A People Dwelling Apart

Balak By :  Arnold M. Eisen Chancellor Emeritus; Professor of Jewish Thought Posted On Jun 19, 2013 / 5773 | Main Commentary | Interreligious
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I saw a trailer for a movie the other day that starts off as goofy comedy and concludes with apocalyptic violence. So perhaps it is not entirely strange that our parashah begins with two scenes that evoke easy laughter and ends with a terrible bloodletting. Balak’s mix of poetry, narrative, and prophecy raises questions about Israel’s status as “a people dwelling apart” that are still with us today—questions that, in my view, make Balak one of the most troubling portions in the entire Torah.

Let’s first note the two occasions at which the parashah has us laughing. Balaam, a so-called seer, is blind to obstacles that his talking ass has no trouble seeing. The man makes his living by receiving and transmitting messages from God, but he is unable to take in the fact that a divine messenger is standing right in front of him. Balaam’s ass, by contrast, seems a paragon of wisdom and good sense. “Have I ever done such a thing to you before?,” he asks his master (Num. 22:30)—i.e., “don’t you think that after all this time you could trust me not to harm you?” Balaam is forced to confess to the angel that “I did not know you were standing in front of me” (v. 34). We can easily empathize with him. How many of us listen hard to messages we don’t want to hear or deliver? How often do we fail to notice God’s messengers standing right in front of us (unannounced, of course)? Balaam has a job he’d like to shirk. We know what that’s about.

The second comic scene has Balak, the king who hired Balaam, scurrying from one site of sacrifice to another in hopes of finding a vantage point from which the seer can curse rather than bless the people of Israel. We laugh from the comfort of our vantage point far in the future; we are here to read the story, after all, while Balak and his people are long gone. The poor King thinks he is going to win this one, but we know his efforts are in vain. The God who humbles him is on our side.

Except, of course, that Balak is neither the first nor the last enemy of Israel to have complained that our people was too “numerous” (22:3) and “powerful” (v. 6)—exactly the words used by Pharaoh and many other enemies of the Jews throughout the course of history. Jews have learned the hard way that rulers and holy men who make wild accusations against us must be taken seriously, no matter how much we laugh at their antics. (Think of Purim.) We know too that apparent praise may prove a curse, and vice versa. Jews have not always gotten the last laugh in these stories.

Sure enough, in the end, the parashah turns suddenly from comedy to tragedy. Moab cannot get its way via curses emanating from the mouth of Balaam, but its women get the Israelites to “go whoring . . . [and offer] sacrifices to their gods” (25:2). God orders the leaders of the orgy (or perhaps of the nation as a whole) killed and impaled as punishment. Moses orders his followers to slay the idolaters, just as he had done after the sin of the Golden Calf. When an Israelite man and a Midianite woman carry on brazenly “before the eyes of Moses and the whole Israelite community” right in front of the Tent of Meeting (v. 6), Aaron’s grandson Pinchas puts a spear through both of them. Twenty-four thousand Israelites die of plague. We are not laughing anymore.

Our Sages were understandably perplexed by Balaam. Was he a friend? He did follow God’s command to bless rather than curse Israel, and his blessings were so beautiful that we repeat one of them each morning. “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob” (26:5). Israel, Balaam prophesied accurately, would be “a people dwelling alone, not reckoned among the nations” (23:9). Yet in the very next portion of the Torah, God orders war against the Midianites, Balak’s allies in the scheme to curse Israel, as punishment for their successful incitement to orgy and idolatry (25:16)—and Balaam is among those killed (31:8).

Many midrashim go on at length about Balaam’s treachery. The apparent blessings that he uttered are shown on close inspection to be curses. (See BT Ta’anit 20a.) Balaam is even accused of having conspired (with Job and Jethro) in Pharaoh’s plot to slaughter Israelite children (Sotah 11a). Other Sages viewed Balaam more positively. Solomon Schechter, in Aspects of Rabbinic Theology (134), cites a midrash in which Balaam calms the princes of the world when they become fearful of apocalypse upon seeing the thunders and lightning that accompanied the revelation at Sinai (Sifre 142b). God does talk to Balaam, remember, and seems to affirm the seer’s power to bless and curse in God’s name. These abilities are not given out to just anyone and Balaam has them, even if he is not a full-fledged prophet and not a member of God’s covenant people.

That is the point, of course: the reason for the Rabbis’ discomfort and—reading about Balaam and the Rabbis’ reactions to him—for mine. All too many Jews continue to cite stories like this one as evidence that Gentiles cannot be trusted. “Scratch a non-Jew and you find an anti-Semite,” we are told. Better not to count on Gentile friends or allies. I think this is the very opposite of what the Torah wants from us. Of course Jews have suffered persecution and betrayal in the course of history—but we have also benefited and learned a great deal from traditions and peoples that are not Jewish, never more so than today. Judaism has always sought a balance between inward and outward focus; between the particular and the universal, attention to Jewish needs and attention to human needs. Sometimes Jews have to stand apart from the world. At other moments we need to be, and can be, an integral part of the world.

Parashat Balak gives expression to the fact that the balance is often hard to strike. But Torah—our covenant with God and one another—impels Jews to care about and cooperate with others, even as it mandates that we preserve our differences and, to some degree, our distance. At the very moment when the covenant with Israel is made at Sinai, God reminds Israel that “all the Earth is Mine.” That covenant with the people of Israel, like the earlier covenant ceremonies with the patriarchs, follows the earlier covenant made after the Flood with the Children of Noah—i.e., all humanity—for which the rainbow is an eternal sign. God speaks not only to Balaam but to Avimelekh, king of the Philistines, and Hagar, the mother of Ishmael. Our sacred text makes it clear that Jews have no monopoly on goodness or on God.

The troubling questions raised by the comedy and tragedy in our parashah need to be asked by Jews today as much as ever before, but allow for answers in our day that are beyond the imagination of our ancestors. They had no experience of genuine pluralism and democracy, and certainly could not have conceived of the blessings Jews enjoy today in 21st-century North America and Israel. Part of the beauty in Israel’s tents these days comes from interaction with the larger world. Part of the immense blessing of being a Jewish human being in 2013 is that Jews do not dwell entirely alone but, even while preserving our distinctiveness, join with others in caring for God’s creatures and Creation.