While looking for this week’s jokes, I saw a description of Balak, King of Moab, as “a few noodles short of a kugel.” Not very bright. He’s in a panic after hearing about the Israelites’ recent, nearby military victories, and what does he do? Does he assemble a mighty army? Does he try to negotiate with Israel? No. He sends for a sorcerer to curse Israel.
This sorcerer/prophet is Bil’am (commonly referred to in English as “Balaam,” which I’m told is probably closer to the ancient pronunciation – thanks, David). Yes, in the Bible, the Israelites do not have a monopoly on prophesy. Bil’am does have a connection with the Lord, but it’s a connection with some static in it. Bil’am doesn’t get that, as a rather low-level prophet, he’s only supposed to convey the Lord’s messages. Rather, he tends to hope to change a divine decision he doesn’t like to one that he does. Case in point: all that will-he-or-won’t-he go with Balak’s emissaries stuff. Yes, the Lord tells him he can go but is clearly not happy about it. As I wrote here a couple of years ago,
“Bil’am is told not to go with them (imahem, 22:12), then he’s told he can go with them (itam, 22:20), then when Bil’am goes with them (im, 22:21), the Lord is angry and blocks his path with an angel and fiery sword whom only Bil’am’s old she-ass can see. After beating her a few times, the poor animal talks and Bil’am is finally able to see the angel and is warned to say only what the Lord tells him to. The Vilna Gaon explains what appears to be divine fickleness with reference to the Hebrew words used for “with” (yes, it depends what “with” means), im, used to indicate total commitment and philosophical alignment and et, which just indicates physical proximity. By this reasoning, the Lord directed Bil’am only to accompany Balak’s messengers in 22:20, but Bil’am instead joins them (22:21), whence the divine anger and angel with the flaming sword. And apparently Bil’am can’t see the angel at first because he is with (im) the enemies of Israel.”
What happens next is that Bil’am blesses the Israelites. Balak tries to change Bil’am’s perspective, literally, by moving him around to get different views of the people, but Bil’am blesses them a second time and even a third, even though Balak finally tells him to just shut up. This third blessing includes a statement that has become part of our daily liturgy, (Mah tovu ohalekha Ya’akov, mishk’notekha Yisrael,” “How good are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel!” 24:5). Before leaving his outraged client, Bil’am provides some actual prophesy (24:15-23) concerning the fates of Israel, Moab, and several other peoples, not soon, but someday. [BTW, I gave a d’var Torah on the nature of Bil’am in more detail eight years ago, which I have posted for reference.
The last nine verses of this week’s portion bring us back to the Israelite camp with an abrupt change in mood. Presumably at the instigation of Bil’am, the Moabite women are shamefully consorting with the Israelite men and invite them to sacrifice to their god. Pinchas, son of High Priest Elazar, takes it upon himself to kill one high-status fornicating couple in the act with a spear. Was this vigilantism? Justice? Vengeance? Justifiable homicide? We’ll consider this next week.
Happy 60th anniversary to Ann and Ed J., and Happy Independence Day to you all!
Some people talk to animals. Not many listen though. That’s the problem.
A. A. MILNE, Winnie-the-Pooh
Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.
ANATOLE FRANCE, Works of Anatole France
An animal’s eyes have the power to speak a great language.
MARTIN BUBER, I and Thou
The best thing about animals is that they don’t talk much.
THORNTON WILDER, The Skin of Our Teeth
The talented dog job applicant
A local business was looking for office help. They put a sign in the window, stating the following: “HELP WANTED. Must be able to type, must be good with a computer and must be bilingual. We are an Equal Opportunity Employer.”
A short time afterwards, a dog trotted up to the window, saw the sign and went inside. He looked at the receptionist and wagged his tail, then walked over to the sign, looked at it and whined.
Getting the idea, the receptionist summoned the office manager. The office manager looked at the dog and was surprised, to say the least. However, the dog looked determined, so he led him into the office. Inside, the dog jumped up on the chair and stared at the manager.
The manager said “I can’t hire you. The sign says you have to be able to type.” The dog jumped down, went to the typewriter and proceeded to type out a perfect letter. He took out the page and trotted over to the manager and gave it to him, then jumped back on the chair.
The manager was stunned, but then told the dog “the sign says you have to be good with a computer.” The dog jumped down again and went to the computer. The dog proceeded to enter and execute a perfect program that worked flawlessly the first time.
By this time the manager was totally dumb-founded! He looked at the dog and said “I realize that you are a very intelligent dog and have some interesting abilities. However, I still can’t give you the job.”
The dog jumped down and went to a copy of the sign and put his paw on the sentences that told about being an Equal Opportunity Employer. The manager said “yes, but the sign also says that you have to be bilingual.”
The dog looked at the manager calmly and said, “Meow!”
Keep a true perspective
In order to keep a true perspective of one’s importance, everyone should have a dog that will worship him and a cat that will ignore him.
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