7/8 July: Shabbat Balak comes in 9.04 pm, goes out 10.21pm
At the end of last week’s Parasha, the Israelites had arrived at the steppes of Moab, prepared to enter the land of Canaan. As we pick up the story this week, Balak, king of Moab, sees the defeat of his neighbouring kings. Fearing a similar fate, he hires the non-Jewish prophet Bilaam to curse the Israelites. However, Bilaam is a true prophet and can only say what G-d has commanded, so he utters blessings instead of curses. Parashat Balak is probably best known for the comical episode of Bilaam’s confrontation with his talking donkey, but I want to take a look at a verse from Bilaam’s first oracle. Looking out over the Israelite camp, Bilaam says:
Who can count the dust of Jacob,
Number the dust-cloud of Israel,
May I die the death of the upright,
May my fate be like theirs.
Regarding the phrase “may I die the death of the upright,” Rashi comments that Bilaam means that he wants to die “among them.”
The Chafetz Chayyim, (Rabbi Israel Meir Hacohen, Poland, early 20th century), explains: Bilaam did not want to live as a believing Jew, but very much wanted to die as one. Why? Because the life of a G-d-fearing Jew is not an easy one: he has to restrain himself and keep away from many things. There are many commandments he must perform. Each day and every hour he has various obligations. The Jew’s death is not like that. For the believing Jew, death is only a transition from a temporary life to a permanent one [the after-life, which the Rabbis call the world to come] . . . and that is why Bilaam wanted to die as a believing Jew. But it is no great feat to die a proper death. The real feat is to live a proper life.
Rabbi Paul Arberman