Address to Barmitzvah Darren Edel
by Rabbi Dr Jeffrey M Cohen
Parshat Balak - Shabbat 16th July 2005

My dear Darren,

Congratulations on attaining your Barmitzvah and on the excellent way you read your Maftir and Haftarah today.

You are your mum’s right-hand man, and you have developed some excellent skills of self-reliance. In order to help support yourself, you do an early morning newspaper round, starting work at six in the morning. You also have a highly developed business acumen. You’ve got your own web site. You’ve done car boot sales, and you also had a business going at school, selling coke and crisps, which was fine until the head teacher got to hear of it. You obviously didn’t give him a sufficient cut!

You have been through all our younger services. You’ve attended SMILE and been on some of the trips. You love Israel, where your dear grandparents live, and where you’ve already made countless trips. All this, we hope, will serve you in good stead, to lay a solid foundation for your Jewish future.

Your sidrah describes how the wicked king of Moab, Balak, hired a magician called Bilaam to curse Israel and destroy her. Our rabbis believe, however, that Bilaam was far more than a mere magician or caster of evil spells. They actually credit Bilaam with being a distinguished prophet, a guide and counsellor to the heathen nations. The rabbis seem to have gone overboard with their praise of Bilaam’s powers, claiming that in the same way that Moses was the chief of all the prophets of Israel, so Bilaam was the most distinguished counsellor and guide to the other nations.

Is it not puzzling though, Darren, that the rabbis should have spoken in the same breath of Moses, the Law giver of Israel, and the heathen prophet Bilaam, seemingly putting them on an equal footing?.

I suggest that the explanation lies in four remarkable statements that that heathen Bilaam makes to the king Balak when, under pressure from God, Bilaam excuses his inability to curse Israel (See Numbers 22:18, 38; 23:26; 24:13). On the very first occasion he tells the king:

“If King Balak were to give me his palace full of silver and gold, I could not transgress the word of the Lord, my God.”

It is astonishing that that non-believer is suddenly filled with a spirit of truth to the extent that he has a revelation that the God of Israel is the supreme God, and that he simply cannot defy Him in any way. More than that, look how Bilaam describes God. On each of those four occasions He calls him either Adonai or Elohim, or, in the first instance, Adonai Elohai, ‘The Lord my God.’ In other words, Bilaam fully accepts upon himself the sovereignty of Israel’s God, to the extent that he feels totally bound by whatever God desires of him.

That goes a long way to explaining why the Talmudic sages elevated Bilaam to a status of a prophet, albeit to the other nations.

Darren, my message to you – and it may seem an astonishing – is to take that particular statement of Bilaam and to make it your programme for life. To paraphrase his words: If anyone were to offer me the greatest reward or inducement, I could not reject the word of the Lord, my God.’

There certainly will be people and situations, in the future, Darren, who will tempt you to reject some of the cherished teachings of Judaism, of God’s word. If ever that happens, try to remember to think back to your Barmitzvah sidrah and to the message of the rabbi. Reflect on how even the non-believing magician, Bilaam, realised that God’s word is to be obeyed if we want peace of mind, joy and blessing in life.

May you be loyal to your faith throughout your life. May you obey as many mitzvoth as possible, and may you be blessed in every way, and bring great joy to your dear mum, Sandra, to your father and to all your family, your community and your people. Amen.