Balak, King of Moav, is in morbid fear of Bnei Yisrael. He summons a renowned sorcerer named Bilaam to curse them. First, G-d speaks to Bilaam and forbids him to go. But, because Bilaam is so insistent, G-d appears to him a second time and permits him to go. While en route, a malach (emissary from G-d) blocks Bilaam's donkey's path. Unable to contain his frustration, Bilaam strikes the donkey each time it stops or tries to detour. Miraculously, the donkey speaks, asking Bilaam why he is hitting her. The malach instructs Bilaam regarding what he is permitted to say and what he is forbidden to say regarding the Jewish People. When Bilaam arrives, King Balak makes elaborate preparations, hoping that Bilaam will succeed in the curse. Three times Bilaam attempts to curse and three times blessings issue instead. Balak, seeing that Bilaam has failed, sends him home in disgrace.
BneiYisrael begin sinning with the Moabite women and worshipping the Moabite idols, and they are punished with a plague. One of the Jewish leaders brazenly brings a Midianite princess into his tent, in full view of Moshe and the people. Pinchas, a grandson of Aharon, grabs a spear and kills both evildoers. This halts the plague, but not before 24,000 have died.
A Small Word with Two Meanings
Even now it is said to Yaakov and Yisrael what G-d has wrought.” (23:23)
The Enabling Act on March 24, 1933, gave Hitler the freedom to act without parliamentary consent and even without constitutional limitations. Non-Nazi parties were formally outlawed on July 14, 1933, and the Reichstag abdicated its democratic responsibilities. The Chafetz Chaim died two months later on September 15, 1933. Maybe G-d took him away from this world then so that he would not see the terrible events that were about to take place, but his words on this week’s Torah portion are certainly prescient. I will present a loose translation of what he said.
The word “mah” in Hebrew can mean both “what” and “how.” “Mah” can equally be a question or an exclamation. It could signify a question, as in “What does G-d seek from you….?” (Micha 6:8). Or it could be an exclamation, as in “How great is the good that you have concealed for those who fear You!” (Tehillim 31:20)
The Jewish People have suffered more than any other in our long exile. And we protest and exclaim, “What has G-d wrought?” This is as if to say, “Why, G-d, have You hidden Your Face so from us that we have become prey to the cruel?”
“Even now it is said to Yaakov and Yisrael what G-d has wrought.” The “mah” in this world contains both meanings. In the future the world will ask why G-d vented His anger so fiercely on this nation. However, a day will come when G-d will comfort His people, and then all the world will say, “How great is that which G-d has done for Yaakov, for all the pain and suffering will be revealed as nothing but good to the Jewish People.” This is as the verse states: “O nations — sing the praises of His people, for He will avenge the blood of His servants. He will bring retribution upon His foes and He will appease His Land and His people.” (Devarim 32:43)