D’var Torah Parshat Balak
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D’var Torah Parshat Balak

Out of the mouths of asses — thinking about blessings and curses

Rabbi emeritus, Temple Avodat Shalom, River Edge, Reform

Our Torah portion this week is named for Balak, King of the Moabites. However, the main protagonist is a man named Balaam, an evidently well-known prophet of his time, whom Balak has hired to curse the Israelites and thereby stop them on their journey to the land of Israel.

On his way to the Israelite encampment, Balaam’s ass, which had been loyal until then, keeps turning from the road at the sight of an angel of God, invisible to her master. The prophet, who did not see this angel, responded by beating the ass with a stick. Finally, the animal speaks to her master.

It is from her mouth, not the prophet’s, that the word of God is heard. Balaam hears from the ass that even though his commission from the King of Moab is to curse Israel, his mission from God will be to bless them. The most famous of the intended curses that were turned into a blessing are the words, in Numbers 24:5, “Ma tovu ohalecha Yaakov, mishkenotecha Yisrael.” That’s usually translated into English as: “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob; your dwelling places O Israel.” There are no punctuation marks in the Torah. The trope, the musical cantillation notes, as well as the vowels that vocalize the text, which together direct the Torah reader in the interpretation of Torah, are medieval additions to the biblical text.

To me, the saliency of this directional system devised by our ancestors, applied to the Ma Tovu, the best known verse in the parsha this week, leads me to raise the question to how we should punctuate the words. Is this verse, as tradition understands it, a song of blessing coming from the mouth of a reluctant prophet, whom God forces to bless Israel, instead of fulfilling his contractual obligation to the Moabite King Balak?

Or, since the song ends in verse 8 with the words “m’varchecha varuch vorarecha aroor” — “Blessed are those who bless you and accursed are they who curse you” — can we read the verse as if it ends with a question mark instead of an exclamation point?

As I look at the events unfolding in contemporary society, I want to suggest this year that a question mark is, sadly, a way that many read what we Jews have traditionally understood to be a blessing. Rather than hearing the words as a blessing of praise, could we perhaps hear this song as a challenging and recurring question: How good are your tents Jacob? Are they as open to the stranger and the nomad as were the tents of your father Abraham? How hospitable is your mishkan, People Israel? Is there room for everyone, even those with differing approaches to worship, in your mishkan? (Mishkan is a term that Torah uses as the place where people enter into relationship with both God and each other.) Could not the same questions be directed toward America? Moreover, there are many potentates, and their unquestioning loyal followers, who hear in this prayer of praise an arrogance that justifies their actions to discriminate against others. It is certainly one way that antisemites have justified their persecution of Jews for millennia and is now reflected in the actions of Americans on both the political far right and far left.

King Balak’s assumption was that Balaam was a prophet for hire. Balaam’s position is less clear. He seems to believe that he was endowed with some kind of a direct line to the Divine and could profit from uttering a prophecy on demand. Yet as the story unfolds, Balaam disclaims all responsibility for what he said and what he did not say. When words of blessing come forth from his mouth, he tells his patron that he is not responsible. Is this not the approach that many who support tyrants when they are in power take when confronted with the disastrous consequences of their silence in the face of actions they knew were wrong?

To me, there is so much that is both relevant and salient in this biblical tale to the political upheaval we are experiencing here in America and throughout democratic societies around the world. Parshat Balak is not merely a cute story about a talking donkey. It is a parable that teaches us that the determination of the value of every single human life should lie in God’s hand, not in human hands. It is also, to me, this year, a warning that we must all be wary of those people who claim that they know what God desires and therefore have the right to impose their revealed wisdom upon society.

Over the last few weeks, we Americans have witnessed the January 6th committee present evidence of how a small group of people, believing they knew what was best for America, claim to have the right to reverse the results of the 2020 presidential election. We have also witnessed the handing down of three Supreme Court decisions that have the power to dramatically limit Americans’ personal freedoms. Does not Americans’ expanded right to carry concealed weapons make our communities more dangerous, or at the very least increase our anxiety levels regarding our personal safety and the safety of our children?

Do not the reversal of Roe v Wade and the ruling allowing a coach to lead prayers at a high school football game infringe upon the free exercise of religion and the right to protect our children from religious coercion in our public schools?

I am very fearful that these three most recent Supreme Court rulings will infringe upon the rights of minority communities, including our Jewish community, to freely exercise the values and ideals of our faith. It makes me ask the question: Is the mishkan, the dwelling place we call America, a better or worse place to live today?

In the Talmud, Sanhedrin 39, there is a tale about an astrologer who at first glance seems to be a Balaam-like character. We learn that two disciples of Rabbi Hanina, who had been taught not to believe in sorcery, went into the forest to cut firewood. They met an astrologer who read their horoscopes and predicted that they would not return alive. This did not faze them and they continued on their way. They met an old man who asked them for some food. They had only a single loaf of bread but they divided it with him.

When they returned from their chore, the people who overheard the astrologer’s prediction asked the astrologer: “Is the power of astrology false?”

He asked the two students to unwrap their bundles of wood. In each bundle was found half of a deadly snake.

“What did you do to merit an escape from sure death?” he asked them. “We know of nothing, except we gave half a loaf of bread to an old man,” they replied.

“What can I do if the God of Israel is placated with a half a loaf of bread?,” the astrologer replied.

Rabbi Hanina’s students shared their bread with the unnamed old man because they knew that God required it of them. Being God’s voice and hands in the world is both our right and our responsibility. They knew that the Torah teaches that all human beings are equally created in the image of God. They instinctively chose to do the right thing.

Balaam, on the other hand, accepted the commission from Balak to curse Israel because he believed that he, the prophet, could curry favor with his patron. If his curse of Israel failed, he could deny accountability for his actions.

Just as all of us must continue to wrestle with the physical dangers to our lives posed by the plague of covid-19 and the epidemic of gun violence, so too must we continue to fight the societal plagues of racial and religious discrimination that continues to infect our nation’s body politic. Moreover, we must recognize that if we wish the words of Ma Tovu to be heard as an affirmative prayer of thanksgiving rather than a question that our enemies can use as an excuse to limit our freedoms, we must pledge stand up firmly against all who pledge allegiance to potentates rather than the teachings of our Torah and our American constitution.

The story of Balaam and the ass, and the powerful words of prophetic praise — ma tovu ohalecha Yaakov, mishkenotecha Yisrael — remind me again this year that the greatest challenge we face, both individually and communally, is to find a way, as the ass does, to see God’s presence on our path through life, and work to turn the curses and misfortunes of life into opportunities to be a source of blessing to others.

The story also warns me of the danger to us all, when anyone, be it you or me, a person with whom we agree, or one with whom we disagree, takes upon themselves the right to be the sole interpreter of God’s will.

Some 1900 years ago, the rabbis chose as the haftorah reading for Parshat Balak a powerful and challenging selection from the Book of Micah. In so doing they gave future generations, including ours, a new lens through which to view the story of Balaam and Balak. Unlike Balaam, Micah does not sell out his oratory to the highest bidder but instead teaches us, in verse 6:8, that what God requires of us, of each of us and all of us, is to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.

The students of Rabbi Hanina were saved from certain death because they instinctively understood their responsibility to affirm through action in their daily lives the teaching of Micah.

I believe that if we too would commit ourselves to live by this simple, direct, but profound mitzvah we could create a world where the blessing of Ma Tovu could be sung and heard only as a descriptive affirmation of our blessings, and never as a wishful question.

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