Author’s note: I originally wrote this for a project at B’nai Jeshurun. We had community-written D’vrei Torah every week for at least a year. The web site with those commentaries has long since been taken down, so I am giving mine new life here.
Parshat Balak is a delightful bit of comic opera (probably the only intentional bit of comedy in the five books of Moses). Like the other piece of comedy in our sacred literature, Megillat Esther, the story of Balak and Bil’am features strange reversals of fortune for a dastardly but hapless villain who seeks the destruction of the nation of Israel but just can’t seem to get it right. The air of comic seriousness is heightened by the appearance of a talking ass who, in a moment of topsy turvy worthy of Gilbert and Sullivan, saves the prophet-for-hire Bil’am from certain death and instructs him on God’s will (in the voice of God no less). That Bil’am was incapable of seeing and hearing this for himself, but could only learn it in hevruta with a donkey, was a humbling experience, one that taught him to listen for and speak only the divine truth. As with any good operetta, the use of language is an essential tool in the delivery of this parsha’s message. Indeed, it contains some of the most beautiful poetry in the Torah – its most famous passage opens our morning worship.
The scene opens with the Moabite king Balak looking out over his dominion and seeing the encampments of the Israelites inside of his borders. He has heard of their recent defeat of the Amorites and is filled with loathing and fear. He decides he needs to hedge his bets and sends emissaries to engage the services of Bil’am, a well-respected local prophet and seer, to curse Israel on his behalf. The offered commission is not particularly welcome. Bil’am seems to sense that he is entering a no-win situation, caught between Balak and God. He invites Balak’s messengers to stay the night while he waits for instructions from God. That night God comes to Bil’am and warns him not to go with Balak’s minions, not to damn the people of Israel, for they have already been blessed, and so Bil’am sends them back to Balak empty handed. Balak is not a king to take no for an answer, so he sends a higher-level negotiating team and increases his offer. Bil’am reminds them that he cannot go against divine will and again bids them stay the night while he waits for God’s call. This time God comes to Bil’am and with a touch of exasperation gives him leave to accompany Balak’s party, but to only speak the words that will be given to him by God.
So, in the morning Bil’am saddles up his trusty ass and sets off to meet Balak. In a snit that is oddly reminiscent of Pharaoh’s changes of heart, God, who is angered by Bil’am’s journey, sends a messenger to block Bil’am’s way, and kill him if necessary. Only the ass sees the messenger, sword unsheathed. Bil’am does not – instead he tries three times to beat the ass into continuing their journey, and three times she refuses to move. This was getting out of hand. Finally,
…Adonai opened the mouth of the she-ass and she said to Bil’am:
What have I done to you that you have struck me (on) these three occasions?
…Am I not your she-ass upon whom you have ridden from your past until this day? Have I ever been accustomed to do thus to you?
At that point, Bil’am is allowed to see the messenger of death standing in his path. The messenger rebukes Bil’am and reminds him that but for the donkey, Bil’am would be dead. Bil’am finally gets the point and offers to return home. But the messenger has bigger fish to fry and sends Bil’am on his way, once again with the exhortation to only speak those words that Adonai will reveal to him.
On reaching Balak, Bil’am again reminds him that he can only do what God intends for him to do. He has Balak build seven altars and to offer animal sacrifices on them – like modern supplicants in the political arena, he is attempting to buy access with a contribution. Thus fortified, Bil’am goes off to talk to God and comes back with the divine message, which is a blessing, rather than a curse of Israel:
Who can measure the dust of Yaakov
or (find a) number (for) the dust-clouds of Israel?
May I die the death of the upright, may my future be like his!
Balak is enraged and enjoins Bil’am to try again the next day from a new vantage point, in hopes that God will let him hate Israel when seen from another angle. Again, no curse, and an entreaty to try again the next day. From a new vantage point, Bil’am looks upon the Israelite encampment and declares:
How goodly are your tents, O Yaakov, your dwellings, O Israel, like groves stretched out, like gardens beside a river,
like aloes planted by Adonai, like cedars beside the water; dripping water from their boughs, their seed in many waters!
This lovely poem, which begins our morning worship, is followed by a gruesome description of the fate awaiting those nations that stand in Israel’s way. Balak admits defeat and gives up his quest to curse Israel.
This interlude is a much-needed break in the long march through the desert wilderness from Mitzrayim to the promised land. Coming after a string of near estrangements between Israel and God, this episode reminds us that despite everything that has happened God loves and protects the chosen people – and will protect them from the evil intentions of earthly powers. It is also noteworthy that God has chosen a non-Israelite seer to carry this message; the choice helps remind us that God’s violence against Israel’s enemies is in response to their actions, and is not just because they are foreign.
Questions for further consideration:
- Seven is not the only significant number in this parsha. Several events happen in triplicate. What are they and what is the significance of their double repetition?
- We encounter a talking animal in only one other Torah story. Contrast the role of the she-ass with that of the serpent in Bereshit.
- The messages delivered by non-Israelite holy men and women generally have great significance. Consider some of the other places where God has spoken through the mouths of outsiders and think about what God was trying to say by choosing those messengers.
This teaching is dedicated to the memory of my daughter and teacher Shira Palmer-Sherman z’l. It was through her re-telling of this story to children that I was first able to really appreciate its comic nature.
June 21, 2004 / Tammuz 2, 5764