Balak: The Satan Within Us

Do Jews believe in Satan?  For many of us, “Of course not!” is the likely answer.  Indeed, the question itself may seem entirely non-Jewish.  

Except that this week’s Torah portion (Balak) states: 

“The angel of the Lord placed himself in [Balaam’s] way “’l’satan lo’.”  Numbers 22:22.   The Hebrew word “Satan” is usually translated into English in Jewish texts as “adversary.”  

The non-Jewish prophet Balaam was not the only biblical figure to encounter Satan.  Kings David and Solomon each did (2 Samuel 19:23, Kings 11:14, 23, 25) as, most prominently in Jewish Scripture, did Job. (Job 1:10-12; passim.) I would go so far as to say that “Satan” is a very important “figure” in Jewish thought! 

Then why don’t Jews learn or talk about “Satan?” 

The problem is that we have come to identify the word “Satan” with the Christian conception of “the Devil.”  Just putting the words “Jew” or “Judaism” together with “Satan” in the same sentence – or with any implied connection – is fraught with historical significance.  During the Middle Ages, Christians accused Jews of being in league with, or even actually being living manifestations of, Satan – by which Christians meant “the Devil.”  Untold numbers of Jews were persecuted and murdered as a result.  Perhaps for this reason, but also perhaps due to the place of “Satan” in Christian theology generally, “Satan” isn’t on our Jewish radar. 

But, “he” should be.  For the past 2,000 years, Jewish thought has been primarily based upon rabbinic interpretation of Scripture.  We have come to understand Satan as a destructive spiritual impediment to the fulfillment of our life’s mission to act ethically.  

Satan is even in the Siddur.  Ritually observant Jews recite a prayer service every morning.  It includes a passage that includes the word “Satan.”  Here are two translations of the prayer, one “Orthodox” and one “Liberal.”  The translation of “Satan” is italicized.   

May it be Your will, HaShem, my God and the God of my forefathers, that you rescue me today and every day from brazen men and brazenness, from an evil man, an evil companion, an evil neighbor, an evil mishap, the destructive spiritual impediment [“Satan”], a harsh trial and a harsh opponent, whether he is a member of the covenant or whether he is not a member of the covenant).  [From The Complete Artscroll Siddur.]


May it be Your will, Adonai my God and my ancestors’ God, that you deliver me today and every day from impudence and insolence, from bad people and from bad friends, from bad neighbors and from bad encounters, and from the destructive adversary [“Satan”], from oppressive judgments and oppressive opponents at law, whether of the covenant or not. [From My People’s Prayer Book: Traditional Prayers, Modern Commentaries.]

We know that competition makes for a more focused and efficient business, and that if a business does not work to “meet or beat” its competition, it may fail.  In other endeavors in life as well, such as in sports or even in love, when there is an adversary, we try harder since we know that, if not, we will most likely lose.  

Similarly, our desire to act ethically has a constant competitor.  Remembering – and acting as if -- we have a destructive spiritual impediment can help us to focus on the need to overcome the “Satan” within us.   

And, we can overcome "him," but not by ignoring "him."  As G-d told Cain: 

“Sin crouches at the door, and unto you is its desire, but you may rule over it.”  (Genesis 4:8).

Judaism gives us the weapons to wage a lifetime struggle against our constant spiritual adversary, Satan.  May we use those weapons to make ourselves and the world better.  

Shabbat shalom from Jerusalem.



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