Now Balak son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites, and Moab was terrified because there were so many people. Indeed, Moab was filled with dread because of the Israelites. — Numbers 22:2–3
The Torah portion for this week is Balak, after the king of the Moabites, from Numbers 22:2–25:9, and the Haftorah is from Micah 5:6–6:8.
Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk was a legend in 19th century Poland. Among the stories shared about him is one about a conversation he had with his students that went something like this:
Students: Are you certain that you will be let into Heaven?
Rabbi Elimelech: Absolutely.
Students: How can you be so sure?
Rabbi Elimelech: When we die in this world and we go before the heavenly court, we are asked certain questions. They will ask me if I studied Torah to the best of my ability. And I will answer honestly: No. Then they will ask if I fully surrendered to God in prayer. Again, I will answer honestly: No. Next, they will ask if I did all of the good deeds that I could do while I was alive. I will answer honestly once more: No. Then they will say: An honest man! Come, come, you have a place here!
Honesty is of paramount importance in the Jewish tradition.
This week’s Torah portion is called Balak, after the king of the Moabites who we read about in this portion. Balak was an enemy of the Israelites. After hearing about their exodus from Egypt and their defeat of the Amalekites and others who tried to destroy them, Balak decided to employ another tactic. He decided to enlist the help of Balaam, a man known for his spiritual powers. Balak deduced that if the Israelites couldn’t be conquered physically, perhaps they could be weakened spiritually and then he could go in for the kill. Balak struck a deal with Balaam and the plan was put into action.
Why on earth would we name a Torah reading after this wicked man? If anything, the portion should have been named for Balaam – at least he was a spiritual person who merited the opportunity to communicate with God and asked God’s permission before attempting to curse the Israelites!
However, the Jewish sages explain that Balak was preferable to Balaam, because while Balak was an enemy of the Israelites, he was at least open and honest about it. Balaam, on the other hand, pretended to be a spiritually oriented man, but when he got the chance, he jumped at the opportunity to destroy God’s chosen people. God prefers an honest man to a hypocrite.
The story about Rabbi Elimelech and the storyline of this week’s reading both underscore the importance of living a life of honesty, sincerity, and integrity. We need not be perfect, but we need to be perfectly honest. Remember, nothing is hidden to God Who sees straight to our hearts.