Balak: Not Only A Jewish Story

Image: A donkey (pixabay)

In 1967, at Deir Alla, Jordan, about 8 km east of the Jordan River, archaeologists found an inscription with a story relating visions of the “seer of the gods Balaam, son of Be’or.” It was a startling find, since “Balaam, son of Be’or” is the central figure of Parashat Balak in our Torah. However, instead of being a prophet of the Hebrew God, in the Deir Alla inscription he is associated with a number of deities, including “the Shaddai gods” and the goddess Shagar.

In the inscription, the gods tell Balaam that the world will be destroyed. The disaster is explained to him via animals: birds shrieking, animals of the field and herd disrupted.  He is able to avert the disaster, although the details are lost to damage to the inscription.

While there are many important differences between the Balaam of Parashat Balak and the Balaam of the inscription, one striking similarity is the communication with animals. In Torah, the seer has a donkey who speaks to him. In the inscription, birds communicate the news. In both cases the subject matter is deadly serious: in Torah, a curse to be put upon the Israelites, and in the inscription, news of the end of the world.

In the present time, we also receive messages from the natural world: warnings in the migration of polar bears, warnings in the shifting of fish in the sea. Like the ancient Balaam, whoever he was, we ignore those messages at our peril.

This d’var Torah appeared in a recent issue of the CCAR Newsletter.

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Shabbat Shalom! – Balak

Image: A donkey. Photo via pixabay.com, by Myriams-Fotos.

Parashat Balak is something of a curiosity. It is named after an enemy of the Hebrews, who tried to get the prophet Bilaam to put a powerful curse on our people. No other Torah portion is named after such a bad man.

The story is a very strange one, too. King Balak tries to hire Bilaam to put a curse on the Hebrews. Bilaam consults with God (?!) and refuses. Eventually Bilaam agrees because Balak offers him great riches. God puts an angel in his way, which Bilaam cannot see. Bilaam’s donkey can see it, though, and even though he beats the poor donkey, she will not move. Finally she speaks to Bilaam and explains what is happening and he sees the angel. He speaks with the angel, who warns him again.

After many more adventures Bilaam winds up blessing our people, not cursing them. He blesses them with the words we say when we enter a synagogue:

How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel!  Like palm-groves that stretch out, Like gardens beside a river, Like aloes planted by the LORD, Like cedars beside the water;Their boughs drip with moisture, Their roots have abundant water. Their king shall rise above Agag, Their kingdom shall be exalted. God who freed them from Egypt is for them like the horns of the wild ox. They shall devour enemy nations, Crush their bones, And smash their arrows. They crouch, they lie down like a lion, Like the king of beasts; who dare rouse them? Blessed are they who bless you, Accursed they who curse you! – Numbers 24:5-9

Balak is furious – all his money and Bilaam blesses Israel? To see how the story comes out, read the portion!

Let’s see what our darshanim have to say about this bizarre story:

J’accuse! My Shock in Watching the RNC by Rabbi John Rosove

Balak: A Better Way by Rabbi Neal Joseph Loevinger

Is Our Ability to Speak a Blessing or a Curse? – by Barbara Heller

The Curse of Being a People Who Dwell Alone by Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild

Relatively Speaking by Rabbi David Kasher

“These People Scare Me!” by Rabbi Ruth Adar

Before You Sing Ma Tovu Again by Rabbi Stephen Fuchs

 

Pinchas: A Remedy for Extremism?

Image: A woman’s hand held up as if to ward off a blow. (ninocare/pixabay)

What are we to do with the violent stories in Torah?

Parshiot Balak and Pinchas bring us yet another disturbing story. After Balaam blesses the camp of Israel against his will, Moabite women visit the Israelites as they are camped at Shittim. They engage the men in “whoring” (there’s really no other way to translate liznot) and then invite them to the sacrifices to their god, Ba’al-peor. The men join in and the God of Israel is incensed, commanding Moses to have the ringleaders among the Israelites impaled. Moses makes the order, when a prince of the tribe of Simeon, Zimri, brings a Midianite princess, Cozbi, to the camp right in front of him.

Aaron’s grandson, Pinchas, follows Zimri and Cozbi into Zimri’s “chamber”, and impales the two of them with one thrust of his spear. And in the following portion, titled “Pinchas,” he is rewarded by God, who says that the line of the High Priest will come from his descendants.

Most modern liberal readers go into shock at about this point. What? He’s rewarded for such awful violence, coming upon a couple in a vulnerable moment of privacy and running them through with a spear? And God commanded this, and rewarded it? Oy!

One interpretation of this story is that it is a warning against intermarriage. Hilary Lipka points out that first Zimri introduces Cozbi to his kin, which doesn’t look like “worshipping idols.” Secondly he takes her to his kubbah, a word that appears nowhere else in Torah, but which many translators interpret as “chamber.” She argues that this isn’t about idolatry, it’s about intermarriage. She also points out that it reflects a different point of view on intermarriage than another place in the Torah: Moses marries Zipporah, the daughter of a Midianite priest, and she’s a righteous woman! So perhaps this is an early example of the argument about intermarriage in Jewish tradition.

Another interpretation is that when God rewards Pinchas, he does so by giving his decendants an honor that will also be a burden. God recognizes the passion of Pinchas as matching the passion of God, and promptly gives Pinchas an outlet for that passion that will serve both to focus it and contain it. Being High Priest was a tremendous responsibility, because there were sacred duties that only the High Priest could do. He could not allow himself to be distracted from those duties, and he had to practice a high degree of self-control to carry them out. The descendants of Pinchas would not have the luxury of vigilantism, because they would have their hands full policing themselves.

Perhaps this story is a recognition that there are always going to be those among us who get carried away – maybe violently carried away – by their passion for God, and that it’s important to contain those passions. If the individual can’t do it for himself, maybe he needs to be given a job that will do it.

We are living in a passionate time, when many people seem driven to extremism and zealotry. I wonder if there are ways that those passions could be channeled into good?

“These People Scare Me!”

"Immigrant Rights" by Michael Fleshman, some rights reserved.
“Immigrant Rights” by Michael Fleshman, some rights reserved.

“These people are too numerous!”

The Torah portion Balak opens with the worries of Balak, son of Zippor, the king of Moab. He’s frantic about the Hebrews – there are so many of them! So he sends a message to Balaam, a powerful magician, saying:

“There is a people that came out of Egypt; it hides the earth from view, and it is settled next to me. 6 Come then, put a curse upon this people for me, since they are too numerous for me; perhaps I can thus defeat them and drive them out of the land. For I know that he whom you bless is blessed indeed, and he whom you curse is cursed.” – Numbers 22: 5-6.

Does this sound familiar? Remember back at the beginning of Exodus, when the Pharaoh “who did not know Joseph” said:

“Behold, the people of the children of Israel are too many and too mighty for us; come, let us deal wisely with them, lest they multiply, and it come to pass, that, when there befalleth us any war, they also join themselves unto our enemies, and fight against us, and get them up out of the land.” – Exodus 1:9-10

One of the things I love about Torah is the deep insight into human nature. It is an ordinary human impulse, when we see strangers becoming “too numerous”  or “too mighty” to start worrying that they may be a threat to our well-being.

The genius of Torah is that in describing a normal reaction to something that happens from time to time (“Too many outsiders!”) it chooses to do so from the point of view of the strangers. The Israelites had to leave Egypt because the Egyptian Pharaoh had the normal sort of fears about strangers. Now the Moabite prince is worried about the same thing. We get a clear picture, reading this story, identifying with the Israelites, of what it is to be unwanted outsiders.

Interwoven with these stories we are given commandments:

Do not mistreat or oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. – Exodus 22:21

and again (many times, actually):

The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. – Exodus 19:34

It is good to recognize human nature; that’s reality. But Torah calls us to something higher than ordinary impulses. It calls us to holiness, which is an opposite of ordinary. The test of this comes when we try to live in the ordinary world. Not everyone plays by these rules!

Living a life of Torah means living a life of risk. Will those strangers take advantage of me? Will there be enough to get by? One of the ways to see the Talmud as a series of conversations about (among many other things) practical conversations about how we will live this out in the world. Lucky for us, we can access thousands of years of discussion on how to live the commandments in the world.

Fulfilling ritual commandments is challenging. Fulfilling these ethical commandments that challenge our very nature is the work of a lifetime.