Dear Rabbi,

I was a little shocked that the weekly Torah portion read in the synagogue on the Sabbath was named after the wicked King Balak, who schemed to curse the Jews in the desert.

Couldn’t a more fitting name be found for this Torah portion?


That’s quite an interesting question. There are actually six Torah portions named after central characters--Noach, Sarah, Jethro, Korach, Balak and Phinehas—and they are all righteous, save Balak. A careful reading of the story will give us some insight into why this portion was named after a wicked man—and what messages we can glean for our own spiritual journey.

Analyzing Balak’s Scheme

Balak, the king of Moab, is terrified of the approaching Jewish nation, so he pleads with Balaam, a prophet, to curse them.

G‑d tells Balaam not to curse the Jews, and initially, Balaam is compliant. But eventually, filled with spiteful hatred of the Jews, he insists on going—so G‑d gives him the freedom to choose.

But G‑d lets Balaam know that He disagrees with this choice. He sends an angel to divert Balaam, but only Balaam’s donkey can perceive the angel. Three times, the angel diverts the donkey, and three times, Balaam strikes the donkey. Finally, the donkey has had enough. Astonishingly, he opens his mouth and complains to Balaam about his treatment! Balaam is finally able to see the angel, but he still doesn’t get the message.

When Balaam arrives at Balak’s palace, he is taken, amid much fanfare, to a place where he can view the Jewish people and curse them. But when he opens his mouth to curse them, blessings flow forth instead! In fact his words contain some of the most beautiful praises of the Jewish people in the Torah.

Balaam then goes on to prophecy about the Messianic era (Numbers 24:17-24): “I see it, but not now; I behold it, but not soon. A star has gone forth from Jacob, and a staff will arise from Israel which will crush the princes of Moab and uproot all the sons of Seth…”

After Balaam’s epic failure to curse the Jews, he suggests a different strategy: Entice the Jewish people to sin with the Moabite women, which will lead them to worship the Baal Peor idol and anger G‑d. The plan is successful, and a devastating plague erupts among the people as a result. Pinchas, the grandson of the Aaron, the high priest, rises up and puts a stop to the physical and spiritual carnage.1 A Transformative Reading

You’re probably still wondering why the portion is named “Balak.” The above synopsis doesn’t do Balak any credit; he’s still the evil king who tried to curse the Jews and then went on to seduce them, causing a horrific plague. Where’s the redeeming quality?

Let’s review a few key points of the story:

  • Balaam is transformed by his hatred of the Jewish people into one who does not wish to obey G‑d.
  • A donkey talks.
  • The curses are transformed into blessings.
  • A portion of the Jewish people is transformed into sinners of the lowest degree.
  • The prophecies regarding the Messianic era all describe the ultimate transformation of the world.

This Torah portion embodies the power of transformation. The blessings are so profound because they originated as curses. Their transformation is so absolute that they describe the ultimate transformation of the entire world: the era of Moshiach! Moreover, Balak himself embodies this very transformation. The Talmud relates that the Biblical figure Ruth, who transformed her own life by converting to Judaism and merited to become the great-grandmother of King David, was a direct descendant of Balak.2 The Moshiach, who will usher in the era of ultimate transformation and redemption, will come from the lineage of King David. And so, the person charged with transforming the Jewish people and the entire world—Moshiach—is a direct descendant of Balak! That’s about the greatest transformation possible.

What’s the message for us? Transforming ourselves and our lives is not easy. And this is especially true when we are dealt a difficulty or a crisis. But it is often the most challenging situations that lead to the greatest gains. When we realize that, instead of submitting to the pressure, we can use it for personal growth and development, we can have the most sublime experience of transformation.3