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Why Bilam Belongs in Shma
by Rabbi Heschel Greenberg

One of the most enigmatic portions of the Torah is the one entitled Balak, which features the prophetic words of Bilam the sorcerer. Balak hired Bilam to curse the Jewish people, whom he viewed as an existential threat to him. Instead, G-d put the most beautiful and powerful words of praise and prophetic pronouncements in Bilam’s mouth.

The Talmud (Brachos 12b) remarks that our Sages entertained the notion of incorporating the narrative of Bilam in our daily prayers alongside the reading of the Shma. The Talmud explains that the importance of this parsha is based on the verse: “He crouched and lay down like a lion and like a lion cub, who can stand him up?” Rashi explains that this verse is similar to the phrase in the Shma “when you lie down and when you arise.” It teaches that the Holy One, Blessed is He, watches over us when we go to sleep and wake up so that we may rest peacefully like a lion and its cub.

The Jerusalem Talmud (Brachos 1:5) adds a second reason for the selection of this parsha as a “candidate” for inclusion with the Shma: “Rabbi Yossi the son of Rabbi Bon said: ‘Because in it is written the Exodus and Royalty,’” referring to King David and Moshiach.

The recitation of the Shma is intended to impress upon us the unity of G-d. Moreover, as Chassidus explains, the oneness of G-d expressed in the Shma negates the existence of anything but G-d. Everything that exists is an extension of G-d’s Ten Utterances with which He created the world and continues to create the world every instant.

To buttress this appreciation for G-d’s overarching role in our lives it was suggested that we also recite the story of Bilam, which demonstrates how, even when we are in a compromised position, we are strong because of G-d’s constant supervision over us and His presence in our lives.

This explanation—the only explanation in the Babylonian Talmud for the inclusion of the parshah of Bilam in our prayers—is intended primarily for those who are mired in the darkness of exile—for whom the Babylonian Talmud speaks. The Babylonian Talmud was composed in exile and is referred to as the Talmud of Darkness because it empowers us to survive in exile and ultimately escape from it. They have to be reassured that G-d is with them and will raise them up from their crouched position.

However, the Jerusalem Talmud, which has been characterized as the Talmud of Light, adds a new dimension and perspective to the recitation of Parshas Bilam: the idea of the Exodus coupled with royalty.

Most people who think of the Exodus from Egypt focus on the liberation from slavery and misery. A more advanced perspective involves viewing the Exodus, not as a departure from a negative state, but rather as a step closer to the positive and sublime state of Redemption.

This positive perspective is captured by the Jerusalem Talmud’s juxtaposing the Exodus with royalty. Royalty, as some commentators suggest, refers to the kingship of the House of David, which includes Moshiach, the descendant of King David, the ultimate Jewish leader.

The emphasis on Moshiach being the “son of David” is perhaps intended to emphasize that we are discussing Moshiach the son of David and not Moshiach the son of Joseph. According to the Talmud (Sukka 52a) Moshiach ben Yosef will precede the coming of Moshiach ben Dovid. His role is to wage war against the forces of evil that are impediments to the final Redemption. Moshiach ben Dovid’s primary role, by contrast, is to build the Beis HaMikdash and unify the Jewish people. His is primarily a positive mission to usher in the age when G-d’s absolute unity will be recognized by the entire world. This further emphasizes the approach of the Jerusalem Talmud—to incorporate the message in the parshah of Bilam not to fight or escape the darkness but as a way of advancing towards the future.



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