This week is one of the weeks when we have a joined Torah portion. There are 54 Torah portions and the Jewish non-leap-year doesn’t have 54 weeks (and the secular year also doesn’t have 54 weeks, but who cares?), but we need to cram 54 Torah portions into fewer than 54 weeks. There is a practical reason why we combine Hukkat and Balak: they are comparatively short. When we put them together, however, we see there are reasons why they should be joined.
In Parshat Hukkat, there is the famous episode of the rock at the Waters of Merivah. The people was traveling in the wilderness, and they did not have any water to drink. God tells Moses to assemble the congregation in front of a rock, and to order the rock to yield water. Moses, frustrated and angry, smites the rock with his staff, and breaks the rock. The face of the rock breaks, revealing a spring, and water gushes from the rock. For his disobedience of God, Moses is punished by being prohibited to enter the Land of Canaan.
In Parshat Balak, the joined Parashah, we have an equally famous story. Balaam is a prophet-sorcerer, and he is hired by Balak, who was the king of Moab at that time, to curse the Israelites at a time when the Israelites were growing in power. Balak send emissaries to entreat Balaam to curse the Israelites, and the next day Balaam departs from his home to see Balak, riding an ass. An angel blocks the ass’s path, but Balaam cannot see the angel, and he gets angry with the ass. Balaam berates the ass, and the ass responds. They have a conversation and, eventually, Balaam is allowed to see the angel. The angel says Balaam’s mission is odious to God, and Balaam offers to return home. The angel responds that Balaam should continue his mission, but Balaam will only say the words that God puts into his mouth.
Consequently, Balaam blesses the Israelites to the fury of Balak, who hired Balaam to curse the Israelites. Balaam explains that he can say only the words that God puts into his mouth.
In Hukkat, Moses disobeys God, and in Balak, Balaam disappoints, indeed disobeys, Balak, but Balaam, who is hired to curse the Israelites, has no choice but to obey God. So there is a thread of disobedience and a contrast between Balaam’s compulsion to say the words that God puts into his mouth, and Moses’ defiant disobedience of God. And that is one of the common themes of the joined Torah portions.