by Rabbi John Levi, Melbourne. Australia
Someone with a very acute sense of humour obviously wrote this week’s Torah portion. First of all, don’t blame Moses (or Ezra) for the story of Balak and Balaam and the recalcitrant and talkative she-ass and the angel.
It might be helpful to mention that most biblical scholars believe the text for this Shabbat, which seems to date from the eighth century BCE , is actually a self contained story about an apparently famous seer. The poetic prophecies of Balaam have also been discovered by archaeologists who have excavated a ruined wall in a Moabite town of Dir ‘Alla on the western side of the Jordan Valley. Internal proof of the text’s antiquity is also shown by the columns of poetry preserved in the portion. Poetry is always easier to recall than prose. And, next best, who can forget a good story?
The Israeli political star of the current Knesset, Yair Lapid, tells just such a story about his father Tommy Lapid who was also a journalist and a member of the Knesset. Tommy was in Shanghai as guest of honor. Lapid asked the city’s deputy mayor, Hu Zhan Chang, who was seated opposite him in a red armchair adorned with tiny gold dragons, how the city dealt with its growing urban crime rate. From the look of distress on the translator’s face the Israel politician suddenly understood that this was not a proper question to ask in the communist paradise of the Peoples’ Republic. But it was translated nevertheless. There was a long pause. Chang looked out the window at the skyscrapers of the noisiest city on earth, and after deep thought, said “You have come during the rainy season but, to your good fortune, today the weather is clear” (
Memories After my Death, the Story of Tommy Lapid
, by Yair Lapid, published by Elliott & Thompson, London, 2011, p.133).
Some three thousand years before our own time, Balak, King of Moab, had a similar experience. It is said in this week’s parashah that he had hired the most famous soothsayer and prophet that he could find in order to curse the People of Israel who were so numerous they “hid the earth from view”. Balaam procrastinated and the tension builds. The pagan prophet said heroically “Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not do anything, big or little, contrary to command of the Lord my God”. And that should have been the end of the story. But it is merely the beginning of a journey which, oddly enough, takes on echoes of Abraham’s journey to Mt Moriah. This time on the top of another mountain God will force the prophet Balaam to tell the truth.
On Balaam’s journey to confront his destiny a she-ass turns out to be wiser than her rider and eventually is given the power to speak and to successfully argue with her master. Balaam finally reaches his destination and together with King Balak ascends to the high altars above the Israelite people camped below. More drama follows and the king says to the priest “
Don’t curse them and don’t bless them
” (Numbers 23:25) but it is too late. In poetic form, and to the king’s dismay, Balaam will be forced to proclaim “
Mah Tovu Ohaleicha Yaakov… How goodly are your tents O Jacob
…” (Numbers 23:25). We still use the blessing of the pagan Balaam when we begin Shabbat morning worship and that must be the ultimate irony. The Torah text goes on to say “blessed are they who bless you and accursed are they who curse you” (Numbers 24:9). We don’t sing that on Shabbat morning nor do we add the curses uttered against the enemies that surround Israel even though it sometimes may be tempting to do so. Progressive Jews are free to choose the best that our past gives us.
We remember poor, unfortunate Balak King of Moab with a smile. He should never have defied fate. He should not have sought or demanded an answer to a question that could not be asked. He surrounded himself with ritual, with altars and solemn sacrifices but it was Balaam who unflinchingly spoke the truth.