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Cantor's Comment - Parshat Balak                                        June 26, 2021 - 16 Tammuz, 5781

06/25/2021 09:14:56 AM


A talking donkey, an invisible angel, and a curse…  This week’s parsha is a bit of a toughy… let’s get into it.

Parshat Balak is a very strange story that doesn’t digest easily.  Balak is the King of Moab.  He hears reports that a nation of Egyptian slaves have been wandering around the desert for some time, and have lead a number of recent ruthlessly successful military campaigns against the people of Bashan, the Amorites, and the Cheshbonites, and have now set up camp on the eastern shores of the Jordan river, the front doorstep of the kingdom of Moab.  Although the people of Israel aren’t interested in the Moabites’ territory, that doesn’t stop Balak from feeling uneasy about them.  And so, King Balak seeks out Bilaam, a famous prophet and diviner for hire from the neighbouring region of Petorah to ask him to cast a terrible curse upon the Israelite nation.  What’s the nature of this curse?  We don’t know, but it doesn’t really matter because that’s not what ends up happening.  At first Bilaam refuses the mission, having had a vision from God telling him not to do it.  But Balak persists, offering Bilaam riches beyond his wildest dreams, literally, the Torah, says, Bilaam can request anything he wants in the world, if he’ll perform this one task, and so Bilaam accepts.  Setting aside for a moment that Bilaam seems to have a fairly chummy relationship with God, this is where the story starts to get weird.  Bilaam sets out on his journey to the Israelite encampment, riding on his donkey.  God sends an angel to block Bilaam’s path, who is apparently only visible to the donkey.  The donkey, seeing God’s angel with sword drawn swerves to the side of the road to avoid the angel.  Unable to see any cause for his donkey to behave so oddly, Bilaam beats his donkey with a stick in order to steer him back on to the road.  The Torah then says that God opened up the mouth of the donkey who exclaims, “why are you beating me?  Can’t you see something strange is going on here?”  Before Bilaam has a chance to respond, presumably to say, “yes, I apparently have a talking donkey” God uncovers Bilaam’s eyes so that he can now see the angel too.  The angel says “Hi, I’m Satan, I’m annoyed that I have to take time out of my busy schedule to be here, and if your donkey hadn’t swerved to avoid me, I’d have already killed you, spared the donkey, and been on my way.”  (yes, I’m paraphrasing, but not nearly as much as you might think) Then Bilaam apologizes.  He remembers that he probably had it coming considering that God had told him explicitly not to take King Balak’s job to curse the Israelites.  At which point the angel replies, “Oh, that’s ok, you can continue on your way if you like, but when it comes time to curse the Israelites, you’ll only be able to say the words that I tell you.”  Long story short, Bilaam finally reaches the Israelite encampment, but as he is about to utter the curse, he finds that the only words that come out of his mouth are words of blessing.  Specifically, Bilaam’s words of blessing are the words that today appear in our siddurim, to be recited as we enter a synagogue, Mah Tovu Ohalecha Yaakov Mishkenotecha Yisrael, How good are you tents, O’Jacob, you’re dwelling places o’ Israel.  That’s the story, thanks for sticking with me through it.

Perhaps you’re thinking, Cantor Jeremy, this story is certainly weird, but really, how weird is it compared to the other biblical stories of floods, plagues, miracles, angles and prophets – which is perfectly fair.  But consider that there are only two stories in the entire Torah in which an animal speaks, placing it firmly into an exclusive category of weird.  What was the other animal?  What was the other story, you ask?  It was the snake, the Nachash, from the story of Adam and Eve, a story that we know was never meant to be understood as literal history, but rather as an allegory for the origin of sentience, how at some point in the real history of human evolution, human beings became self-aware, developed the concept of morality and began to nurture their sense of spirituality.  In the story of Adam and Eve, the snake is a metaphor for the evil inclination, the yetzer harah, that voice that exists in each of our heads that encourages us to indulge our animal instinct for desire and pleasure without considering the consequences of our actions.  So of course, the snake speaks.  The snake is just a manifestation of the part of ourselves that is more animal than divine image of God.

What if the same way we look at the snake could be applied to the donkey in the story of Bilaam?  It would mean that the dialogue between Bilaam and the donkey is really Bilaam’s internal dialogue.  Let’s put ourselves in Bilaam’s shoes for a moment and imagine what might be on his mind.

Bilaam is not just any non-Israelite prophet.  God speaks directly to Bilaam early on in the story after King Balak first tries to hire him.  While Bilaam is not a member of God’s chosen people, Bilaam is clearly tuned in to the same one universal God that the Israelites worship.  While the Israelites claim a special relationship with God, God’s universality also means non-exclusivity.  It should only stand to reason that there must be a few other people out there like Bilaam who are tuned into the one-God concept and who are not necessarily members of the tribe.  Bilaam is then swayed by King Balak’s promise of earthly goods, wealth and treasure, and agrees to act against God’s instructions in order to curse a people whom he has never met, with whom he has no quarrel, and who don’t even have any plans to move against the Moabites.

Queue the inner dialogue:  The Donkey, Bilaam’s conscience, asks “why am I beating myself up?  There’s no obstacle in my path, or is there?  A part of me senses that something is wrong, but part of me wants to give in to the earthly pleasures that King Balak has promised.  I don’t want to turn around and go home, but yet I cannot seem to continue… I’m stuck.”

Suddenly the angel is revealed, and we must recall that the word Satan in Hebrew does not refer to some menacing evil fallen angel, the word Satan simply means “adversary”.  In other words, the real “adversary” is finally revealed to Bilaam.  What is the adversary? It’s Bilaam’s own guilty conscience.  But what choice does he have at this point?  He has accepted King Balak’s job, so he must proceed, but in recognizing that his adversary, the reason for his being “stuck” is his own conscience, he is then able to reconnect with God (who he now remembers told him not to go in the first place), realizing that as always, he can only do that which God allows him to do, and in this case, God will not allow him to place a curse upon the Israelites.  So having wrestled with his conscience, Bilaam can continue on his journey once again, already knowing exactly how it will end.

It is stories like that of Bilaam that remind us that as central as the Torah is to Jewish existence, it was never intended to be a history book.  The word “Torah” means “law” in English, but perhaps a more appropriate translation is “teaching”.  To us in modern times, the law is a set of precisely written statues by which we must live in our society.  This is also true in the case of Jewish law, which has been debated, distilled, codified, interpreted, and recodified again to become the rules that govern Jewish existence today, including everything from what words we use when making a blessing, to how to observe Shabbat.  But this wasn’t always the case.  We didn’t always have laws we could look up in a book.  In pre-ancient times, the law was a person, usually a king or a chieftain, who enacted judgements according to his instincts, whether they be good or bad.  The revolutionary point of Torah was that a leader could be taught to be a wise judge, someone who could be instilled with a sense of morality, spirit, justice and mercy and the knowledge of how to keep them in balance.  A list of good rules can certainly go a long way towards helping a person become a good and wise judge, but as we all know, words can be twisted, and facts can be obscured.  Stories, however, penetrate our hearts and minds, they can change the way we think and see the world.  That is why we study Torah, not just to robotically regurgitate rules, but to be enlightened with the patterns of thinking that bring takanah, a little bit of healing to a world in need of more talking donkeys.

Shabbat Shalom,

Mon, July 4 2022 5 Tammuz 5782