The preceding parashah ends with the arrival of the Jewish people at the threshold of the promised land. The remainder of the Five Books of Moses, the next 15 parashiot—more than a quarter of the Torah’s 54—take place at this, the Israelites’ final stop of their trek from Egypt.

We would expect the Torah to turn now to subjects pertinent to the entry into the Land of Israel: its borders, laws of land inheritance, and instructions for the impending conquest. And indeed it will, but first it will recount how the Jewish people are contested by their final enemy before their entry into the land: the alliance of Moab and Midian. This turns into a drama with several acts, the details and after math of which extend over much of the next three parashiot.

The first act of this drama is the curious tale of how the Moabite king Balak hires the gentile soothsayer Balaam to curse the Jews.

Why does the Torah tell us about this non-Jewish pair and their thwarted attempt? The Jewish people are not directly involved in the events at all; in fact, the sages point out that the fact that the story is found in the Torah altogether proves that the Torah was written through prophecy, for otherwise, there is no way Moses could have known that the whole episode even happened! True, this chronicle does provide the background for its aftermath (which begins at the end of this parashah), in which the Jewish people are caught in the snare of these nations’ plot to entice them into sexual sin. But if this were its only purpose, the entire episode could have been summarized in a few sentences rather than been given the prominence it receives as a lengthy, detailed departure from the Torah’s main narrative.

What is particularly ironic about this whole story is that Balaam’s foiled attempts at cursing the Jews lead him to voice the most explicit of the Torah’s veiled references to the coming of the Messiah and the final Redemption. Outside of these prophecies, there are only vague allusions in the Five Books of Moses to the messianic future. It might therefore seem that the Torah details the story of Balak and Balaam solely to transmit these prophecies to the Jewish people. On the eve of their entry into the promised land, God evidently felt that it was necessary to inspire them with a vision of their ultimate destiny, to focus them on their true goal—beyond their immediate goal of conquering the land and performing the commandments that require them to live a settled, material life in it.

For, one might ask, once we know what God requires us to do in the here and now, why do we need to know about our reward, our ultimate goal? Our job is to do what God wants of us; if this brings us a reward, so be it, but why not trust implicitly in God to provide the reward when the time comes and not be concerned about what and when?

The answer, of course, is that having a clear vision of what it is we are working toward makes all the difference in the quality of our work and the effort we put into it. God wants us to serve Him in an inspired way; He wants our vision to be His vision, our goals to be His goals. Of course, our relationship to God must be predicated on the absolute, unconditional devotion every creature owes its Creator, but that is only the basis, the beginning. Ideally, God wants us to dream about what He dreams about; this is why He shares with us His dream for the messianic future.

Still, aside from the unsettling fact that such a fundamental aspect of Judaism is brought to light via an idolatrous king’s and an egocentric diviner’s obsession to curse us, the above question still remains: the Torah could have recorded the messianic prophesies and still spared us the lengthy details of the tale of Balaam and Balak.

And besides, if the messianic prophesies were the focus of the parashah, why should it be named Balak? As we have mentioned previously, the careful reader will note that the Torah shuns negative words and idioms whenever possible.1 Moreover, the Torah enjoins us to obliterate all traces of wickedness2 and idol worship. Why, then, does Jewish tradition immortalize the name of a wicked, idolatrous king, who clearly wished to wipe out the Jewish people at any cost, and in fact succeeded in bringing about the death of over a hundred thousand Jews?3

Furthermore, the real villain of the story seems to be Balaam, whose ability to curse evidently posed a real threat to the Jews. To be sure, Balak is the one who hired Balaam, but the action focuses more on Balaam.

The answer to these questions may be found if we recall that the parashah in which the giving of the Torah occurs is also named after an idolater: Jethro. There, we explained that in order for the Torah to be given, the ground work had to be laid for it to permeate all of reality, overtaking even the elements of reality that deny God, or at least His sole authority over creation. Before the Torah could be given, Jethro, the arch-pagan and consummate idolater, had to acknowledge God’s existence and omnipotence.

Similarly, before the Jewish people could enter the Promised Land and begin to fulfill the Torah’s mandates in the physical world—with the ultimate goal of ushering in the messianic future—a similar act of transformation had to occur. The groundwork had to be laid for the transformation of all reality that would be the eventual goal and result of the Jewish people living in their land. The hatred and curses of the enemies of God’s people had to be transformed into blessings, and not into just any blessings, but into the prophesies of the ultimate victory of God’s people over the very enemies that sought to curse them. In the messianic era, the non-Jewish nations will use their power to aid the Jewish people instead of combating them, as it is written, “Kings will be your nurturers, and their princesses your wet nurses.”4 “Foreigners will stand and tend your flocks, and the sons of the stranger will be your farmers and your vineyard workers.”5

Since the messianic Redemption will herald the consummate annihilation and transformation of evil, it is now self-evident why the prophecies concerning this era issued from the mouth of the idolatrous anti-Semite, Balaam. Only in this way could the full force of their transformational nature be expressed.

For the same reason, the parashah is named after Balak,6 since he embodied the idea that the messianic future will be the full transformation of evil into good. Firstly, he hated the Jewish people more than anyone (including Balaam, who would not have attempted to curse the Jews had Balak not hired him to do so),7 yet the result of his hatred was that the Jews came to be blessed with the assurance of their triumph.

Secondly, Balak, it turns out, is a direct ancestor of the Messiah. King David, the progenitor of the Messiah, was the great grandson of Ruth, the Moabite convert,8 and Ruth was a descendant of Balak.9 In fact, Balak perceived that the Messiah would be among his descendants, and he felt that if he could have the Jews cursed, this greatness would remain in his own people. The transformation of evil into holiness was exactly what he feared.10 11

Because Balak personified evil’s consummate hatred of holiness and its eventual transformation into holiness, the parashah is named after him and not Balaam. Balak’s hatred was the catalyst that instigated the entire episode.12

* * *

The word Balak in Hebrew means “cut off,” or “dead.”13 Allegorically, then, parashat Balak describes a deadened spiritual state, in which one’s Jewish identity is at its nadir.

Indeed, it sometimes happens that just when we are about to accomplish some great goal in our life, when we are just about to enter our “promised land,” our inspiration is preempted by a feeling of worthlessness and dejection, making us feel unequal to the task. An honest self-appraisal leaves us all too aware of our shortcomings and failings. How can we presume to answer the call to greatness when we are so thoroughly corrupt and acutely lacking the qualities necessary to see the challenge through? We feel “cut off,” our life seems like a curse.

At such times, we must remember that Balak is a progenitor of the Messiah: that if we renew our connection with our ultimate goal, we can transform the curse giver within us into a source of blessing. We can transform our inner enemy and propensity to curse our own mission into a blessing by adopting God’s dream as our own. Each of us possesses a messianic spark, a potential role to play in redeeming the world. Focusing on our inner messianic imperative enables us to rise above ourselves and to realize our true, inner greatness.

The same lesson applies in our relationship with others. We may sometimes meet someone who appears altogether dissociated from spirituality and entirely disinterested in advancing the cause of holiness. His mockery of sanctity might make us despair of influencing him to refocus his life toward the goals of Judaism. But if we recall that within his soul is a spark of Divinity that needs only to be revealed in order to transform his entire being into goodness and holiness, we can indeed change this “cursing” individual into a source of blessing.14