (22:31) that he was able to see what his animal had seen much earlier on.
The meaning of the name Bil’am, just like Par’oh’s (see Hebrew Insights into Parashat Miketz, Gen. 41 – 44:17), happens to be appropriate and relevant to its bearer, as it contains the letters that make up “bela” (b.l.a, bet, lamed, ayin), which is to “swallow or swallow down” (used also in Parashat Korach, Numbers 16:30,32,33). “Frequently this word is used as a symbol of destruction and ruin: Lam. 2:2; Isa. 28:7; 49:19 etc.”  In Psalms 52:4 “devouring words” are “divery bela.” Balak’s intention was just that. He aimed for Bil’am’s words to become a source of destruction for Yisrael. Thus, “Bela” and “am” [making up the name “Bil’am”] mean “destruction of a people,” befitting the sorcerer’s reputation as a charmer and a conjurer. Another meaning of the name is offered by Albright, who believes that its origin is from the Amorite “yabil’ammu,” meaning, “the (divine) uncle brings.” 
“Therefore please come at once, curse [“ara”] this people for me… for I know that he whom you bless is blessed and he whom you curse is cursed” (22:6), is the essence of Balak’s assignment for Bil’am. When the latter quotes the former (in 22:11), he uses “kava” for “curse.” Hebrew is replete with verbs for cursing. The most common is “kalel” (k.l.l, kof, lamed, lamed) which stems from “kal” meaning “lightweight” and “easy,” that is “of no esteem” and therefore, by default, “no blessing,” or “making light of another’s honor.” However, a.r.r (alef, resh, resh) and k.v.v (kof, vet, vet), which are used in this narrative, are more ‘dynamic.’ “On the basis of the Akkadian ‘araru,’ the Hebrew arar is to snare or bind, with the Akadian noun “irritu” being a noose or a sling. Brichto, following Speiser, advances the interpretation that the Hebrew “arar” means to bind (with a spell), hem in with obstacles, and render powerless to resist. Thus the original curse in B’resheet (Genesis 3:14, 17: “cursed are you above all cattle” and “cursed is the ground for your sake”( means that the serpent was doomed to being banned/anathematized from all the other animals, while the soil was condemned as a result of man’s sin. “Kavav” connotes the act of uttering a formula designed to undo its object. The most frequent use of this root relates to the incident involving Bil’am and Balak. Certainly the ‘magical’ belief and intent of Balak are prominent here.” 
Both a.r.r and k.v.v are used throughout the Parasha, denoting that the issue at stake is steeped in witchcraft. Several other terms found here verify this fact. In 22:7, the elders of Mo’av and Midian come with “divinations – “k’samim” - in their hands.” Again, in 23:23 we read the words that YHVH put in Bil’am’s mouth: “There is no enchantment – “nachash” - in Jacob and no divination – “kesem” – in
And thusly “it shall be said to Jacob and
what YHVH has wrought” (literal translation, italics
added), and not that which the diviners and sorcerers have uttered. Therefore,
“Now when Balaam saw that it pleased YHVH to bless Israel, he did not go as at
other times, to seek to use sorcery, but he set his face toward the wilderness”
In this Parasha YHVH’s supremacy over all powers, and the control He exerts in order to achieve His purposes, much like using the mouth of a pagan diviner to bless, and the mouth of a donkey to talk, is clearly evident.
Bil’am, the would-be prophet, unlike his mare, is unaware of YHVH’s messenger who was sent to him as an “adversary” (ref. 22:22). When the animal is forced to divert from the path and to put its master in what appears to him as a compromising situation, Bil’am loses his temper and strikes the mare with his staff (22:27). What ensues is the most improbable discussion - between a man and a donkey. Thus, Bil’am not only finds himself mishandled physically, he also has to deal with his (unjustified) anger and express regret to a vindicated beast. And as if this is not enough, when his eyes are opened, he is the one who is seen as the blind fool who incurs a rebuke from the angel: “The donkey saw Me and turned aside from Me these three times. If she had not turned aside from Me, surely I would also have killed you by now, and let her live” (22:33). In the dialogue between Bil’am and his mare, the latter justifies her conduct by asking (rhetorically) if she had ever caused her master any trouble “as a rule.” “A’has’ken his’kanti?” (v. 30) is the question, using the root s.ch.n (samech, chaf, noon) twice, in two different conjugations. “Sachen” in this context is “customarily or habitually.” In other words, “has it been my custom (to so treat you)?” The root s.ch.n, however, also means to “be of use, benefit or service,” as indeed she had been in the past, and even more so in this particular case, acting as a tool in the hand of YHVH. Bil’am forthwith admits to being in the wrong, and only then is given permission to “go with the men,” having been warned to utter only that which YHVH will speak to him (ref. v. 35).
Three times in this text we encounter the phrase, “three times” (22:28, 32, 33). The word for “times” here is “r’galim” (“regel” singular) - an “occurrence, event, or occasion.” The much more common term is “pa’am” (a word we briefly looked at in Parashat Tetzaveh, in Ex. 28:33 where we examined the noun “bell,” stemming from the same root which is also at the core of “pulse” or “beat”). “Regel” on the other hand, is the word for “foot.” It is evident that both “pa’am” and “regel” connote movement, which of course is an indication of the passing of time, but also, and especially in the case of the latter (“regel”), point to a purposeful progress such as walking. Since walking assumes an arrival, and arrival points to a specific destination (a place), we are led once more to the conclusion that in the Hebrew mind there exists an interrelation between time and place (as we have already observed when we examined “mo’ed” – “appointed time,” in Leviticus 23, Parashat Emor). It was Bil’am’s crushed “regel” (“foot” in 22:25) which prevented him from arriving at his destination, thus perhaps prompting the usage of “r’galim” for “times,” rather than “p’amim” (both in the plural). Note that at the end of last week’s Parashat Chu’kat we met Moshe’s dispatched spies (21:32), whose commission was “le’ra’gel” (“to spy”), again of the root r.g.l, not to mention “ragal,” meaning “to slander” (found in Psalm 15:3) – an action fitting the agenda of our Parasha’s namesake.
The extraordinary episode just experienced by Bil’am proves to be part of his preparation for speaking YHVH’s words, couched in four powerful prophetic oracles describing Elohim’s intended destiny for His people. “The three blessings are… differentiated in their relation to the time factor; the first one refers to the immediate present, to the generation of the wilderness facing him, the second to the immediate future, to the generation which would conquer the land, whilst the third concerns the distant future, to an era when wars and conquests will be no more and when the lion will lie down to rest after it has finished its task.”  However, there is also a fourth blessing, one which has not been solicited (as a curse) by Balak (24:14-24).
Bil’am’s encounters with the Elohim of Yisrael are qualified by two different verbs. Twice “Elohim came to Balaam” (22:9, 20 italics added), in the two instances which preceded the confrontation with the mare. However, the blessings that Bil’am uttered later on all followed Elohim’s meeting with him and putting a word in his mouth (ref. 23:3, 4, 15, 16). The Hebrew verb used here for “meet” is rooted in k.r.h (kof, resh, hey), literally meaning “to happen,” or “to occur.” The usage of this term gives the impression that these meetings had a coincidental characteristic about them, rather than being preordained and appointed.
After Bil’am uttered the curses-turned-blessings, the angry king commanded his appointee to flee, adding the following: “I said I would greatly honor you, but in fact, YHVH has kept you back from honor” (24:11). Stubborn and blind, Balak dares to make the statement, “YHVH has kept you back from honor” (“kept you back” being “mah’nah”, m.n.a, mem, noon, ayin, meaning “withheld”)! It is at this point that Bil’am, now as a persona-non-grata, offers to speak out what “this people [Yisrael] will do to your [Balak’s] people in the latter days” (24:14). What comes next does not please the Moabite monarch, but at the same time (surprisingly) does not incur his protest. At the end of a very significant prophecy pertaining to Yisrael and to some of its neighbors, the two men depart silently; one “to his place,” while the other is said to be “on his way” (v. 25). All the pomp and ceremony planned by Balak has just been deflated without as much as another word.
The story of a pagan enchanter and magician, who is commissioned by an equally pagan king to lay a debilitating curse on YHVH’s people, and whose mouth utters some of the most profound words regarding the very people whom he is called to curse, is rather curious and stands out in the Torah narrative. The addition, the talking donkey episode makes for an even more intriguing text. “The dialog between the man and the ass, [as interpreted by some of the commentators] is the Torah’s scornful commentary on the imaginary powers ascribed to sorcerers, its mockery of human gullibility, in believing in the power of the magician to curse and subject the supernatural to his will.”  Thus, the story of the mare of a donkey echoes that of Bil’am’s and his so called wonder-working abilities. But, if an ass can talk, so can a con man be made to speak out YHVH’s words, calling to mind what 1Corinthians 1 has to say about those who are wise in their own eyes: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent. … Elohim has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise… [and] the things which are mighty … and things which are despised… to bring to nothing things that are: that no flesh should glory in his presence “ (vs. 19, 27-29). In the end, it is YHVH’s sovereignty that prevails far above any and all of man’s feeble attempts at controlling life.
The last section of the Parasha is part of next week’s episode, related in Parashat Pinchas. That which was not achieved by war or by sorcery is now being accomplished by seduction.  In 25:3 we read: “And
joined himself to Baal of Pe’or.”
In the former narrative, chapter 22:41, mention was made of Bamot Ba’al, the
“high places of Ba’al,” as being one of the sites designated by Balak from
which Bil’am was to curse Yisrael. Several places later, when Balak’s
aspirations were not realized, he took the seer to Rosh (the “head of”) Pe’or
(23:28). This introduces us to both Ba’al and Pe’or; premonitions, as it were, to
the above quoted tragic words, describing how Yisrael “joined himself [va’yitza’med
– “clung”] to Ba’al of Pe’or.” And is it a coincidence that Pe’or
is similar to the verb “pa’or” (p.a.r, pey, ayin, resh), which means to
“open wide,” such as is employed by Yisha’ya’hu (Isaiah) in 5:14: “Therefore hell
has enlarged herself, and opened [“pa’ara”, root p.a.r) her mouth without
measure: and their glory, and their multitude, and their pomp, and he that rejoices,
shall descend into it”? Israel
1 Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, ed. R. Laird Harris, Moody Press,
4 New Studies in Devarim, Nechama Leibowitz, trans. Aryeh Newman. Eliner
Library, Department for Torah Education and Culture in the Diaspora. Hemed
6 Gill Commentary, Online Bible
Hebrew Tools for Everyday Use
This week our Hebrew Tools will go a different direction. Some of the most amazing words regarding
’s future are uttered in this
Parasha by a pagan soothsayer, who speaks them out regardless of who he is, and
irrespective of his motivation. This forms a very unique glimpse into the
sovereignty of the Almighty, not only in regards to His intents for His people,
but it also shows that no matter how much Israel itself may act idolatrously like
Bil’am himself, the word of YHVH will never become void or revocable concerning
them. Hence we will focus on two major idioms that are coined by Bil’am, which
are still in use today. We will learn how to say them in Hebrew, and also
listen to them being sung. Israel
A people dwelling alone (23:9)
(Hen) am le’vadad yishkon
To listen to this verse being read in Hebrew:
from 1:17 to 1:25
The entire verse (v. 9) is sung by Yaacov Shwekey
An even more popular idiom is found in 24:5:
How lovely are your tents O Jacob! Your dwellings O Israel!
Ma to’vu oha’le’cha Ya’acov, mishke’no’techa Yisrael
To listen to this verse being read in Hebrew:
from 0.39 to 0.44
Ma Tovu Oha’le’cha as sung by Miki Rosenbaum
And again, another rendition, Yaacov Shwekey sings “Ma, Ma, Ma” (a repetition of the first word “ma” for “Ma tovu”)
In both of the above songs the idiom forms ONLY the refrain.