Balak | Tranquility and Heroism
Summarized by Aviad Hacohen
"How good are your tents, Yaakov; your dwelling places, Israel. Like winding brooks, like gardens by the riverside, like tents which God has planted, like cedars by the waterside..." (Bamidbar 24:5-6).
The gemara, in massekhet Berakhot (12b), teaches that "originally they wanted to institute parashat Balak as part of Keri'at Shema, and why did they not do so? Because of the inconvenience to the community [that would result from such a lengthy recitation]. And what is so special about parashat Balak that it was considered worthy of being included in Keri'at Shema? The fact that it contains the words, 'He crouched, he lay down like a lion (ari), and like a great lion (lavi) - who shall rouse him?'" A different version in the Mekhilta maintains that the key words of the blessing, making it worthy of inclusion in Keri'at Shema, are "The nation shall rise up like a great lion (lavi) and lift itself like a young lion (ari)."
Bilam's words depict the tranquillity of the Israelite encampment: brooks, tents, gardens by the riverside. Imagine the scene: against the background of the barren desert, the peaceful and pastoral encampment of Bnei Yisrael - orderly rows of tents, trees and gardens, lawns and peaceful streams. The midrash teaches, "'How good are your tents, Yaakov' - that the entrance to one tent was never facing the entrance to another." Even in this idyllic setting, modesty is being maintained.
As Bilam continues speaking, we witness a sudden and radical change of atmosphere: After all the water has dripped slowly out of the bucket (24:4), quietly and peacefully, there suddenly appears a powerful torrent, a crashing waterfall, and the storm grows ever more fierce: "He shall consume the nations, his enemies; and shall break their bones, and pierce them with his arrows." There is no peace here; instead there is unceasing war and turmoil. Does this not contradict our previous scene? It is as if the fifth and sixth symphonies of Beethoven are being featured together here, with no acknowledgment of the tremendous contrast between the peace and tranquillity which characterizes the one, and the storm and turmoil depicted by the other.
One verse in particular stands out in its radical imagery: "The nation shall rise up like a great lion... he shall not lie down until he has eaten the prey and drunk the blood of the slain." Here the lust for the flesh of the enemy and the thirst for their blood reach new heights.
Rashi, to our amazement, ignores the harsh tone altogether and explains all the imagery on a completely different level: "When they arise from their sleep in the morning, they are strong like a lion and like a young lion to "pounce" on the mitzvot, to wear the tallit, to recite the Shema and to don their tefillin. At night as they lie down to sleep they "devour" and destroy any harmful thing that comes to attack them - how? By reciting the Shema while upon their beds, and surrendering their souls to God, and God strikes down their enemies."
Rashi "ignores" the literal meaning of the text. Instead of their drinking blood and devouring prey, Rashi depicts Israel eagerly donning tefillin, "conquering" their tzitzit, "devouring" Keri'at Shema with awe and fear.
At the foundation of this wondrous combination - of war and the sword on one hand and observance of the mitzvot on the other - lies the strength of the Israelite camp. A military encampment, which by its very nature usually tramples any hint of shame, has become a holy camp where no tent entrance faces any other.
There is a dual heroism here: the lion which devours, and the lion which lies down; i.e. knowing when to fight and when to overcome the temptation posed by the power to kill.
The nations of the world cannot grasp such a combination. Tumult and war in the midst of gardens and tents by the waterside? On the other hand, they find it equally difficult to understand the presence of modesty within a military camp.
The exclamation of surprise is born of this wonder in the eyes of the gentile prophet: "How good are your tents, Yaakov" - tents wherein both aspects of heroism form a creative and fruitful combination.
(Originally delivered on Shabbat Parashat Balak 5744.
Translated by Kaeren Fish.)