The Wisdom of Balaam and How the Light Can Be Found All Around Us
by Rabbi Renee Edelman
Over the years of my life, I have lived with and interacted with many different types of animals, horses, dogs, cats, chickens, cows and my favorite the pot belly pig. Each animal had their own way of communicating and entering into relationship with their owners or handlers. Signs and words caused the animals to take action while they communicated the desire for play through thrown balls or jumping around the knees. I once had an extremely unusual experience with a cat. I have never been a cat person but now own several. After university, I moved to a road which lead directly to Harvard Street in Brookline, Ma. and the best bagels in the world, Kupels. I made this trip daily by myself for the first three days. On the fourth, a black cat with bright green eyes made the jump out of a third floor window to land at my feet. The cat quickly climbed up my arm and landed on my shoulder as I continued to walk. Truthfully I was terrified and determined that if I stopped walking the cat would attack me. After months, I was used to the company and even my parents who witnessed this event called the cat my medium. I tried to distance myself from this animal before I began truly thinking about why this cat had chosen me as its human and if I was a witch.
Many read Parashat Balak, our portion for this week as bizarre. In fact, Rabbi Larry Kushner calls it: “a fundamentalist’s nightmare…the lollapalooza granddaddy of all the off-the-wall Bible stories. It’s so preposterous it makes splitting the Red Sea look like child’s play—one of the oddest in the entire Torah.” How could it not be? With a sorcerer, a talking donkey, and curses-turned-blessings galore, the story sounds like a cross between Harry Potter and Tim Burton. The parashah focuses on two main characters: Balak, a Moabite king set on cursing Israel, and Balaam, the sorcerer hired to carry out the evil deed. Balak generously bribes Balaam to get the job done, but he grows more and more frustrated because the sorcerer never seems to complete the task. In fact, Balaam manages quite the opposite, uttering the blessing with which we begin morning worship: Mah tovu ohalechah Yaakov, mishk’notecha Yisrael , “How fair are your tents O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel!” (Numbers 24:5). He comes to this benediction after a bizarre encounter with a talking donkey, which makes him aware of God’s presence and mouth against the sorcerer’s will (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 105b).
We cannot blame the Sages for their skepticism when the Torah itself remains unconvinced that Balaam’s intentions are sincere. We learn that: “No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted into the congregation of Adonai . . . because they hired Balaam son of Beor, from Pethor of Aram-naharaim, to curse you.—But Adonai your God refused to heed Balaam; instead, Adonai your God turned the curse into a blessing for you, for Adonai your God loves you” (Deuteronomy 23:4–6). And this comes after the Israelites condemn Balaam to death without explanation (Numbers 31:8).
As the monotheism struggled to take flight, its proponents offered zero tolerance for polytheistic practices like sorcery and divination. The monotheism of the ancient Hebrews promoted the view of a single, all-powerful God. The will of this one God could not be influenced by human magic. The Israelites vilified anyone engaging in or associated with these so-called pagan practices.
Obviously, the Jewish tradition is very protective of Jews. After all, Balak and Balaam conspire to curse and undermine the Israelites in order to drive them away. Our ancestors felt a need to call out these adversaries and hold them accountable. Tocheichah , or “rebuke,” is not only a natural response, but is also a necessary one. Proverbs teach, “They that rebuke find favor, and a good blessing falls upon them” (24:25). For the Israelites, the tocheichah of Balaam and Balak and their descendants serves as medicine designed to prevent the ills of constant threats from conspirators and their kin.
The challenge with tocheichah , though, is to guard against becoming overzealous. In our fervor, we can become blind to the potential virtues present in the very person who remains the object of our rebuke. In other words, when we become self-righteous in critiquing those who have hurt us, we often fail to give them the benefit of the doubt when they try to exercise real change of heart. In so doing, we violate the important Jewish midah , “virtue,” of dan l’chaf z’chut, “giving others the benefit of the doubt.” Our ancient texts may also be guilty of this to some degree.
Is it possible that Balaam experiences a profound change of heart about the Israelites, which leads him to offer blessings instead of curses? While most rabbinic lore denies this possibility, some elements of our tradition do allow for it. Nehama Leibowitz notes that Balaam evolves from “a common sorcerer to a prophet ‘who hears the words of God.’” She admits that Balaam uses his sorcery at first “to accommodate the divine will to his interests.” She even attests to the notion that Balaam offers blessings against his will—twice. But the third time is a charm, and with it, Leibowitz feels Balaam “leaves all his schemes and wholeheartedly gives himself up to the divine prophetic urge” (Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Bamidbar [Jerusalem: Haommanim Press, 1981], p. 290).
The great rabbi Hillel teaches: “Judge not your fellow until you have been in that person’s place” ( Pirkei Avot 2:4). We all know that first impressions are not always correct and that often we are proven wrong. And we know that when we have a change of heart about someone, when we have performed acts of t’shuvah , we long for forgiveness. We hope others will believe that our personal growth is real. We crave the benefit of the doubt.
There is blessing in thoughtful rebuke, designed to protect our welfare and integrity as Jews, to hold ourselves and our enemies accountable for evil. There is also blessing in the fundamental Jewish hope that any person can change if he or she truly wants to grow. Such effort to change deserves our benefit of the doubt. Our role in life, then, is to choreograph the steps between these two poles. If we create balance between these two midot “virtues,” we can look forward to a life of greater harmony, a reality suggestive of a world redeemed, a life filled only with blessings, a reality where God’s presence is always palpable. And if we meet any talking animals along the way, may we have the presence of mind to pay attention. The message can come from anywhere.
By Rabbi Stephen Fuchs
Before You Sing Mah Tovu Again, Please Read this!
It is a pleasure for me once again to offer a joint perspective with Rabbi Renee Edelman! This time we want to give you a month’s lead time before congregations around the world read the story of one of the Bible’s most puzzling characters, Balaam
Too many times to count, I have heard rabbis announce, “We begin our service with Mah Tovu!” And then the rabbi, Cantor, choir and congregation or some combination of those resources begin to sing: “How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!“ (Numbers 24:5)
As thinking Jews, we should not be content to simply intone our prayers mindlessly! We will enrich ourselves and our worship if we make the effort to understand what they mean, what their literary-historical context is, and most importantly, how can they help us live more meaningful Jewish lives!
When I first came to Israel as a student in 1970, I purposely woke up in time to hear the radio station begin its broadcast day with the singing of Mah Tovu! We say Mah Tovu each and every morning when we enter the sanctuary to remind us of the lesson of the biblical story from which it comes.
As the children of Israel were on their forty-year journey from slavery in Egypt toward the Promised Land, Balak, King of Moab was afraid that we would overrun his land. So he hired Balaam, a world famous sorcerer, to put a curse on us so that his forces could defeat us! Despite all the riches Balak could offer, Balaam-– try as he might–could only bless us with the words: “Mah Tovu! How lovely are your tents …”
Rabbi Edelman correctly points out that Balaam is perhaps the most enigmatic character in the Torah! He was smart enough to be considered a prophet and even the intellectual equivalent of Moses! (Numbers Rabbah, 14:20; B. Sanhedrin 106A) And yet he was so dumb that he was clueless to what he should have done when his donkey—an animal synonymous in all cultures with stupidity—perceived God’s will.
Indeed, it is a perplexing exercise to reconcile Balaam’s brilliance and his spiritual blindness, but in the end, as Rabbi Edelman teaches us, he sees the light and blesses Israel with the words we use to begin our prayers.
When we understand its biblical context, the prayer teaches us a vital lesson: No outside force–-no Balak, King of Moab, no Pharaoh, no Haman, no Torquemada, no Tsar, no Hitler, no one–can ever destroy us! Only we can destroy ourselves. We can destroy ourselves by turning away from our sacred Covenant! We can destroy ourselves through apathy and assimilation! We can destroy ourselves by ignoring our obligation to care deeply not only about Jewish life in our own communities but about the viability of meaningful Jewish life in all of North America, Israel, Europe, the Former Soviet Union, Africa, Australia and New Zealand–everywhere.
No! No outside force can destroy us, but we can destroy ourselves by failing to apprehend and appreciate the message of the prayers we say, and failing to find purpose and meaning in our lives as Jews! Now that we have that understanding, let us begin our service with Mah Tovu!