This is my 25th consecutive post connecting the parasha to Israel’s pro-democracy protests.
There are some circumstances in which the identity of a speaker is at least as important as the words that are spoken. For example, specific religious or ethnic groups can tell jokes against themselves that would be offensive in the mouths of outsiders.
But in other circumstances, it’s the words that count, not the speakers. This week’s parasha, Balak, is a lesson in listening to what’s said and not worrying about who says it.
In the only biblical example of a speaking animal other than the snake, a female donkey that belongs to the non-Israelite prophet, Bilam, has an argument with her master and wins. Unable to see the angel of the Lord that his donkey can see, Bilam doesn’t understand why she’s swerving and halting and lying on the ground. He threatens violence. Look, says his faithful donkey, you’ve been riding me for years. Have I ever behaved like this before? No, admits Bilam, at which point the angel of the Lord appears to him too.
As readers, we’re not meant to be skeptical about a speaking ass. We know logic when we hear it. The same applies to Bilam. Our starting point should not be doubt that blessings for Israel can emanate from the mouth of a non-Israelite prophet. We should count our blessings.
But how did all this come about? Balak, the king of Moab, fears that the Israelites are about to overrun his land, and decides to hire Bilam, a non-Israelite prophet with a close connection to God, to curse Israel. Bilam tries to convince Balak that he can do only what God (the God of Israel, not his own) tells him to, but Balak won’t accept no for an answer.
So Bilam sets out to an appointed place with his donkey and some Moabite dignitaries and prepares to pronounce. He consults God, God ‘puts a word in his mouth’ (as he does with Israelite prophets, e.g., Isaiah 59:21, Jeremiah 1:9), and Bilam speaks. Balak brought me from Aram to curse Israel, he says, but how can I curse whom God has not cursed?
Numbers 23:9 As I see them from the mountain tops,
Gaze at them from the heights,
There is a people that dwells apart,
Not reckoned among the nations.
10 Who can count the dust of Jacob,
number the dust-cloud of Israel?
May I die the death of the upright,
May my fate be like theirs!”
This non-Israelite prophet recognizes a core feature of Israelite identity, their tendency to dwell apart. And he acknowledges their fruitfulness; they’re too numerous to be counted. Both are qualities that threaten many outsiders, but Bilam isn’t threatened. On the contrary, he hopes for a fate like theirs (Numbers 23:11).
Balak, however, is threatened by the Israelites, and he’s not impressed. Again, he demands that Bilam curse Israel. Again, God puts a word in Bilam’s mouth, and he pronounces.
Numbers 23:21 No harm is in sight for Jacob,
No woe in view for Israel.
The Lord their God is with them,
And their King’s in their midst.
Nothing bad will happen to Israel, Bilam tells Balak. Their God is protecting them. Again, this is the kind of outsider assessment we can only dream of.
But wait, you might object. These aren’t Bilam’s own opinions about Israel. He himself confirmed that he can only say what God tells him to, and, as we just read, God is putting words into his mouth.
So Bilam’s third prophecy is reassuring. He doesn’t consult God in advance, and God doesn’t put words in his mouth. Bilam looks up, sees Israel encamped tribe by tribe, and a spirit of God comes upon him. Word of Bilam ben Be’or, he begins, asserting for the first time that these words are his own. Word of the man whose eye is true. Word of him who hears God’s speech, who beholds visions of the Almighty (Numbers 24:3). There can be no doubt that what comes next is Bilam speaking in his own voice. And there’s a case to be made that no-one has ever spoken more beautifully, more poetically, more optimistically about Israel.
Numbers 24:5 How good are your tents, O Jacob,
your dwellings, O Israel!
6 Like palm groves that stretch out,
Like gardens beside a river,
Like aloes planted by the Lord,
Like cedar trees beside the water,
7 Their boughs drip with moisture,
Their seed have abundant water.
Israel as Garden of Eden, planted by God, well-watered, expansive, fertile, sheltering, and peaceful. This truly is a blessing.
Bilam is a highly negative figure in rabbinic circles. In addition to the problematic end of his story (Numbers 31:8, 16), perhaps his outsider-insider relationship with God was threatening. According to one post-biblical tradition (Babylonian Talmud, Avodah Zarah 3b), God is angry for one moment every day, and Bilam ben Be’or alone knows exactly when that is. It’s natural to fear someone with that kind of knowledge.
Yet Bilam’s complex status did not prevent his beautiful blessing from being the preface to every morning service: How good are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel! We love these words. We take them at face value, and we’ve given them a prominent place in our liturgy. It doesn’t matter who said them.
A question exercising many Israelis and American Jews now is whether America should play a more vocal role in supporting Israel’s pro-democracy protests. Some think, as I often do in similar situations, that countries should ideally sort out their problems without external intervention. As history has shown – for example, in the aftermath of the Iraq war – outside involvement can make things much worse.
Others have a different concern. Greater American involvement in Israel is likely to depend on more vociferous pleas for help from the American Jewish community. Some worry that this could backfire. The criticisms of Israel’s government that could generate more US intervention could also be used against American Jews and Israelis alike, all the more, some think, if the criticism comes from American Jews themselves.
The Tree of Life massacre trial has just drawn to a close. For the first time in its long history, members of a synagogue in Macon, Georgia received antisemitic hate mail from an extreme rightwing organization. A couple of months ago, a college graduation speaker peppered her speech with overtly antisemitic remarks — in New York. There’s no question that American Jews should fear antisemitism, and fortunately the US Government is taking it seriously.
Yet still I hope that the American Jewish community will feel strong enough to speak out to their leaders and the wider community about the clear and present danger to Israeli democracy. Our situation is sufficiently dire, I think, to justify prioritizing the message over the identity of the messenger, in other words, to justify Jews criticizing the government of the Jewish state. And perhaps along the way there’ll be an unintended blessing: Americans will reflect on what happens to a country that elects a leader facing imprisonment.
If you are in Jerusalem, I recommend Democrisis, the new exhibition at the Museum on the Seam. It’s a mostly inspiring photographic and video voyage through Israeli protests: Black Panthers; Cottage/Tent; Haredi draft; Ethiopian against police violence; Amona evacuation; Black Flag; and, of course, today’s pro-democracy demonstrations. Through October 20.