Making Our Way Through an Imperfect World
The story of Balaam, the gentile prophet who came to curse the people of Israel, but stayed to shower them with blessings should not be wholly unfamiliar to us. It is alluded to twice in the liturgy of the daily morning service, once indirectly and once directly. The indirect reference appears in the Song of Moses (az yashir Moshe) in which the author graphically depicts, not only escaping the clutches of the Egyptian army at sea, but, also approaching Canaan from east of the Jordan. As Israel advances inexorably under God’s protection:
Nations take note and tremble;
Panic grips the dwellers of Philistia
Edom’s chieftains are chilled with terror;
Trembling seizes the mighty of Moab.
All the citizens of Canaan are confused;
Dread and dismay descend upon them.(Exodus 15: 14-16; trans. Sim Shalom)
That is precisely the setting of our parashah. Balak, King of Moab, was alarmed by Israel’s lightening victories over the Amorite kingdoms governed by Sichon and Og, and he summoned Balaam to bedevil it with curses.
The second reference is a direct quote. Indeed, the first words a Jew is to intone in the morning upon entering the synagogue are taken from one of Balaam’s outbursts of adulation:
How fair are your tents, O Jacob,
Your dwellings, O Israel (24:5)!
In this context, the tents and dwelling places symbolize the sites of worship and study that are the aquifers of the Jewish landscape. Still, the choice is remarkable because of its patrimony. The encomium of a gentile seer spices the particularism of the synagogue with a universal touch. The welfare of the other is part of our liturgical agenda. Judaism expands our horizon of concern, rather than narrowing it.
Within the book of Numbers, the blessings of Balaam provide an interlude of relief from a dismal narrative of repeated failures. We have reached a milestone pregnant with the power of the original vision. After nearly forty years amid the ardors of the wilderness, it had grown encrusted. A new generation, bred on a diet of freedom and resourcefulness embodied the qualities necessary to realize the ideal. It is peaks of such incandescent clarity and beauty that sustain us in the overgrown valleys where we live out the majority of our days. Faith is essentially faithfulness to such fleeting moments of illumination, as Heschel was wont to say.
Balaam beheld a people of muscular demeanor without moral blemish and graced by the presence of God. Four times, the sight of their virtues subdued his will to inflict harm.
There is a people that dwells apart,
Not reckoned among the nations,
Who can count the dust of Jacob
Number the dust-cloud of Israel?No harm is in sight for Jacob,
No woe in view for Israel.
The Lord their God is with them,
And their King’s acclaim in their midst.So, a people that rises like a lion,
Leaps up like the king of beasts,
Rests not till it has feasted on prey
And drunk the blood of the slain.(23:9-10, 21, 24)
The semantic parallelism of the poetry generates the depth vision of a stereoscope. To do justice to the dynamic intensity of the reality observed, requires a pair of lenses in tandem.
But the lesson of Balaam goes beyond the importance of the momentary illumination. In making our way through the imperfections of the world, we must try to focus on the good in others. At close range, Moses was overwhelmed by Israel’s failings. What stood out for Balaam from the vantage point of distance, was their virtues. Later, in the days of the early Hasmoneans, Y’hoshua ben P’rahyah would counsel, “When you assess people, tip the balance in their favor” (Pirkei Avot 1:6). That wisdom informs Balaam’s profile of Israel. By accentuating the positive, Balaam articulated a set of expectations that would help Israel overcome its demons. Israel harbored the capacity to achieve greatness. The only question was how best to galvanize the nation- through praise or censure?
In the final analysis, Balak turned to Balaam to corrode the source of Israel’s prowess. Moses had spent many years in Midian. He married a Midianite. When Balak inquired of the sages of Midian wherein lay the secret of Moses’ leadership, he was told ‘in his mouth.” Given his lifelong speech impediment, this midrash (Rashi on 22:4), must relate to his powers of prayer, rather than speech. Piety and character formed the bedrock of his success. Again the import is vast. Ultimately, the inner resources of a person or people will determine the ending of a long-drawn-out conflict. Superior weapons and supplies constitute only a short-term advantage. America eventually lost its misguided war in Vietnam because it simply could not match the indestructible resolve of the Vietcong. Balak pressured his prophet-for-hire to wreck Israel’s faith and weaken its will by means of magic. Defeat would follow quickly. In this he failed, as have Israel’s adversaries ever since.