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Torah Sparks

June 30, 2007 – 14 Tammuz 5767

Annual: Numbers: 22:2 – 25:9 (Etz Hayim, p. 880; Hertz p. 652)
Triennial: Numbers: 22:39 – 25:9 (Etz Hayim, p. 899; Hertz p. 673)
Haftarah: Micah: 5:6 – 6:8 (Etz Hayim, p. 915; Hertz p. 682)

Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen

Summary of the Parashah

This week’s Parashah is named for Balak, king of Moab. Balak hires Bil’am (also known in English as Balaam), a gentile prophet, to curse the Israelites, hoping to weaken them and thereby mitigate the potential threat they pose as they travel en masse close to the border of Moab. Balak evidently wishes to hire the best available prophet in order to counteract the strength of Moses, whose skill as a prophet seemed to play a key role in the recent successes of these former slaves.

Bil’am initially is reluctant to accept Balak’s invitation. Balak takes this reluctance as a bargaining tactic and so tries to enhance the job’s prestige, as well as its remuneration. Bil’am finally accepts, subject to the stipulation that he will only utter the words that God puts in his mouth.

On his way to perform the agreed-upon task, Bil’am finds himself in a position where he is less perceptive than his donkey. Not only that, but his donkey remarkably develops the power of clear verbal expression. It can talk. The exchange between Bil’am and his donkey, told in exquisite detail, leaves us wondering which of these two characters is indeed the ass in this story.

Bil’am meets with Balak, and sets out to perform his appointed task. To Balak’s chagrin, Bil’am repeatedly prophesies in a way that compliments the Israelites and celebrates their collective strengths. Bil’am departs, but not before articulating further prophesies that Balak did not want to hear.

After this high drama, the parashah ends on a low note, retelling a lapse in the Israelites’ behavior.

Topic #1: The Strengths of Israel

As Bil’am looked up, and he saw Israel camped tribe by tribe, the spirit of God came upon him. (Numbers 24:2)

This verse is followed by poetic prophecy from Bil’am. Clearly the visual image that greeted Bil’am’s eye was a stimulus to the content of this prophecy. What could Bil’am have seen that left him no choice but to praise the Israelites? If we wish to identify the stimulus, we could begin by looking at the poetry that resulted from this inspiration. Our focus will be upon the well-known verse:

How fair are your tents, O Jacob,
Your dwellings, O Israel. (Numbers 24:5)

One tradition draws conclusions from this verse about religious institutions and communal norms.

  1. Religious institutions - In the Hertz commentary on the Pentateuch (p.678), we see “tents” interpreted to mean “tents of Torah,” or schoolhouses, while “dwellings” are equated with synagogues. Following a long line of interpreters and translators, Hertz underscores that our religious institutions have contributed to our people’s staying power. These institutions, Hertz concludes in a microsermon, always have been the source and spirit of Israel’s strength.
  2. Communal norms: modesty, privacy - Another source views the tents and dwellings as a reference to the Israelites’ domestic arrangements. Their respect for the privacy of others, and their modesty in maintaining their own privacy, may have differentiated the Israelites from other ancient peoples. Many centuries later, the Talmud referred back to the precedent ascribed to the ancient Israelites. In legislating building codes, the Mishnah dictates:
    One may not build, in a courtyard, a door directly opposite the door of a neighbor, or install a window in line with a neighbor’s window.
    In a discussion of that instruction, we read:
    Rabbi Yohanan said: Since a Scriptural verse says, “Bil’am looked up, and he saw Israel camped tribe by tribe.” What did he see? He noticed that the openings of their tents were not directed toward each other. He said: these people are worthy that the Divine Presence should dwell upon them. (Talmud: Bava Batra 60a)
    Bil’am recognized that a society that prizes modesty, privacy, and mutual respect is one that God may grace with divine favor.

Which of the two interpretations above do you find more appealing?

Is holiness properly centered in the synagogue, or in the home? Does our tradition make that differentiation? Is there room for both approaches?

Is there a lesson in this rabbinic interpretation which could be applied in ways to design and build dwellings and offices?

Topic #2: The Weakness of Israel

After the story of Bil’am’s prophecy about the destiny of the people Israel, in chapter 25 we read a sordid tale of the Israelites’ involvement in cultic prostitution with Moabite and/or Midianite women. This impulsive and irresponsible behavior represents a serious departure from the standards of behavior for which the Israelites just have been praised. Logic dictates that Israel must somehow have been lured into this behavior.

Who might have hatched such a plan for corrupting the Israelites? If Bil’am was the one who had recognized Israel’s strength of character, it is possible that in his frustration at having been unable to pin an effective verbal curse upon them he sought to undermine the very strength that he had identified in the Israelites. A verse in next week’s Torah reading, in Numbers 31:16, points to such involvement on Bil’am’s part. It is a sad irony that the very area in which the Israelites’ behavior had been so exemplary was the focus of this attempt to undo the people Israel.

This episode suggests some interesting questions about the strengths and weaknesses of the Jewish people today. Understanding the difficulty in stereotyping, consider:

  1. What are the positive qualities for which Jews are known today?
  2. What would we like to be known for?
  3. If there is a gap between our reputation and our goals, what should we do about that disparity?

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