On the Torah section of Balak, the great Hasidic Rebbe, R. Meir Pramishlan (1703–1773), disciple of the Baal Shem Tov, asks a basic question: Why is this Torah section called Balak, the name of an avowed hater of the people of? We do not call the Torah portion Bilam, understandably so, since he attempted to curse the people of Israel and bring about, G-d forbid, their destruction. Yet Balak, who was the catalyst in bringing Bilam for the express purpose of defeating the people of Israel, is given the honor of this section being called by his name!
This question, R. Meir Pramishlan answers as follows: It is certainly not uncommon to find non-Jews who bear anti-semitic sentiments. However, these sentiments are usually kept “under wraps”, so to speak, and obscured in fancy or flowery rhetoric, whereby it is difficult to know the truth in order to take proper caution. Similarly, Bilam attempted to show at some points that he was looking out for the Israelites’ interest. Balak, however, was “fair” and straight. He revealed his hatred for everyone to see – no tricks and no subterfuge. For being so straight, Balak deserved a Torah portion to be named after him.
On the other side of the spectrum, we find in this Torah portion, another example of being straight, in the personage of Pinchas. Pinchas witnessed one of the most licentious and reprehensible acts done by none other than a leader of one of the tribes of the Israelite nation. Looking on were myriads of the people of Israel. Included amongst the onlookers were Pinchas’ father Elazar, his uncle Itamar, his grandfather Aaron the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) and his great uncle Moses. All were looking on dumbfounded. Pinchas, though, horrified at this sight, recalled a law sanctioning his personally taking the law into his hands to put an end to this. Pinchas knew that his father and uncle, men of great distinction were witness to the same incident. He knew that his illustrious grandfather and great uncle saw what he saw. Yet he did not shy away from doing what he knew was right. He could have second-guessed himself. He could have thought that if all these great people are looking on and not doing anything, then maybe there really is nothing for him to do – maybe he is wrong. He could have thought to himself, “What? Am I more knowledgeable or more righteous than Moses?” Pinchas could have thought, “And even if I am right, who am I to do this, when there are others greater than I?” No. Pinchas knew without a shadow of a doubt what this act warranted, and realized that for some reason it escaped the other onlookers – even Moses. Pinchas was not scared to confront his most eminent great uncle and leader of the entire nation, Moses, and remind him of the law that he taught Pinchas. Although he was not one of high stature at the time, Pinchas understood that the obligation rested on him and that this is no time for etiquette or humility. He could not wait and should not wait for anyone else to take care of this. He must take care of the problem himself – and he did (see Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 82b).
Such an act performed by Pinchas is one of exemplary straightness, paradigmatic forthrightness and model strength of character. It is presented as an example of behavior for all to learn from. If we are to respect the straightness of Balak, a nemesis of the people of Israel, to the point of naming the Torah section after him, all the more so are we to respect the straightness of Pinchas, upholder of G-d’s law and lore, and give him no less the honor bestowed to Balak of naming the following Torah portion by the name of Pinchas.
G-d tells us, “You shall listen to all that I command you, in order that it will be good for you and your children after you forever, when you do what is good and right in the eyes of G-d” (Devarim 12:28). We should all remember to be straight and honest, with no connivances and no tricks. We should do what we are supposed to do, with no excuses and no pretenses. We should do what is right with no games. This is the example of Pinchas. Only by doing so, did Pinchas receive the respect of none other than G-d Himself reported as an example to all in His holy Torah. Only by doing so ourselves, can we expect G-d to respect our behavior and provide us with His goodness. It is up to us. Let us be straight with G-d and He will be straight with us.