Torah from around the world #72

by Rabbi Raphael W. Asher, Rabbi of

Congregation B’nai Tikvah

, Walnut Creek, CA

Every time I read the blessings of Bilaam I want to punctuate each with a “

Yasher koach

,”kudos,  for this Moabite prophet who three times shouted


’s praises from the highest peaks.

A star rises from Jacob

!” (Nu. 24:17) “

How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel

.” (24:3)

May my fate be like theirs

!” (Numbers 23:10)

These inversions of King Balak’s evil intentions and of our own image of Gentile curses makes me a little weepy with gratitude and pride every year when we come to Parshat Balak.

It is jarring then to search in vain for any positive image of Bilaam in the Midrash. He is repeatedly characterized as evil, arrogant, and mercenary. And if one should protest, citing the sweetness of his words, no less than Rashi repeats the adage that Bilaam is like a wasp—we want “neither its honey or its sting.” (Rashi,

quoting Tanchuma, on Numbers


There are literary, and perhaps thematic, parallels between Bilaam’s journey and Abraham’s Binding of Isaac.

Both are prompted by God for an ambiguous task, and both rise early in the morning and saddle their donkeys.

The two dramas both end happily, and the same three verbs describe Bilaam and Abraham ‘rising’ and ‘going’ and ‘returning’: missions accomplished.

Indeed, the story of Bilaam with its talking donkey might be a comic parody of the


, but the Sages skewer Bilaam as the anti-Abraham.

Saddling a he-donkey is a sign of Abraham’s conquering materiality (


), whereas

Bilaam’s she-donkey highlights his motivation for a pay-off(



Abraham’s name implies “a father of many nations” (

av hamon goyim

), whereas Bilaam’s name reveals that he would just as soon

prophesy “to swallow the nation.” (

B’la am


In Mishnah Pirke Avot 5:19 the two figures square off virtually face to face: the disciples of Abraham have his good eye, modesty, and humble spirit, whereas the disciples of Bilaam perpetuate his evil eye, arrogance, and overbearing spirit.

To my mind, comparing Abraham’s journey with Bilaam’s reveals interesting nuances; contrasting them as forces for Good and Evil sets a pattern of permanent enmity.

Vatican II substantially altered the pervasive Christian narrative of mythic enmity between Gentile and Jew.

We need to ask ourselves as Jews whether we might serve others and ourselves better by at least tweaking the Jewish narrative toward Gentiles.

Admittedly less vehement than the Passion Narrative with all its bloody consequences, the Jewish narrative could revisit Bilaam and others to re-frame our relationship to the non-Jew.

Generations of Reform Jews have rightly been accused of being overly naive in this regard, idealizing the Gentile to the point of adoration and imitation.

But more insular forms of Judaism and a long history of persecution across the board have calcified our own mythic prejudices towards the non-Jew. The Enlightenment brought Mendelssohn and Lessing face to face, and sadly that did not change the European paradigm in the Diaspora.

However, I’d like to think that part of the Zionist dream was that the existence of a Jewish state would change not only our image among the nations, but the image of the Other among ourselves.

In his

The God Who Hates Lies

(Jewish Lights, 2011) Rabbi David Hartmann bemoans the staleness of rabbinic attitudes towards non-Jews in our Law and literature.

Hardly budging since


’s statehood and resisting any of the influence of religious pluralism, Jewish traditionalism in halachic and aggadic categories often distorts the breadth of the Gentile world past and


In our Torah portion Bilaam’s prophecy describes the Israelites as “

a people that dwells apart, not reckoned among the nations

.” (Numbers 23:9)

That prophecy certainly rang true for two millenia, and some would consider his words as blessing and some as curse.

We will better wrest future blessings if we reconsider the character and diversity of the nations among whom we are now fully considered and for whom we can continue to be a Light both within and beyond the State of Israel.

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