Adapted from
Likkutei Sichos, Vol. XVIII, p. 300ff;
Vol. XXIII, p. 166ff

A Sage and His Conduct

The Talmud relates:1

When Ulla came [to Babylon from Eretz Yisrael],… Rava asked him: “Where did you spend the night?”

[Ulla] told him: “In Kalnebo.”

[Rava] responded: “Is it not written:2 ‘And you may not mention the name of other deities’?”

[Ulla] answered: “Rabbi Yochanan taught as follows: [The name of] any false deity which is recorded in the Torah may be mentioned.”

On the surface, the question arises: Although it is permitted to mention the name of a false deity recorded in the Torah, it is seemingly not desirable to do so. Moreover, our Sages emphasize3 the importance of refined speech, noting how in several instances, the Torah adds extra words4 rather than mention the word tameh (“impure”). Surely, Ulla could have found a way to answer Rava’s question without mentioning the name of a false deity.

The Power of the Torah

The above difficulty can be resolved by considering the explanation of Rabbi Yochanan’s teaching offered by the Yereim:5 “Since the Torah mentions [the name of a false deity], it has already been negated. For the same reason that the Torah mentions it, we are entitled to mention it.”

The statement of the Yereim cannot be understood in a simple, literal sense. For there are false deities to which the Torah refers, e.g., Baal Peor as mentioned in the conclusion of this week’s Torah reading,6 whose worship was perpetuated long afterwards.7 Instead, the intent appears to be that the Torah’s mention of a false deity negates that deity’s importance in the eyes of a person studying that portion of the Torah. The Torah’s words will impress him with the futility of the worship of other deities demonstrating that these deities are of no benefit to those who revere them, and that when Jews have erred and worshipped them, they were severely punished.

Going further, every Jew desires to observe the Torah and its mitzvos,8 and shun false deities. The act of Torah study awakens this inner desire, inspiring a Jew to dedicate himself to the Torah and negate all other forms of worship.

And “For the same reason that the Torah mentions [a false deity], we are entitled to mention it.” When a Jew studies the Torah and identifies with it, he taps the G‑dly potential the Torah contains. This empowers him, enabling his mention of a false deity to negate its influence.9

A Spiritual Transition

We can now understand the conduct of Ulla. Our Sages state:10 “A Jew living in the Diaspora serves false divinities in purity.” For in Eretz Yisrael, G‑d’s providence is more openly revealed, while in the Diaspora, Divine influence is hidden within the natural order. Just as the worship of false divinities involves bowing one’s head to them, so too, when living in the Diaspora, one is required to subjugate one’s thinking processes to the forces controlling the natural order.11

Upon leaving the holiness of Eretz Yisrael and entering Babylonia, Ulla sensed the spiritual transition, and felt it necessary to emphasize the negation of false deities. Summoning up the power of the Torah acquired through his study in Eretz Yisrael, he mentioned the name of a false deity with the intent of nullifying its influence.

Nullifying and Transforming

The above discussion sheds light on a question raised by the name of this week’s Torah reading: Balak. Balak was a wicked man, an immoral12 king who hated the Jewish people and wanted to destroy them. Why then is his name immortalized as the title of a weekly Torah reading? Our Sages state13 that a person should not be named after a wicked man. Surely, this applies with regard to the name of a Torah portion.

The above discussion makes the intent clear. Naming the Torah reading “Balak” is a means of negating the forces associated with him. As the Torah reading relates, Balak’s intent was thwarted entirely. The name Parshas Balak is an eternal source of positive influence, frustrating any power that seeks to harm the Jewish people.

The narrative in our Torah reading relates, moreover, not only that Balak’s intent was foiled, but that Bilaam whom Balak brought to curse the Jewish people showered powerful blessings upon them, including the blessings which will become manifest with the coming of Mashiach.14 Thus the name Balak refers not only to the negation of evil, but to its transformation into a positive influence.

The Fruits of Unbounded Commitment

In some years, Parshas Balak is read together with Parshas Chukas. For it is the selfless commitment implied by the name Chukas15 which makes possible the transformation of evil into good. When a person fans the spark of G‑dliness in his soul and expresses it through unbounded devotion to the Torah, he influences his environment, negating undesirable influences and transforming them into good.16

And as this pattern spreads throughout the world, we draw closer to the fulfillment of the prophecies mentioned in this week’s Torah reading:17 “A star shall emerge from Yaakov, and a staff shall arise in Israel, crushing all of Moab’s princes, and dominating all of Seth’s descendants.”