Parashat Balak – The Torah of Moshe and Parashat Balaam

Eitan Abramovitch • 2019

Why was a foreign parasha included in the Sefer Torah? By help from Rabbi Tzadok HaKohen of Lublin we learn about the special location of Parashat Balak, and the one who wrote it.

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“Moshe wrote his own book, and the portion of Balaam”.


(Bava Batra 14b)

The story of Balak and Balaam is like a foreign body in the middle of Bamidbar. The vantage point that has accompanied Israel since the Exodus from Egypt suddenly turns in another direction, documenting an event that takes place close to Israel, but without their knowledge. Balak and Balaam observe the camp from a distance, the curses are replaced by blessings, and, in the meantime, the Children of Israel are preoccupied.

The Gemara in Bava Batra quoted above translates this foreignness into the literary field, and presents a complex picture: “the portion of Balaam” is not part of “Moshe’s book”, even though he wrote them both. This is a foreign prophecy, a revelation that descended to the world from a source fundamentally different than that of the Torah, and yet it was included within it, while preserving its foreign origin and defining it as a “parasha” in itself.

Why was a foreign parasha included in the Sefer Torah? It seems that the difficulty raised by this question is what brings some of the commentators to claim that this is not the Gemara’s intention, as the Ritva clarifies in his commentary on the Gemara: “It seems that the Gemara is not relating to Parashat Balaam that is written in the Torah, because this parasha was written by God like the rest of the Torah. The Gemara is speaking about another parasha that Balaam wrote and extended it longer, and they had it”. The commentary offered by the Ritva restores the order, restoring the distinction between the Torah that God wrote and the portion of Balaam, which is something else entirely .

In light of this, it is interesting to see that Rabbi Tzadok HaKohen of Lublin chose to interpret the words of the Gemara literally, and to examine the place of the foreign voice in the Torah. Reb Tzadok refers to this Gemara in several places in his writings (See: Pri Tzadik Balak 2, Resisei Layla 44, and in Dover Tzedek), and in all of them he views the inclusion of Balaam affair in the Torah as a basic image of the complex boundaries of the Torah in particular, and of holiness in general.

Even without going into the details of Reb Tzadok’s writings, one can see in his remarks on this Gemara a fundamental movement present in various contexts in his thought: the Torah does not descend as a homogeneous whole with clear boundaries, whose purpose is to shape a defined Jewish identity; the Torah is the map of the world, and as such it must demonstrate the full complexity of the world in which we live. In this world, Reb Tzadok stresses repeatedly, there are always sparks that remain outside, there is always something to learn from someone who lives on the other side of the fence, and therefore the boundaries of the Torah must be curved to contain what is outside of it. The Torah cannot be identified with any perfect and ideal character, even if it is the image of Moshe; even Moshe was required to include in his book the foreign voice of Balaam, to write a parasha that ‘does not belong to the wisdom of Moshe Rabbeinu’ (Resisei Layla 44), and even contradicts it thoroughly - “that really Moshe Rabbeinu was the reverse [of Balaam]”. Nevertheless, “when Moshe wrote it in the Torah, it became holy and the words of the living God, and until they asked to set the parasha of Balak within the reading of Shema as they said z”l (Brachot 12b), that it has a great sanctity like the verse of Shema Yisrael” (Dover Tzedek).

Reb Zadok interprets this process in his own way, but as stated, there is also a broader statement: this is an opposition to the view of the Torah as a project of shaping a stable identity, of giving a clear and unambiguous picture of the world. The world in general, and Am Yisrael in particular, always demand more than that, and over time they will not allow any border to remain the same. Reb Tzadok teaches us not to fear too much about undermining borders and identities, and not to be afraid of infiltrating foreign voices into the realm of holiness; instead, we are called upon to believe in the power of the Torah to contain what appears at first as a foreign and opposing foundation, to make it part of it, and even to find in it great sanctity.

ישיבת שיח יצחק גבעת הדגן - אפרת, מיקוד: 90435