Who is the storyteller? Is he reliable? All writers are faced with these questions.
This week’s Torah portion begins with the Moabite king Balak sending messengers to the sorcerer Balaam with a proposal. The king resorts to flattery: “Whoever you bless is blessed; whoever you curse is cursed.” Balak believes in the power of the word, and in the holy hitman’s capacity to manipulate it. A curse delivered by him could annihilate the Jewish people, the latest regional threat to Balak’s kingdom.
The narrative focuses not on the king but on his spiritual adviser, and is seemingly told from his perspective. The fast-paced plot holds us in suspense as Balaam does not immediately accede to his patron’s request. Piously, he bids the messengers stay overnight while he sounds out the divine will. The God that Balaam believes in bears remarkable resemblance to the Almighty. Like the king, and like many rabbinical commentators, readers may first be impressed by Balaam’s claim of access to the Deity.
However, what Balaam receives is a flat rejection. He is not to curse Israel, either from his home turf or from Moab. No change of location or perspective will help. Tersely, God explains that Israel is intrinsically blessed.
Living up to his role as God’s honest broker, Balaam can only tell the messengers to go home. However, the honest-seeming Balaam relays God’s reply not as a blunt refusal but as a pretext for denying the king his request. In reality, his desires and those of the king converge. As in flirtation, Balaam postpones consent, using God as a cover to raise the stakes and inflate his sense of self-importance. A more prestigious deputation arrives, offering higher honors; again they are turned down. How can God’s prophet go against the divine word? Nevertheless, the messengers are bid to stay overnight.
What does Balaam hope to gain? Does he think he can change God’s mind? In fact, he does gain some traction. This time, God lets Balaam accompany the messengers to the king, on condition he not utter anything except what God puts in his mouth.
From the exchange between God and Balaam, the rabbis conclude that Balaam had prophetic powers and presented a substantial threat. The man wields a weapon matching that of the Jewish people. If each nation of the world is represented by a physical organ, then Israel is epitomized by the mouth: the love of language, discussion — the Torah. The weapon that Balaam proposes against them is also the power of words.
The Torah tells us, “Never has there arisen in Israel any prophet with such a close relationship to God as Moses.” The Sifrei comments, “Not among the Jewish people, but among the nations, there has: Balaam.”
Balaam’s bluster and spiritual self-regard is comically undercut, however, by the admonishments of an ass. What God’s prophet is blind to, she can see and articulate. Balaam will go on to defy Balak once again, blessing rather than cursing Israel.
Is Balaam’s talking donkey the true moral center of the tale? For one moment, yes. But previous resonances of Balaam’s moral condition are apparent.
Pirkei Avot says, “Anyone whose goodness outweighs their wisdom, their wisdom will endure; anyone whose intellectual pretensions outweigh their goodness, their pretensions will not endure.” The former could describe Abraham, while the latter fits Balaam perfectly. What moves God to bless Abraham is not intellectual fireworks but Abraham’s moral qualities: “a good eye, a humble spirit, a gentle soul,” as also formulated in Pirkei Avot.
From whose vantage point, then, is Balaam’s story being told?
The Talmud credits Moses as the author of the Balaam episode. In addition to writing directly about something he cared about, this suggests, he was able to empathize with experiences not his own, and with inimical viewpoints.
Years before, after the Israelites worshipped the Golden Calf and were saved from destruction only through Moses’ intervention, God invited him “in a time of favor” to ask for something for himself. Moses asks: “Show me Your ways!” The Talmud (Berachot 7a) interprets this request as “Why do the righteous suffer?” In writing of Balaam, the Hitler and Goebbels of his generation, was Moses distressed that the Divine Presence could rest on one so despicable? Was God taken in by a spiritual virtuoso with no moral foundation? Perhaps that was the philosophical question he was probing in exploring the consciousness of his diabolical opposite.
Moses returns to the incident in his farewell speech: “But the Lord your God refused to heed Balaam: instead the Lord our God turned the curse into a blessing for you, for the Lord your God loves you.” As a midrash puts it, the rebuke of a well-wisher is preferable to a blessing from one like Balaam who “blesses” despite himself. From this parable, one may understand the saying in the Zohar that the most frightful curses of the Torah only hide the greatest blessings. The Balaam story, filtered through Moses, reminds us that the curses in the Torah derive from an authentic source in “the Lord your God who loves you,” who can turn all curses around.
Freema Gottlieb is a writer and lecturer. Her book, “The Lamp of God: A Jewish Book of Light,” is available as a Kindle edition on Amazon.com. Her talks on the weekly Torah reading may be found on YouTube.
Candlelighting: 8:12 p.m.
Torah reading: Numbers 19:1-25:9
Haftorah reading: Micah 5:6-6:8
Shabbat ends: 9:20 p.m.
Thursday, Fast of 17 Tammuz
Fast begins: 3:45 a.m.
Fast ends: 9:03 p.m.