The Torah Portion of this week is named after a wicked person, Balak, while we normally see such naming as a homage. How can this be?
“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose By any other name would smell as sweet” (Romeo and Juliet II, ii, 1-2) cannot be a Jewish quote. In the Holy Tongue, every name, word and letter has deep significance.
When the election of the Person of the Twentieth Century drew to a close, it became clear that Hitler was going to win. His wicked leadership had marked the previous century as no one else’s had. With a lot of last-minute campaigning, the embarrassment was prevented with Einstein coming out the winner.
(Isn’t it amazing how Jewish that epoch was, with eternal Jewish world-leaders like Einstein, Freud, Marx, Herzl, Frank, Ben-Gurion, and one anti-Jewish one: Hitler and hardly anyone else?)
The valid question could be asked how wicked Balak merited to have a Weekly Torah Portion named after him. He’s not even the main character or hero of the story as the great Prophet Balaam is.
The Sages suggest that his merit was that he was an “honest” Jew-hater. The merit of honesty is so great that even abuse of it cannot totally eclipse its value. Yet, I want a simple explanation to start with.
These are the six people who have a Weekly Torah Portion named after them: Noach, Sarah, Jethro, Korach, Balak and Phinehas.
- Noach – He on his own walked with G-d – no small feat.
- Sarah – She was a greater prophet even than Abraham.
- Jethro – As Gentile, he adopted Judaism and even advised Moses!
- Korach – He showed his wickedness but still repented – a bit late.
- Balak – First of all, this was to slight the real “hero” of the story, dishonest Balaam. The latter wanted to use G-d but he was used by Balak and G-d. Balak is prominent because also his (failed) wicked leadership hallowed G-d’s Name. (See below.)
- Phinehas – He showed that if one is humble and in-tune with what’s True, one can go even beyond than what has been clear until today and come out being contracted by G-d retroactively.
No portion is named after Moses, but his glory fills every letter of the Torah. However, he is called the most humble on earth (Numbers 12:3) because Korach was even more humble(d) – after the earth swallowed him up. And Moses is called the all-time greatest among the Jews (Deuteronomy 34:10) because, among all people, Balaam was actually greater. But greatness doesn’t equal holiness automatically.
If Balaam would have walked with G-d, he would have been greater than Moses, but since he only wanted to use G-d, G-d used him – the fate of all totally wicked people.
Many times, we all have a choice to team up with the Creator and put in some effort, or to feel free to do anything in the book, go with the flow, take it easy, be comfortable, justify ourselves, only chase short-term pleasures and feel completely unrestrained, in which case G-d will use us with our predictable “natural” behavior as pawns to further His goals.
(Actually, we do not have a choice like that. Rather, Free Will is that we are commanded to put in the effort and free (elevate) ourselves.)
We can’t go against G-d. We either diligently and meritoriously cooperate with Him or He’ll use our undeserving shameful indifference to holiness to further His Plot. G-d always wins.
All the name-givers to the Weekly Portions hallowed G-d’s Name. Most of them by being holy and some of them by being wicked.
Prominent people will be remembered. But it is their choice how they want their lives eternally to stand out: as friends to people, to the Jews and to G-d or as their enemies.