Parshat Balak: The evil poet whose verse we pray

Part I

In this week’s Parsha, the central figure is the fascinating Balaam, the evil prophet hired by the Balak, king of Moab, to curse the Israelites. Balaam is the Hitler of his time, perhaps even worse, yet his immortal words are inscribed in the Torah and we ignore them at our own peril.

“Vayasem Ado-nai davar b’fi Bil’am (13:5) …-am levadad yishkon u’vagoyim lo tithashav (13:9)

“And the Lord put a word in Balaam’s mouth (13:5) …it (Israel) is a people that shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations”(13:9)*

Numbers 13:9

*conventional translation

Clearly this is G-d speaking. But whom is He addressing and what exactly is He saying?

While Balak and his cronies may have been the immediate audience, these words were ultimately intended for the Children of Israel. Which is why I would suggest that the conventional reading is incorrect. The words ‘lo tithashav’ is not a description of how Israel will be perceived by the world, but rather an instruction as to how Israel should react to world opinion. In other words, the real meaning of this verse is “Israel is a nation that should dwell apart, and should pay no heed (lo tithashav) to the (what the other) nations (think/say).”

This is a critical lesson for our time and for all time. The undoing of the Jewish People is always rooted in our desire to assimilate and ingratiate ourselves with other nations. Today this is the disease of the secular left especially in Israel, which is obsessed with accommodating itself to the thinking and wishes of those who do not have our interests at heart. The world does not respect us for our abject and craven behavior. We only lose credibility, and find ourselves pressured to make further concessions that harm our interests and diminish our patrimony. Indeed, the taller we stand and the less we blink, the more respect we get and the more secure we are.

Back in 1967 that was how the world saw us. Yet we have since then allowed ourselves to vacillate, to compromise, to accord our enemies a compassion and respect they did not earn. And today we are paying a heavy price for the self-imposed independence of spirit (levadad yishkon) that we failed to practice. We now find ourselves truly isolated and shunned by a hostile world that misses no opportunity to exploit our lack of resolve.

Part II

Oddly enough, the second lesson from Balaam’s words might almost seem to contradict what we have just learned.

As they say, the Lord works in mysterious ways. The beautiful pearl is found in the slimy flesh of a bottom-feeding oyster. The brilliant diamond is forged from the carbon of lowly coal. Sweet honey is yielded from the nether parts of an insect. The royal blue thelet dye used for tztzit is harvested from a slug called hilazon. Our grains and vegetables flourish in soil enriched with animal excrement.

The list of beautiful natural phenomena that are created in less than esthetic crucibles or forged through cataclysmic occurrences is long. Indeed one is hard put to find anything that we treasure or value – from pearls to perfumes, from mountains to newborn babies whose delivery mediums are nearly as esthetic or appealing as their end products.

What is true for natural phenomena is true for creativity as well. One of the first prayers a child learns, and one that traditional Jews recite every day of the year, was penned by none other than Balaam the evil prophet – the Hitler of his times. And it is beautiful verse indeed – one of the most exceptional examples of pure poetry in the Torah, and well deserving of its immortality.

“Mah tovu ohalekha Yaakov mishkenotekha Yisrael…”

 “How goodly are your tents, Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel!”

Numbers 24:5

In two critical aspects, Balaam was even worse than Hitler:

  1. Hitler, evil as he was, was motivated by idealism, Balaam was motivated only by greed;
  2. Hitler was a pagan and an atheist, Balaam communicated with G-d Himself and knew G-d’s desire, nevertheless Balaam attempts to defy G-d.

Yet we still daven Balaam’s lyrics every single day of the year.

There is a profound lesson here. Actually there are two profound lessons:

If we can include the utterances of a non-Jew – in fact a resolutely evil non-Jew – in our Torah and in our liturgy, clearly we are not only permitted, but obligated to expand our horizons and tastes to include great things that “were not invented here”. Our job is to venerate our Torah and its values without cauterizing ourselves from the greatness and creativity of other sources and cultures;

  1. That great works can, and often do, come from reprehensible sources. Picasso was no saint. Wagner was the devil incarnate. TS Elliot was not the man to invite to your Shabbat table (not that he would have RSVP’d favorably). And Chopin was just your garden-variety Polish Jew-hater.

The argument has been made that Balaam’s oeuvre is different because Mah Tovu was actually put into his mouth by the A-mighty Himself. Well, who do we think put the Tempest Sonata into Beethoven’s head (I am not accusing L van B of anything but insanity), the Wasteland into the pen of Elliot, Tannhauser into the spirit of Wagner, the Guernica into the fingers of Picasso? Such talent is always G-d-given. None of us can begin to understand where it comes from, perhaps least of all those artists themselves.

This week’s Parsha teaches us that we are not only permitted to spread our cultural and scientific wings, but that we are even obligated to do so. G-d’s greatness is not manifest only in the Torah but also in music and art, drama and dance, physics and astronomy, and the myriad lessons we can learn from nature and beast and peasant alike.

We ignore all these at our own peril. And the price we pay for our self-imposed indifference – and ignorance – is that we fail to appreciate the true range of G-d’s glory while shrinking ourselves in a very confining xenophobic bubble. And that makes us both boring and irrelevant.

About the Author
J.J Gross is a veteran creative director and copywriter, who made aliyah in 2007 from New York. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a lifelong student of Bible and Talmud. He is also the son of Holocaust survivors from Hungary and Slovakia.
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