In this week’s and recent Torah portions we meet many characters who are not who they appear to be, but none more than Balaam.
Korach is said to have been both wealthy and extremely clever. He ties Moses in knots with questions about the tzitzit (ritual fringes-no pun intended). He speaks in lofty terms, “Are not the entire people holy?”(Numbers 16:3) Similarly, the midrash tells us that the reason why Moses and the Israelites were weeping as the Simeonite chieftain Zimri openly has sex combined with idolatry with the Midiante Cozbi because Moses had no answer when Zimri asked what was the difference between what he was doing and Moses marrying the Midianite Zipporah. However, the Torah leaves the reader little room to doubt that both Korakh and Zimri are acting evilly. The rabbinic midrashim are designated to show how wisdom and logic can be twisted, not to suggest that there was any truth to their manipulative rhetoric. They deserve the bad rap they get. For many years I thought that Pinkhas who takes matters into his hands at the end of our Torah portion by killing Zimri and Cozbi, gets an undeservedly good rap. His vigilantism stops the plague God brings because the Israelites have been seduced into idolatry, and earns the praise of God at the beginning of next week’s Torah portion. However, he is not actually acting as a vigilante. Both God and Moses command the slaying of those who have participated in this idolatry (Numbers 25: 4-5)
Balaam is different. He speaks with God. Despite the strange story of his not seeing that an angel is blocking his way when Balak summons him to curse the Israelites, he only goes when he has God’s permission, he only says what God tells him to say, and earns Balak’s anger by praising us. His blessings of us are part of our morning prayers,
“How beautiful are your tents, O Jacob,
Your dwellings, O Israel!” (24:5)
It is very hard to find fault with Balaam in our Torah portion. It is only in another two weeks that we will learn that it was Balaam’s idea to send the women of Midian to seduce the Israelite men to participate in idolatry. (I am taking this story at face value, although I know that this text supports negative images of women as temptresses.)
Either something changed inside him, or all along he wanted the wealth that Balak was willing to grant him, and was putting on a show of piety. Perhaps he was obeying God out of fear, or because he knew his words would have no effect if not the words God put in his mouth, but not because of any true loyalty to God.
Rashi takes both approaches. He says that Balaam was intent from the outset of finding a way of getting around God’s intent, and cursing the Israelites. On the other hand, his commentary on Numbers 24:13 is that something has changed: When Balaam says “I am unable to go beyond the Word of Adonai, Rashi writes, “It is not written here ‘My God’ as was said at first in Numbers 22:18 because he had now become conscious that God now regards him as something vile and has banished Balaam from God’s Presence
Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch takes a different tack, arguing that Balaam was always a unprincipled prophet for hire:
“Already in the time of Abraham, in the midst of an idolatrous world, we find Malki Tzedek that was ‘a priest of the Supreme God;– God Whom the descendants of Abraham accepted as the only God, and also Job and his friends served the One God. We see that Balaam saw himself as serving the One God…But Judaism teaches belief in One God with all the necessary conclusions this entail regarding human life: The Unity of God with the unity of life through God’s Torah….’The spiritual level of Balaam, who believes in one God, is on a lesser moral level, and is far from Malki Tedek and Job and his friends. His spiritual talent to come close to God is subjugated to his selfishness; he puts himself at the service of earthly powers and rulers – and their lowly lusts. Our sages said in Midrash Tanhuma for the Torah portion Balak, a:
‘See the difference between the Jewish prophets and Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and others, and the prophets of other nations (Balaam), The Jewish prophets warn the nations about their transgressions, and Balaam gives them an opening to lose their place in the World to Come. (By advising to seduce through sexual wrongdoing). See chapter 25 And not just him, but all of the Jewish prophets had the attribute of compassion for Israel and for all the nations. Isaiah 16:11: ‘Therefore, like a lyre my heart moans for Moab, and my very soul for Kir –heres,’ Ezekiel 27:2: ‘Now you, O moral intone a dirge over Tyre.’ The prophets of other nations had the attribute of cruelty. Balaam tried to destroy an entire people for no reason. The story of Balaam is therefore told in order to explain why God banished the holy spirit from other peoples, after God saw what Balaam did (with the spiritual gift given him).’”
There are plenty of examples of Jewish prophets cursing other nations, and non-Jews speaking prophetically of justice and compassion, and we are elsewhere taught that prophecy has ceased for both Jews and non-Jews. I do not feel comfortable with Jewish triumphalism, any more than I feel comfortable with non-Jewish triumphalism. However, I resonate with the idea that we can use our gifts for good or for evil.
Almost all of us wear masks, and not just on Purim. More or less successfully, we try to get others to see us as we want to be seen. Some of us do it more honestly, and some less so. Some of us even delude ourselves, while some of us are quite aware that we are not what we project to the outside world. Some of us have many different personas for different viewers.
A rabbi I knew once accidentally received an email that the Jewish National Fund USA spokesperson sent to JNF USA CEO Russell Robinson. It said that JNF USA was coming under criticism, so they ought to keep emphasizing the positive projects they do for Bedouin in the Negev.
Yes, I am coming back to the theme I have been stuck on for several weeks. This week the Keren Kayemet-Jewish National Fund won in court. It was not prophecy, but they and the State and the judicial system teamed up to promote cruelty, ruling that the Sumarin family must evacuate by August 16th the home they built and owned, until the KK-JNF and State conspired to steal it from them. The KKL-JNF, and its affiliates around the word try to put on their best mask, and present the world with the good that they do. Some of that good is real, but it cannot erase the cruelty and injustice of exploiting the law in which the Israeli government itself admitted was wrong in 1995. Below is a press release of the Sumarin coalition on this week’s events. I pray that, just as Balaam fell from God’s Favor, the KKL-JNF will to what is necessary to again make us and God proud of what they do. The release includes links to letters from 34 Israel prize winners, the director of the Aravah Institute, affiliated with the KKL-JNF, over 100 leading intellectuals worldwide, graduates of the KKL-JNF’s youth group and former government minister Rabbi Michael Melchior. They speak with a spirit of compassion and justice. They make me hopeful and proud.