The main story of the sedra is revealed in its first sentence:
‘And Balak, son of Zippor, saw what the Israelites did to the Amorites’.
In the previous sedra of Chukat, the Israelites had destroyed the Amorite army in battle and Balak, who was king of the Moabites, realized that he could not defeat them militarily so he would have to resort to sorcery. This involved hiring Bilam the local prophet/soothsayer/sorcerer to curse the Israelites. So Balak sent a delegation of elders to bribe Bilam and ask him to conduct the cursing. Bilam asked them to wait while he asked Hashem if he could go with them but Hashem said he could not. Balak now sent an even more illustrious delegation of princes with more riches to request the favour. This time Hashem told Bilam that he could go with the men but he could only speak the words that Hashem put in his mouth.
So Bilam sets off riding on his trusty donkey accompanied by the delegation to meet up with Balak. However, his path is blocked by a sword-carrying angel who is visible to the donkey but not to Bilam. The donkey turns aside to avoid the angel and Bilam beats it. They set off again but find their way blocked by the angel again, in a place where the path narrows. This time the donkey squeezes past and in doing so crushes Bilam’s leg against a wall and is beaten even harder as a result. Finally, the angel completely blocks the path with its sword drawn and the donkey just stops and lays down on the ground unable to move forward at all. Bilam administers a third beating but this time the donkey speaks and remonstrates with him and Bilam’s eyes are opened so that he can now see the angel too and realizes how unfair he had been to the long-suffering animal.
When Bilam finally meets up with Balak he is taken up to 3 different vantage points so he can look down on the Israelite encampment. After erecting 7 altars and offering sacrifices in each location Bilam looks down on the camp and opens his mouth to curse but only words of blessings emerge to Balak’s considerable anger.
The sedra ends with Bilam getting his revenge by advising the Moabite women to entice the Israelite men to join them in the heathen worship of Baal when they encamp at Shittim. The ensuing idolatry causes a plague to occur in the camp which wipes out 24,000 of the Israelite sinners. The plague only abates when Pinchas, the son of Elazar the High priest, throws his spear and impales an Israelite man and a Moabite women engaging in a flagrantly immoral act outside the Tent of Meeting.
Now the reason I chose Balak is because it was my Barmitzvah sedra and I was fascinated by something that you can only really appreciate when you see it written out in the Sefer Torah. As I am sure you are all aware, a traditional Sefer Torah is written across 248 columns each of which contains 42 lines of Hebrew text. You will also notice that the first word at the top of every column begins with the letter Vav except in 5 places. (As an aside, the 248 columns represent the number of positive mitzvot, and Vav is one of the letters in Hashem’s name.)
The pivotal sentence in the sedra is where Bilam blesses the Israelite camp the second time and declares the words that we say every time we enter a synagogue:
‘Ma tovu oholecha Ya’akov, mishkanotecha Yisrael –
How goodly are your tents Oh Jacob, your dwelling places Oh Israel’
Now this sentence is always written at the top of a column in the Sefer so that the first letter is the Mem of the word ‘Ma’ and not a Vav. If you locate this sentence (Numbers chapter 24, verse 5) in a chumash you will see that it has a Masoretic footnote (if you don’t know what this is and want to find out, then forgo your cheesecake and come and see me during the break). The footnote states that there are 6 places in the Sefer where a particular word has to be at the head of a column and it provides a 6-letter mnemonic comprising the first letters of these 6 words. The Mem in Balak is one of these words and so it is the 5thletter of the mnemonic. I am sure everyone can work out what the first letter is?
To me, this serves to illustrate that sometimes there is so much more to appreciate in the text when you see how it is actually written out by the Sofer in the Sefer Torah rather than just being printed in a chumash.