This is a very odd Torah portion. It’s one of a handful named for a non-Israelite and its featured character is another non-Israelite. The Israelites do not appear until the last nine verses, (spoiler alert) which relate an episode of apostasy and bloody retribution. The style of the story varies from slapstick to poetry. In fact, an essay by R’ David Frankel, The Prehistory of the Balaam Story, that posits it is actually a composite of at least two earlier stories, one about Balak and the other about Bil’am (That’s the modern Hebrew pronunciation. My scholarly brother told me that “Balaam” is probably closer to the ancient Hebrew.). Commentators have also identified three different “Bil’ams” in the text: a genuine, if limited, prophet who is basically a good guy; a conceited buffoon; and a treacherous villain.
The story: Balak, king of Moab, is alarmed at news of the military successes of the Israelites. He decides to hire Bil’am ben Beor, a reputed prophet/sorcerer, to curse the Israelites. Bil’am actually does have some connection to the Lord, which he exploits for material, rather than spiritual, advantage. Bil’am dutifully asks the Lord about the proposed undertaking and is told it’s useless: the Israelites are blessed by the Lord. Nevertheless, enticed by flattery and the promise of riches, Bil’am really wants to go. He seems to receive contradictory divine responses (not really – it’s a question of his being given the chance to choose correctly and of the difference between actually joining Balak’s men and just physically accompanying them), assumes it’s OK, and enthusiastically sets out.
Annoyed, the Lord sends a fiery, sword-wielding angel to block his path. Only his female donkey can see the angel, and she refuses to move forward. He beats her three times, until the poor thing turns around and complains. Yes, by talking. Now he can see and listen to the angel. [This story invariably leads to cutesy wordplay by modern commentators, like What Can a Donkey Teach a Jackass? (Robert L. Deffinbaugh ), Is the Ass a Prophet or is the Prophet an Ass? (Carol Ochs), and Bil’am as a prophet made a fool by an ass (R’ Joel Alter).]
Anyhow, every time Bil’am tries to curse the Israelite camp, he blesses them instead. In dismay, Balak moves him around so he can see the camp from a different perspective, as if that would help. It doesn’t. Word from of one of the blessings have even become part of our liturgy, “Mah tovu ohalekha Ya’akov…,” “How good are your tents, Jacob..,” 24:5. The third time Bil’am speaks, he is actually, genuinely, divinely inspired, not just speaking words put into his mouth by the Lord. However, he soon descends from these spiritual heights to instigate a plan to destroy the Israelites internally, which we’ll review next week.
The whole thing feels force fit into the Torah. This year, I wanted to see what anyone had said regarding what this text is doing here in a literary or historical sense. I didn’t really find much in that vein (maybe next year), but there were a couple of interesting commentaries which have recently come out of the Jewish Theological Seminary.
In Fear, Truth and a Donkey, R’ Joel Alter writes, “What is this slapstick figure doing here in the Torah? Two concerns drive our story, both of current, and timeless, relevance: The first is fear. The second, at root, is truth.” The Moabites’ fear is clearly shown in 22:2-6, as is their hatred, in text that echoes Pharaoh and the Egyptians at the beginning of Exodus. The Israelites are described here as being too numerous, acting like animals (22:4, “Now this horde will lick clean all that is about us as an ox licks up the grass of the field.”), and, worst of all, living right next door. Truth is what Balak and Bil’am try to deny: “all that is real, all that is impervious to dissembling or spin, all that sheds the evasions of wishful thinking and stands firm in its truth, is from God. What’s going on in the story of Balak and Bilam is a doomed attempt to change what is, and will remain, true.”
What R’ Jan Uhrbach writes in Dreaming of Being Balaam is probably the most imaginative take, if difficult to swallow: “But here’s another possibility: perhaps the story is instead a dream Moses dreams. One hint of this is that Balaam comes from Petor (Num. 22:5), a word used for dream interpretation (e.g., in the Joseph narrative). Indeed, both the narrative context and several details (too numerous to list here) strongly suggest this is dreamwork, incorporating and transforming elements of Moses’s experiences, anxieties, doubts, and fears… It is not a stretch to imagine Moses plagued with doubts about his legacy, his authenticity, and his character… One need not be a student of Freud to connect such doubts to a dream about a ‘heathen’ prophet, who
- sees the Israelites only from afar, and whose name (Balaam) suggests belo am—“one without a people” (see BT Sanhedrin 105a);
- is told by God to go forward and is then stymied by impassable roadblocks;
- is revealed as a buffoon when he is bested by a talking donkey; and
- repeatedly offers words which fail to “take.”
Or perhaps Moses identifies even more closely with the donkey,”
To conclude on a more conventional note, let’s look at Chancellor Arnold Eisen’s (Penn, 1973) take, A People Dwelling Apart. His focus is not on donkeys or curses, but on how Bil’am describes Israel in his first blessing as a people dwelling apart (or alone) (23:8-9). This status, dwelling apart, has been a key issue throughout the history of the Jewish people. To what degree do we stay apart? Eisen writes:
“Of course Jews have suffered persecution and betrayal in the course of history—but we have also benefited and learned a great deal from traditions and peoples that are not Jewish, never more so than today. Judaism has always sought a balance between inward and outward focus; between the particular and the universal, attention to Jewish needs and attention to human needs. Sometimes Jews have to stand apart from the world. At other moments we need to be, and can be, an integral part of the world.
“Parashat Balak gives expression to the fact that the balance is often hard to strike. But Torah—our covenant with God and one another—impels Jews to care about and cooperate with others, even as it mandates that we preserve our differences and, to some degree, our distance.”
Joke Submitted by Garry Desmond [from 2011]
A man goes into a pet shop and asks the shop keeper for a new pet.
“I don’t want a cat or a dog I want something different!” Specifies the man.
The shop keeper informs him that they have some talking centipedes for £50.
Happy with that the man buys his new pet and carefully takes it home in a match box. [This seems like a set up for a Monty Python sketch. IGP]
When he gets home he carefully opens the matchbox, looks down at the centipede and says:
“Hello Mr Centipede, do you fancy going down the pub for a drink?”
The centipede says nothing. Assuming it must be tired from the trip from the pet shop he thinks “I’ll give it half an hour then ask it again”.
30 mins later he again goes to the centipede and says “Hello Mr Centipede, do you fancy going down the pub for a drink?”
Again the centipede says nothing. The man thinks to himself “OK I will give it another 30 mins and if it doesn’t talk to me then I’m taking it back!”
30 mins later the man goes to the centipede and says “Hello Mr Centipede, do you fancy going down the pub for a drink?”
The centipede replied “I heard you the first blooming time! I’m putting my shoes on!”
How To Curse Someone
You will need the following items for this spell:
- Black Poppet
- Sewing needles
- Air-tight jar
- Name of person you want to curse Just first and last name needed and age too.
- Graveyard dirt or dust
- Coffin nails
- Rose thorns
- Body fluids
Please cast this spell if they abused you in anyway, DO NOT CAST IF THE PERSON NEVER DID SOMETHING TO YOU
Make sure the person is not a Wiccan or anything like that or else the curse would go to you. (Instructions followed)
[and the site has a live chat feature]
Quotes on Perspective
I just want people to take a step back, take a deep breath and actually look at something with a different perspective. But most people will never do that. Brian McKnight
Science is a way of life. Science is a perspective. Science is the process that takes us from confusion to understanding in a manner that’s precise, predictive and reliable – a transformation, for those lucky enough to experience it, that is empowering and emotional. Brian Greene
Those who see the cosmic perspective as a depressing outlook, they really need to reassess how they think about the world. Because when I look up in the universe, I know I’m small but I’m also big. I’m big because I’m connected to the universe, and the universe is connected to me. Neil deGrasse Tyson
Part of the beauty of Judaism, and surely this is so for other faiths also, is that it gently restores control over time. Three times a day we stop what we are doing and turn to God in prayer. We recover perspective. We inhale a deep breath of eternity. Jonathan Sacks