By Howard Rosenhoch
From my eight times traveling in Israel, a memory stands out of the night with my family at a campground just outside Ein Gedi, a kibbutz on the western shore of the Dead Sea, looking across the sea into neighboring Jordan at the mountains of Moab set ablaze in the light of the setting sun. This beautiful and memorable scene is where the story of Parashat Balak unfolds.
Our ancestors are approaching the conclusion of their forty-year journey from slavery to freedom. We have been given the Torah and have learned to organize ourselves into a nation politically, judicially, militarily, and spiritually. Through our many failures along the way, including the Golden Calf and the rebellion of Korach, among others, we have learned hard lessons in governance and life. Yet, we as a people will find more ways to fail and more to learn.
The scene at the outset of Balak is in Moab. King Balak of Moab sees the Israelites encamped on his border, across the River Jordan from Jericho in the Promised Land, which we all know by now is the goal, prize if you will, promised by G-d to our people as part of our covenant with G-d. From Balak’s perspective, however, the Israelites are an existential threat. The Israelites’ reputation as a formidable military force precedes them, gained from the many conquests they have achieved on their journey.
Seeking a way to counteract the Israelite threat, Balak sends emissaries to a land near the Euphrates River to ask Bilaam, a world-renowned sorcerer, to curse the Israelites. Bilaam knows of the power of the G-d of Israel and tells the emissaries to await morning for his answer, so he can divine what G-d wishes of him. Not surprisingly, G-d tells Bilaam not to go, and he refuses Balak’s entreaty. Undeterred, Balak sends an even more distinguished delegation. The scene repeats. This time, however, G-d gives Bilaam permission to go, but only on the condition that, “whatever I command you, that you shall do.”
Bilaam’s journey to Moab, accompanied by the distinguished Moabite emissaries, is highlighted by the iconic scene of the talking donkey. Along the way, G-d, apparently not yet trusting that his command to Bilaam to do what G-d requires of him will be adhered to, places an angel in the path of the donkey Bilaam is riding. Strangely, the donkey is the only one to whom the angel appears. The donkey, of her own volition (yes, the text identifies the animal as a “she-donkey”), veers from the path. This enrages Bilaam and three times he beats his donkey. The donkey, suddenly given by G-d the power of speech, turns to her master and asks why he beats her? The ensuing argument between Bilaam and his donkey is interrupted by the angel, who now can be seen and heard by Bilaam as well as his donkey. G-d tells Bilaam through the angel that Bilaam’s errand to curse the Jews is obnoxious to G-d. Bilaam offers to turn back. Once again, however, G-d tells Bilaam to proceed, only after extracting Bilaam’s promise that “You must say nothing except what I tell you!”
Arriving in Moab, Bilaam and King Balak climb one of the peaks of the mountains. In sight of the Israelite encampment, Balak prepares sacrificial pyres anticipating the curses that Bilaam will reign down on the Israelites. Bilaam instead speaks through his own mouth the words of G-d and blesses the children of Jacob, much to Balak’s distress. Balak takes Bilaam to another mountain peak, prepares more sacrificial pyres, only to by disappointed and angered yet again by the blessings of the children of Israel that G-d puts in Bilaam’s mouth. A third time this scene is played out again to the same end. The poetry of the blessings of the children of Israel uttered by Bilaam through the words of G-d cannot be overstated. See Numbers 23:7 to 24:11. It is the beginning of the third of Bilaam’s blessings that stands out and which, along with a collection of passages derived from a variety of psalms, has become a part of the traditional morning Shacharit prayer service.
.מה טבו אהלך יעקב, משכנותיך ישראל
Ma tovu ohalechah Ya’akov, mishkanotecha Yisra’el.
How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, and your dwelling places O Israel.
I invite you to listen to this setting for Ma Tovu, my favorite, sung by Danny Mesang, an Israeli born actor, writer and singer now living in Los Angeles HERE.
There is a darker side to the otherwise mystical, comical, and perhaps somewhat silly story in Parashat Balak. The intended curses turned by G-d to blessings on the children of Israel are hardly out of Bilaam’s mouth, when we are told how Jacob’s children yet again strayed from the will of G-d. It was the women of Moab, not the military might of that kingdom, that was this time the undoing of the Israelites, who were seduced by the Moabite women, and joined them in sacrificing to the Moabite deity, Baal. For these transgressions, G-d punished his children by ordering the impaling of the ringleaders and sending a plague among the people.
We human beings are created in the image of G-d, and we Jewish people are the chosen children of G-d. Our mission is to repair, and perhaps even to perfect the world. As Rabbi Tarfon teaches in Pirkeh Avot, The Ethics of the Fathers, we are not obligated to complete the work of perfection, but neither are we permitted to desist from it. This turn from the comic/mystical to the tragic in the story of Balak highlights the imperfection of man. As individuals and organizations, as we strive to repair our little worlds and the bigger ones that we are each a part of, we should not be surprised that we stumble and fall. We should be forever thankful for the blessings bestowed on us by G-d, but we cannot and should not rely on them to the exclusion of our own choices. It is what we make of our transgressions that define us. Let us learn from our mistakes and help each other with respect and dignity on the road to that ever-elusive perfection as we travel the lifetimes we are given.
I started this Jewish Thought of the week with a family story to set the scene of this week’s Parasha. I will end it with another family story. Some of you reading this know my son, David, and will remember my late wife, Valerie. About 17 years ago, Valerie was sitting with David, who has Down Syndrome, working with him on his D’var Torah for his Bar Mitzvah. His Bar Mitzvah portion is, of course, Balak. [David Rosenhoch was featured as our Jewish Thought of the Week back in July 2019 to commemorate his 15 year Bar Mitzvah Anniversary. You can read his original Bar Mitzvah speech HERE.] As they were reading through the text of the portion together, Valerie turned to David and said, “Isn’t this story silly? Who ever heard of a talking donkey?” And, Valerie added, challengingly, “Have you?” David, not one to shy from a challenge, responded, “Of course, Mom, the donkey in Shrek!!”
Shabbat shalom, koolam. Good Shabbos, everyone.
Howard Rosenhoch is a past President and immediate past General Campaign Chair of Buffalo Jewish Federation. Howard currently chairs BJF’s Grinspoon Foundation Life and Legacy Program team.