Balak and Korach: Who Not to Be
Rabbi Tzadok HaKohen of Lublin writes that the names of the parshiot speak to the heart of the parsha’s message just as names do. Therefore, there is significance in the names of parshiot and in names in general. The fundamental question then becomes why are two parshiot in the Torah named Balak and Korach?
I can postulate why a parsha is named after Korach. Based on the idea that we know who we are by what we are not, Korach serves as the primary example of what not to be in life. By giving him a portion in the Torah, we are shown that one who is embroiled in the traits of kinah, taavah and kavod are literally "taken from this world," swallowed by the earth. The message is clear: adopt an opposite lifestyle of this person.
But what's the message of naming a portion after Balak? On the one hand he persisted in trying to realize a curse against Israel, yet Ruth is a descendant of his, due to his sacrificing to G-d, though he lacked any intent. How are we to identify Balak?
I believe the answer is that he is another person whose example we should use for how not to act. Balak missed a fundamental point. He hired Bilam because he believed the Jewish military victories came by way of sorcery. This was a fundamental error. A king must be a student of history and internalize examples of the past.
Unlike Yitro, about whom the Torah testified, “Vayishma Yitro,” by Balak it is written “Vayar Balak,” he saw. There’s a key difference between hearing and seeing. Hearing is indicative of pondering and internalizing while seeing indicates a superficial glance without probing to the depth of the matter. Yitro heard and internalized G-d’s miracles while Balak glanced at them and failed to realize that Israel’s conquests were not rooted in black magic but in the Almighty.
In Jewish law, hearing is worth much more than seeing. It’s only if you cause deafness to another man that you pay his whole value, a reality that doesn’t apply to any of the other senses. Balak failed to “hear” instead relying upon his periphery vision.
Balak also failed in realizing his name. Balak is known as Balak ben Tzipor. We are told that the Tzipor name hints to his performing magic through a certain bird, but it has another possible meaning. It can also hint to the metzorah, who can only be purified by a bird that chatters just as the metzorah chattered and slandered. Balak should have “chatted and deliberated" more with his senses to arrive at clearer conclusions. Here we see a person has a chance within his name to fulfill his destiny but fails.
On the other hand, in next week’s parsha, Pinchas has a name that challenged his mission, but he overcame it. If you split up his name into two words, it spells “pen chas,” – “maybe he will have mercy.” Pinchas is challenged to leave his lineage’s culture of altruism through words. He brings a new idea to the world: peace through military engagement and dichotomizes the ways in how peace can be achieved.
Indeed, the names of parshiot and people’s names define their essence. Two parshiot in the Torah serve a great purpose by choosing to name them after doomed characters. By studying them we can clearly see how not to act. After all, there are only two ways one can learn how to act: either to model or not model one’s behavior after someone else. The gift of Balak and Korach is that we are taught not to base our philosophies based on short sightedness and periphery glances, but rather on introspection and that we should not covet honor and glory, but rather seek humility, for it is in the humble that G-d resides.