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Torah Sparks

July 7, 2012 – 17 Tammuz 5772

Annual: Numbers 22:2 – 25:9 (Etz Hayim p. 894; Hertz p. 669)
Triennial: Numbers 22:39 – 23:26 (Etz Hayim p. 899; Hertz p. 673)
Haftarah: Micah 5:6-6:8 (Etz Hayim p. 915; Hertz p. 682)

Prepared by Rabbi Joseph Prouser

Balak, the king of Moab, fears the Israelites and their divine mandate; he engages Balaam to curse the people of Israel. Balaam is an enigmatic admixture of heathen prophet, true believer, and instrument of Providence. Reflecting either sincerity or self-promotion, Balaam explains that he can do and say only what God instructs. As Balaam is en route to his prophetic task an angel of God blocks the road, standing before the donkey on which Balaam is riding, visible to the donkey but invisible to the rider. The beast turns from its path, shoving Balaam’s foot against a wall. The bruised Balaam execrates and beats his miraculous mount, which talks back to him, reproving him for his merciless blows. The angel finally reveals himself to Balaam, explaining that the hapless animal had in fact saved Balaam from divine wrath, because his mission to curse Israel is contrary to God’s will.

Balaam meets again with Balak and his subordinates, who sacrifice with their hired prophet at seven altars constructed for the occasion, before sending him to execute his appointed task of cursing Israel once again. On three separate occasions, Balaam approaches Israel to carry out his mission of malediction, only to pronounce a series of blessings for the Chosen People, culminating in the famous pronouncement Mah tovu – “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob.”

Balak reproves Balaam for failing in his task. The prophet repeats his earlier disclaimer: he can act only as instructed by God. Balaam foresees a bright and hopeful future for Israel, and then both he and Balak return home.

Alas, the destiny of national greatness foreseen by Balaam must wait. Moabite women entice the Israelites into licentious liaisons and idolatrous worship of Baal-Peor at Shittim. Predictably, God responds with sharp anger, commanding the execution of the ringleaders in this incident. An Israelite man brazenly flaunts his affair with his Midianite paramour before a tearful Moses and Israelite community. The priestly Pinchas – son of Eleazar and grandson of Aaron – summarily executes the lustful couple, impaling them with a spear. His zealous ire meets with God’s approval: a plague, which has taken 24,000 Israelite lives, is thereby stayed.

Theme #1: “Benedictus Benedicat”

“But God said to Balaam, ‘Do not go with them. You must not curse that people, for they are blessed.” (Numbers 22:12)

Study: Derash

“Balaam did not have it in his power either to bless or to curse. The blessing was redundant – God had already blessed – and the curse ineffective. Why then did God prevent him from cursing? Because He foresaw Israel’s future sins and punishments. He did not want the nations to say: ‘It was Balaam’s curse that caused it.’” (Yalkut Me’am Lo’ez)

“You must not curse that people. Balaam said: ‘Then let me bless them.’ God said they do not require your blessing, for they are blessed already.’ By way of analogy, we say to the bee: ‘We want neither your honey nor your sting.’” (Rashi)

“As is well known, the honey that bees produce is not actually from the body of the bee, and therefore it is permissible to eat, as it is not considered the secretion of an impure creature. For the bee merely collects pollen from flowers and deposits it in the hive. In contrast, the stinger, the venomous stinger, is an integral part of the bee’s body. So, too, it was with this wicked prophet: Balaam’s ‘honey’ – his sweet blessings and prophecies, did not come from him; he had no true connection or commitment to them. His sting, however, his curses and his ugly pronouncements and evil devices, welled up from within him, from the deepest recesses of his being.” (She’erit Menachem)

“Blessed are the ears that hear the pulse of the divine whisperer, and give no heed to the many whisperings of the world.” (Thomas a Kempis)

Questions for Discussion

Was Balaam wicked, as She’erit Menachem insists? Or was he admirable, insofar as he defied Balak and –Rashi’s commentary notwithstanding – eventually did bless Israel? Or was he morally neutral (if this is ever possible), merely serving as a passive instrument of God?

Why was God concerned about Balaam? Where else in the Bible to we see God’s attention to the impact of Israel’s supporters and detractors (those who, respectively, bless and curse the Jewish people)? Who today are principled blessers of Israel? How should Jews comport ourselves toward these groups? To whom might we properly say, “We want neither your honey nor your sting”?

In what ways is the Israelite nation – in 21st century terms, the Jewish people – blessed? In what ways is the state of Israel blessed? Are these two completely separate questions?

The statement of Thomas a Kempis seems especially applicable to our verse. How has the desire to listen for God’s whisper, voice, direction, prompting – as opposed to “the many whisperings of the world” – found expression in Jewish history and religious thought? To what extent is this still a desirable goal today? How do we “hear the pulse of the divine whisperer”? How do we train our children to hear it?

Theme #2: “Equus Asinus”

“Then the Lord uncovered Balaam’s eyes, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the way, his drawn sword in his hand; thereupon he bowed right down to the ground. The angel of the Lord said to him, ‘Why have you beaten your ass these three times? It is I who came out as an adversary, for the errand is obnoxious to me. And when the ass saw me, she shied away because of me those three times. If she had not shied away from me, you are the one I should have killed, while sparing her.’” (Numbers 22:31-33)

Study: Derash

“‘The Lord uncovered Balaam’s eyes.’ The wording is deliberate, a sardonic contradiction of Balaam’s claim that ‘his eyes are opened’ to God’s revelation (24:4, 16).” (Etz Hayim)

“And the ass saw the angel of the Lord that Balaam did not see, since the Holy One endowed the beast with greater farsightedness than man.” (Rashi)

“The usual specific Hebrew root connoting human speech (daber) is not used here. This may indicate that the ass did not actually utter any words, but made a plaintive sound that implied protest, as if it had really said: “What have I done to you.’ Balaam in his anger answered the ass, much as any man might shout at his beast of burden. The ass made a responsive sound to this abuse, as if to say, ‘Am I not your ass.’ Then Balaam softened and said ‘No’ – as if to say, ‘It is not like my ass to defy me thus.’ The Almighty did indeed open the mouth of the ass and it brayed in an unusual manner. There was a miracle but it was a hidden one.” (S. D. Luzzatto)

“There are three confrontations with the invisible messenger of the Lord, each one increasingly difficult to ignore. Even a dumb animal – and she-asses are notoriously dumb – can see that Bilaam’s mission is contrary to God’s plan, even though the great seer cannot. The question is, can this great seer raise himself to the level of a she-ass? Can we?” (Rabbi Lawrence Kushner)

“Please remember this: that God spoke to Balaam through his ass, and He has been speaking through asses ever since. So, if God should choose to speak through you, you need not think too highly of yourself. And, if on meeting someone, right away you recognize what they are, listen to them anyway.” (Rich Mullins, Contemporary Christian Songwriter and Singer, 1955-1997)

Questions for Discussion

Does Shadal’s (Luzzatto’s) reading of our chapter appeal to you? Was the Torah engaging in metaphor, offering a fantastic tale, or recording a miraculous event? How do these different approaches affect the message of our text?

Where else in scripture do we find an ironic contrast between blindness and spiritual vision?

Rabbi Kushner suggests – colorfully – that Balaam actually serves as a model of the spiritual blindness to which we all are, alas, at times susceptible. How are we to tell when our “mission” – our direction – is contrary to God’s plan? What steps so we need to take – once our eyes have been opened to this realization – to “raise” ourselves to a more elevated spiritual state? Does this narrative set the spiritual bar too low? Or is Balaam in fact a positive and accessible model of spiritual growth and redirection?

Whom do you think Rick Mullins (who died tragically at age 41) have in mind? Had he written these words today, to whom might they aptly be applied? What is the danger in spiritual diminutives espousing what they perceive to be God’s word? How can we value religious messages and moral insights when we find fault with those who articulate them? How – conversely – are we critically and honestly to evaluate the leadership and religious pronouncements of those whose personalities, styles, and politics we are inclined to find appealing?

Historic Note

In Parashat Balak, read on July 7, 2012, we read of the efforts by the Moabite King Balak to have the people Israel cursed, so that they might be defeated and driven from the land. His plot is foiled when the prophet Balaam responds to God’s command to bless the Chosen People. On July 7, 1607, “God Save the King” was sung for the first time.

Halachah L’Maaseh

Shabbat Parashat Balak falls on 17 Tammuz 5772. This date is traditionally observed as a fast day, commemorating the breaching of Jerusalem’s walls before the destruction, as well as the discontinuation of the daily sacrifice, and – centuries earlier – Moses’ shattering of the tablets of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai (Mishnah Taanit 4:6). When Shivah Asar B’Tammuz falls on Shabbat, the fast is postponed to Sunday, because fasting is forbidden on Shabbat (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 550:3). The fast lasts from dawn to nightfall – unlike Tishah B’Av and Yom Kippur, which are our only 24-hour fasts (Ibid., 550:2, 564). And though we do refrain from food and drink, we can bathe, anoint ourselves, and wear leather (Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 121:8). Shabbat is observed in its usual joyful manner. In fact, the late Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, taught that on this Shabbat we should consciously increase our joy, perhaps by adding an extra tasty dish to our Sabbath meals, clearly demonstrating that we are not in a state of mourning.

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