BY RABBI TOM LIEBSCHUTZ / AJT //
The fascinating story of Balak’s and Balaam’s relationship to the Jewish people, found in this week’s Torah portion, has interested us as Jews for thousands of years. Its many themes help us explore the subjects of prophecy, the non-Jewish world’s relationship with Israel and how the Jewish people perceive themselves.
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The Book of Numbers, chapters 22 to 24, tells of Balak, the Moabite king who doesn’t want the children of Israel crossing his territory in their travels from Egypt to the Promised Land. Seeking to increase the possibilities of his military success against them, he hires the heathen prophet Balaam for the specific purpose of cursing the Jewish people.
But this happens only after a lengthy series of negotiations with Balak’s representatives as well as warnings and restrictions placed on Balaam by the G-d of Israel. Then, on his journey to Moab, Balaam’s faithful donkey speaks to his master saving him from certain death.
The animal’s loyalty is rewarded by his being beaten by his master. It’s an embarrassingly comical injustice, as the animal sees better than Balaam, and the entertaining story in many ways is a delightful distraction from the real purpose of the Torah portion.
It nevertheless informs us that the authors of the Hebrew bible acknowledge that prophecy is not the exclusive possession of the Jewish people.
Israel and the World
Balak – like so many rulers since – wants to destroy the Jewish people. He is willing to do anything to achieve his goal, even hire a prophet from another land.
But in the parsha, G-d does not permit His covenanted people to perish. Balaam’s prophecies underscore this theme.
In one place he says, “How shall I curse whom G-d has not cursed? And how shall I execrate whom the Lord has not execrated?”
And in another:
“None has beheld iniquity in Jacob, neither has one seen perverseness in Israel; the Lord His G-d is with him.”
If only in this current day, a time of rising anti-Semitism in Europe and elsewhere in the world, people would realize the truth of Balaam’s prophesies. The hands of the Jewish people then, as now, are clean, and even Balaam realizes our hearts are pure. Despite coming to curse he can only speak G-d’s truth.
Unfortunately, the Balak’s of today’s world have yet to learn this lesson. We pray they soon will.
How We See Ourselves
Here, too, Balaam helps us. Among his most remembered prophetic words are:
“How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel!”
This is how we begin our morning worship services in our prayer books. As we set forth in prayer, the words inspire and uplift, reminding us of how we see and understand ourselves.
Without boasting, I think it safe to say we know our values are good ones and aspire to live up to them. We promote social justice and the world’s improvement (tikkun olam) by assisting the poor, the homeless, the needy, the victims of persecution and neglect, the widow and the orphan.
And our goodly tents and dwelling places urge us to “love our neighbors as ourselves,” to “beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks.”
They also remind us of the commandment repeated more than any other in the first five books of the Hebrew bible:
“Know you the heart of the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
Balaam was right. He clearly saw into the heart and soul of the Jewish people, and he captured our character.
With G-d’s help may Balaam’s vision always inspire us.
Rabbi Tom Liebschutz is the spiritual leader of Congregation Ner Tamid and a member of the Atlanta Rabbinical Association.