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What do these people want of you?

The relationship between the state power and the culture is a complex and tangled web that sometimes can turn into a minefield for the creator of art. In this week’s Torah portion, Balak, the king of Moab, dreading the appearance of the Jewish people in his land, turns for help to the Balaam, the man of prophetic strength and vision.

Of course, you immediately want to disagree and say there is a great distance between a modern artist, writer, or film director and Balaam, son of Beor. However, this distance is not so immeasurable. The state has always needed an artist to justify its wrongdoings, and there is not much difference between Balaam and Russian writers and artists justifying the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

After an initial refusal of Balaam, Balak sends him the following message, “I will reward you richly, and I will do anything you ask of me. Only come and damn these people for me.”
The truth is, the state always needs the artist more than vice versa. The state engages the artist in damning the enemies, creating propaganda, and disseminating lies that are more believable when they are written and spread by a talented person.

We all know that Balaam could not contradict God’s will, and a curse had ultimately turned into a blessing. If we are not sure that things will go this way, we should remember the question God asked Balaam when the ambassadors of Moav first appeared in the prophet’s house. As Sforno comments on this verse, “…have they stayed with you to enlist your help to pronounce curses over someone, and you are now asking My permission to fulfill their request?”

If we can truthfully answer this question, then we won’t lie to others, as well.

About the Author
Nelly Shulman is a journalist and writer currently based in Berlin. She is an author of four popular historical novels in the Russian language. She is working on the fifth novel in this series and on her first English-language novel, a historical thriller set during the Siege of Leningrad. She a Hawthornden Fellow and an alumna of the Nachum Goldmann Fellowship.
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