Parashat Balak

Numbers 22:2–25:9

June 26, 2010 / 14 Tammuz 5770

This week's commentary was written by Rabbi Andy Shugerman, Rabbinic Fellow, Development Department, JTS

Twice during my teenage years, I felt that I'd witnessed a modern-day prophet speaking live on television. I grew up with the idea that such a phenomenon was not just possible but something for which we, as American Jews, yearn. We have watched how tremendous oratory can change history by reflecting the transformations taking place in our society and around the globe.

Prophecy, the rare experience of a human serving as a conduit for divine communication, pervades this week's Torah portion. Parashat Balak is almost entirely focused on the mercenary sorcerer Balaam, who accepts a commission from the eponymous Moabite king to curse Israel but instead becomes an agent of blessing for the sojourning nation. Every time that Balaam has the opportunity to damn the Israelites, God intervenes to "put a word in his mouth" in praise of Israel. At first, it seems that Balaam takes part in this drama unwittingly and even unwillingly, but eventually the Torah describes him as a full participant in God's plan for turning Balak's intended curses into blessings. Twice in this parashah we find a description of Balaam's pronouncements as the "Word of the man whose eye is true, Word of him who hears God's speech, who beholds visions from the Almighty . . . " (Num. 24:3–4 and 24:15–16).

Those two speeches that I heard in adolescence moved me because of their content as well their Balaam-like context—they were given by a former enemy of Israel addressing Jews before the whole world. In late October 1994, after signing a treaty to end decades of conflict, King Hussein of Jordan proclaimed a vision for reconciliation between his nation and the State of Israel. The late Arab warrior-turned-peacemaker first caught my attention with the following words:

These are the moments in which we live, the past and the future. This great valley in which we stand will become the valley of peace. And when we come together to build it and to make it bloom as never before, when we come to live next to each other as never before, we will be doing so as Israelis and Jordanians together—without the need for any to observe our actions or supervise our endeavors. This is peace with dignity. This is peace with commitment. This is our gift to our peoples and the generations to come.

One week after the first anniversary of that ceremony, King Hussein returned to Israel to comfort a nation in mourning and to exhort them not to bow to adversarial forces:

We belong to the camp of peace. We believe in peace. We believe that our one God wishes us to live in peace and wishes peace upon us, for these are His teachings to all the followers of the three great monotheistic religions, the children of Abraham. Let's not keep silent. Let our voices rise high to speak of our commitment to peace for all times to come, and let us tell those who live in darkness, who are the enemies of life, that through faith and religion and the teachings of our one God, this is where we stand. This is our camp.

Just days after an ultra-nationalist Jewish assassin murdered Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (z"l), King Hussein demonstrated how he had become both an ally to Israel and a champion for peace. His appeal, as a Muslim, to the faith traditions of "the children of Abraham" provides a contemporary parallel to this week's Torah portion. An examination of one ancient rabbinic statement about this connection, however, challenges us to reconsider our understanding of the distinction between good and evil, friend and foe.

During the third of his oracles, Balaam utters a powerful declaration about Israel, one that is directed to the other nations of the ancient Near East: "Blessed are they who bless you, accursed they who curse you!" (Num. 24:9). One of the most striking features of this verse is the way it echoes God's initial promise to Abraham: "I will bless those who bless you and curse him that curses you; and all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you" (Gen. 12:3). This resonance appears to be at least a partial fulfillment of God's promise, yet rabbinic sources regard Balaam's character with a mix of acclaim and scorn. On one hand, he is counted first among the "seven prophets who prophesied to the peoples of the world" (Baba Batra 15b) and is accorded status equal to Moses (Tanhuma Balak; Sifre Deuteronomy). On the other hand, numerous sources treat him as an immoral figure whose blessing of Israel represents a marked departure from his normal nature.

One of those disparaging interpretations, Mishnah Avot 5:19, actually challenges the apparent connection between Balaam's blessing for Israel and God's blessing for Abraham.

Whoever possesses these three qualities is among the disciples of Abraham our father, and those who possess the three opposite qualities are among the disciples of Balaam the wicked:

A generous spirit, a humble soul, a modest appetite—[such is one] among the disciples of Abraham our father.

A grudging spirit, an arrogant soul, an insatiable appetite—[such is one] among the disciples of Balaam the wicked.

This text raises a number of difficult questions about how the early rabbis understood Balaam's character in such diametrically opposite ways. One possibility is that they saw his initially unwitting participation in God's plan as a sign of his mercenary past, in which he would bless or curse others for the right price according to the whims of his clients. This reading, combined with our understanding of a mistrust of non-Jews in the early rabbinic period, begins to explain the dialectic above.

Another approach to this statement from Pirkei Avot involves reconciling these competing interpretive traditions by distinguishing Balaam's divinely inspired actions from his human character traits. Perhaps we should honor his ability to triumph over his dubious past and his personal flaws to assume his brief role as Israel's defender. Such a reading also allows us to embrace the fact that we now live in a world in which the "disciples of Abraham" include many Christians and Muslims who hope for the success of a democratic Jewish homeland at peace with its neighbors.

At the same time, we must recognize that the "disciples of Balaam" are not simply other nations who wish to destroy us. Sadly, arrogant and power-hungry forces persist in the Jewish world as well, including groups whose anger and fear threaten the future of Israel and of Judaism by denying the legitimacy of other Jewish communities and movements. We can and must do more to "put our money where our mouth is" in support of the Masorti / Israeli Conservative Movement as a model for the Jewish life we need to advance in Israel.

In King Hussein's words, we must assert that "this is where we stand"—that we embrace Abraham's spiritual qualities of generosity, humility, and modesty as his descendants and his disciples. Let us believe in the power of this path to make our adversaries into allies. Let us reclaim a vision for peace in Israel and throughout the world as a commitment to God and to our grandchildren. They are depending upon us.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.