Parshat Balak was the Torah portion read on my first Shabbat as rabbi of the congregation I would go on to serve for 35 years. I observed then that there must be something instructive — and maybe cautionary — to be gleaned from the coincidence of assuming this new pulpit on the Shabbat when we read a Torah portion that prominently features a talking ass. My new congregation laughed – with me rather than at me, thankfully. But the truth is, that among the insights found in this complicated Torah portion, is this: what we say reveals a great deal about who we are.
Consider Balaam. He communes with God. The ability to grant blessing or to rain down curses is attributed to him. So powerful that he is recruited by Balak, king of Moab, to confront our Israelite ancestors and overcome them. One man to accomplish with his words what armies failed to do with their swords. However, the scrutiny given Balaam’s own words by our sages reveals great pettiness rather than great power.
In the Midrash, Balaam’s response to God’s question, “Who are these men with you?” (Num. 22:9), contain words that already reveal his smallness and his evil intent. His answer:
“Balak, son Tzippor, has sent them to me. Although I may not be much in Your eyes, I am important in the eyes of kings, the message that Balak has sent me being “A nation that covers …. (Num. 22:5). It should be observed that what Balaam said to God in the name of Balak differed from the message that Balak had actually sent him …. Balak said “curse” (ah-rah) denoting a light curse, while Balaam says, “curse” (ka-vah) denoting a devastating curse. That is, while Balak wanted the Israelites to be weakened sufficiently for them not to be able to wage war against him, Balaam wanted to wipe them off the face of the earth. (Yalkut; Rashi cited in Me’Am Lo’ez, Balak 1)
Trappings of wealth and power matter greatly to Balaam. The reason, according to Me’am Lo’ez (Balak 1) is that Balaam really didn’t have the power to curse or to bless.
A further indication of this answer is provided by the fact that Balaam, being poor, had accepted the invitation to curse the Israelites in anticipation of being rewarded by Balak. Were he capable of achieving anything with his blessing, he would have invoked a blessing upon himself to be a king, instead of having to depend on the handouts of others.
And when Balaam tells Balak’s delegation to depart without him, saying “Go home! God refuses to let me go with you.” (Num. 22:13,14), he exposes his vanity and arrogance.
…instead of informing the envoys that God had refused him permission to come with them, he told them God was solicitous for his (Balaam’s) honor, and would only let Balaam go if accompanied by men of great stature, not with commoners like themselves. (Yalkut Shemoni)
When a more prestigious delegation arrives, Balaam hardly changes his tune, though he is well aware of his own powerlessness. “Even if Balak gave me his entire palace full of gold and silver, I would not be able to do anything great or small that would violate word of God, My Lord’”. (Num. 22:18) According to the Midrash:
This tells us that he was avaricious and covetous of other peoples’ wealth. He said: He ought to give me all his silver and gold, for, behold, he would otherwise have to hire many armies to fight against them. Even then it is doubtful whether he would conquer or not conquer, but “I” would certainly conquer (Midrash Tanchuma, Balak 6).
In the exchange featuring the ass which is given the gift of speech, Balaam is further exposed. After being beaten three times for wandering off the road to avoid a sword-wielding angle and so save Balaam’s life, the ass cries out, “What have I done to you that you beat me these three times!?” (Num. 22:28). Balaam gives himself away in his reply. “’You have made a mockery of me!’ shouted Balaam at the donkey. ‘If I had a sword in my hand just now, I would have killed you!’” (Num. 22:29) According Rashi, citing the Midrash:
This utterance was a great shame for him in the sight of the princes: this man was going for the purpose of slaying a whole nation by his mouth, and for this animal he requires a weapon!? (Midrash Tanchuma, Balak 9)
In fact, the very presence of the ass speaks to Balaam’s dishonesty. Commenting on Num. 22:30, “Am I not your (old) donkey? …”
And our Rabbis have explained this verse in the Talmud: They said to him, “What is the reason you are not riding on a horse?” He (Balaam) replied to them: “I have left it in the meadow grass” (i.e. I have put it out to graze). Upon hearing this, the ass exclaimed: Am I not your ass upon whom you have ridden from your youth until this day? (So you see, you have never possessed a horse). (Rashi, Avodah Zarah 4b)
From Balaam’s own mouth came the words that revealed his dishonesty, deceitfulness and distain for both man and God. Yet, when inspired by the divine, even from that same mouth came words of blessing so beautiful we sing them every morning (Num. 24:5-9, Mah Tovu). So it is with us, as well. Sometimes, our words can reveal selfish motivations and callous attitudes, no matter how we attempt to dissemble. However, when our speech is inspired by high deals and holy purpose, we, too, can bring into the world – for us and all others – blessings worthy of song and praise.
About the author:
Rabbi Jack Luxemburg is Vice-Chairperson of ARZENU, and Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Beth Ami, Rockville, MD.