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The Torah calls Malkizedek, Abraham’s contemporary, “a Priest of God most high.”

We often wonder why God made a covenant with a people who repeatedly proved to be ungrateful, disobedient and faithless. God Himself threatened twice to destroy the people, (after the Golden Calf and the episode of the spies). At the end of Parshat Balak, He sent them a plague. 

There were other devoted and religious peoples in the ancient world. The Torah calls Malkizedek, Abraham’s contemporary, “a Priest of God most high.” (Bereshit 14:18). Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law, was a Midianite Priest who gave his son-in-law sound advice. When the prophet Yonah arrived at Nineveh and delivered his warning, immediately the people repented, something that happened rarely in Judah/Israel. 

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

Why then choose Israel? The answer is love. God loves Israel. He loved Abraham. He loves Abraham’s children. He is exasperated by their conduct, but He cannot relinquish that love. 

Where in the Torah does God express this love? In the blessings of Balaam. That is where He gives voice to His feelings for this people:

“I see them from the mountain tops, gaze on them from the heights: This is a people that dwells apart, not reckoned among the nations.” 

“Lo, a people that rises like a lion, leaps up like the king of beasts.”

“How good are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel!”

These famous words are not Balaam’s. They are God’s — the most eloquent expression of His love.

Balaam is the most unlikely vehicle for God’s blessings. But that is God’s way. He chose an aged, infertile couple to be the grandparents of the Jewish people. He chose a man who couldn’t speak to be His voice.He chose Balaam, who hated Israel, to be the messenger of His love. As Moses explains: “The Lord your God would not listen to Balaam but turned the curse into a blessing for you, because the Lord your God loves you.”

That is what the story is about: not Balak, or Balaam, or Moab, or Midian, or what happened next. It is about God’s love for a people, their strength, resilience, their willingness to be different, their family life (tents, dwelling places), and their ability to outlive empires.

I believe all God’s acts have a moral message for us. God is teaching us that love can turn curses into blessings. It is the only force capable of defeating hate. Love heals the wounds of the world. 

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