Does the Torah Believe in Magic?
Do the words of laypeople have the capacity to affect a blessing or curse? Do powers of sorcery really exist in the world? If so, are such acts independent of Hashem's will?
- What does the Torah as a whole, and Parashat Balak in particular, suggest? If Hashem did not want harm to befall the Children of Israel, why would it have mattered whether Bilam spoke positively or negatively about them? Would his curses have had any effect? See Why Worry About Bilam for elaboration.
- Are magical practices and divination prohibited by the Torah because they are nonsense? Or, are they forbidden despite (or perhaps, because of) their efficacy? Contrast the opinions of Ibn Ezra and Ramban regarding these questions.
- For further study: See how the different approaches to our story compare to commentators' understandings of other narratives that deal with magical practices, such as the revival of Shemuel in Did Shemuel Come Back to Life.
Calming the Masses
Ibn Kaspi asserts that many Israelites were anxious about Bilam's curse, as they erroneously believed it had the power to harm them. Though their concern was unfounded, Hashem, nonetheless, did not want them to be frightened and so he prevented Bilam from cursing. See Why Worry About Bilam for more.
- Is it possible that Hashem sometimes acts merely to allay fears and concerns stemming from the misguided beliefs of the masses? Does this not simply ensure that such beliefs are perpetuated? Would it not be preferable to, instead, correct the nation's misconceptions?
- Elsewhere, commentators go even further to suggest that there are even certain commandments which were instituted only in response to mistaken beliefs. For example, see Ibn Kaspi on Purpose of the Pesach, Shadal on the "evil eye" in Half Shekels – For Census or Tabernacle and the impurity of Tzara'at, and Rambam's understanding of the Purpose of the Sacrifices. Do you find such approaches persuasive?
To Dwell Alone: A Blessing or Curse?
Bilam blesses the nation, "הֶן עָם לְבָדָד יִשְׁכֹּן וּבַגּוֹיִם לֹא יִתְחַשָּׁב". This is often translated as, "Lo, it is a people that shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations." What, though, is the blessing in dwelling alone?
- The Netziv reads Bilam's words as a warning against assimilation. When the nation lives alone, then "יִשְׁכֹּן", they are able to dwell [in peace and dignity]. However, when they interact "בַגּוֹיִם", then "לֹא יִתְחַשָּׁב", they are not considered important or worthy of respect.1
- Do you agree? Does assimilation cause persecution or prevent it? In general, does the Torah promote an isolationist attitude towards surrounding cultures, or a policy of involvement with the outside world? What is the appropriate balance between the two?
- Look up the word "בָּדָד" in a concordance. What other meanings or connotations might the word have? How might these be applied to our verse? For elaboration, see A Nation that Dwells Alone and R"Y Bekhor Shor there.
Jewish and Gentile Relations
Rabbinic Midrashim draw a connection between Yitro and Bilam, placing them both in Paroh's court and making them each privy to his decision to enslave the Jewish people. While Bilam is portrayed as an architect of the Israelite Bondage, Yitro is depicting as wanting no part in the plan. What in the Biblical text might be prompting such portraits?
- Compare and contrast the two protagonists. How does each relate to the nation of Israel? How is each treated in turn?
- What message about Jewish and Gentile relations might be learned from the comparison? See Yitro & Bilam.
What is so Special About Pinechas?
What about Pinechas' slaying of Zimri made it so praiseworthy that it stopped a Divine plague and merited him special status and Divine favor?
- In his act, was Pinechas taking the law into his own hands or was he merely following orders? If the former, why was this not only allowed, but praised? If the latter, what made Pinechas' act unique? Compare the approaches of the Bavli and the Sifre, and bring support for each possibility from the verses.
- Was Zimri's sin one of fornication or idolatry? How did it relate to the sin of the nation? How do the different possibilities affect your understanding of Pinechas' actions? For a full discussion of these issues, see Pinechas – Action and Reward.