By: Rabbi Uri Lam,
Congregação Israelita Mineira
, Minas Gerais, Brazil
When Balaam looked out and saw Israel encamped tribe by tribe, the Spirit of God came on him and he spoke his message: (…) “How beautiful are your tents, Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel! Like valleys they spread out, like gardens beside a river, like aloes planted by the Lord, like cedars beside the waters”. (Num. 24:2-7)
As always when I study Parashat Balak, I remember my years of rabbinic studies at HUC Jerusalem with Dr. Ruchama Weiss. It was during a Talmud class, but it could also have happened at “
”, Issues of Life, as part of our Talmudic Bibliotherapy studies. Ruchama asked us to write, in our mother tongue, what came to mind following the sentence: “The Torah is outside and we are inside”. Ok, it was a little bit weird to write in Portuguese in the middle of a Hebrew-speaking class of Talmud. At least I would present my writings in Hebrew, I thought. However, it was not what my teacher had in mind: instead of making a “direct translation” into Hebrew, Ruchama asked me to read it… in Portuguese. Yes! She asked me to read for my colleagues, almost all of them Israelis, in a language that they for sure would not understand. The experience was disturbing, because on the one hand I felt a kind of power in my hands: I was the owner of some information to which they would only have access if I wanted to: the Torah was inside me! But I also felt alone: an outsider with an incomprehensible Torah to share.
It was when I studied this strange passage from the Talmud: “Moses wrote his book [the Torah] and Parashat Bilam” (Bavli, Baba Batra 70b). After all, is Bilam’s story in or out of the Torah? Of course it’s in, or don’t we read in the Torah, this week, that Bilam was mobbed by Balak, King of Moav, to curse the People of Israel, but in the end he blessed us with “How beautiful are your tents, Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel!” and so on? How can it be that the
that we sing as we enter the synagogue is out of the Torah?
Well, let us see: it is said that Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Nathan were disgusted with Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel and planned to oust him as the president of the Beit Midrash, but the coup failed and, instead, Shimon ben Gamliel ordered to expel them. However, both used to contribute so much for the Torah’s understanding that Rabbi Yossei protested: “The Torah is outside and we are inside!” Finally, Shimon ben Gamliel decided that they could return to the Beit Midrash, but from now on the teachings of Rabbi Meir would be referred to as
(the others) and of Rabbi Natan as
(some say) (Bavli, Horaiot 13b). That was the condition under which their Torah would be kept within the Jewish wisdom.
But what about Bilam? How could the Torah teach us about someone like him, who was ready to curse us? He is regarded as a prophet compared to Moses, which led Balak to summon him as his ultimate chance to defeat Israel. So, what’s the difference between them?
Moses does what God commands. Sometimes he agrees, sometimes he discusses with God or stays in silence, but always behaves with integrity: after all, he does what he thinks it should be done. Bilam also does what God commands, but what he does is not exactly what he thinks should be done.
Moses loves his flock, and this love leads him to find God. Bilam mistreats his donkey, which just serves him, up to the point that the animal starts to protest: “What did I do for you to beat me three times?” It was not easy for Bilam to understand that the speaker-donkey saved his life. In other words, Torat Moshé – his relationship
bein Adam laMakom
bein Adam lechavero
bein Adam lekol yoshvei tevel
– is completely different from Torat Bilam.
Moreover, with all that said, we still read this week about Bilam – and within the Torah. Even though the Talmud says that Moses wrote his Torah and Bilam’s story separately, the fact is that Moses did not leave “Torat Bilam” outside of his Torah, our Torah. Some weeks ago, during the fifth Latin American Meeting of WUPJ in São Paulo, Brazil, we discussed Democracy as a Jewish value; how nice. In a democracy, a kind of Bilam who could be a nightmare for Israel could also be someone who offers us a blessing like
. It depends on how we deal with those who think and behave differently from us.
It is said that when Amimar, Mar Zutra and Rav Ashi were together, it was proposed that each one tell the other something they had never heard before. One of them said: “Who had a dream and do not know how to tell his dream, get up and say: “Lord of the Universe … just as you converted Bilam’s curse in a blessing, make my dreams come for good.” (Bavli, Brachot 55b).