This week the Torah abruptly turns away from stories of Israelite society in terrifying disarray to what seems at first glance to be an absurd parable: a frightened king, a greedy hired mercenary, and a talking ass – and none of them are Jewish. Perhaps this week might offer some comic relief? Let the camera turn elsewhere, and the media pick up a different, feel-good story?
Not so much. When we look closer, and allow the parable to do its work of telling truth in disguise, layers of illumination unfold before us.
King Balak of Mo’ab sees a group of migrants encamped at the borders of the land in which the Moabites dwell. He worries that the Israelites and their herds of animals will consume the resources of his land. Determined to drive them off, he seeks out Bil’am, a locally famous seer. The plan is for Bil’am to curse the Israelite people; as the Midrash explains, “to kill them with words”.
Bil’am, offered riches for his work, accepts the mission and travels to the King. On his way, the donkey he is riding begins to act strangely, shrinking from forward movement, turning off the road to one side and then the other. Bil’am, seeing no reason for the donkey’s behavior, beats her, seeking to force her forward. Finally she lies down – and he beats her again.
This premise is strikingly familiar: the powerful leader, threatened by a group seen as foreign, hires a maker of words to vilify and so to destroy them. The mercenary who accepts the job harms not only the target group but everyone around, everyone associated with the word-making, everyone who reads and hears the words. And then there’s the donkey, the only one exhibiting any common sense:
Bil’am was riding upon his ass, and his two servants were with him. And the ass saw the Angel of the LORD standing in the way, with his sword drawn in his hand; and the ass turned into the field; and Bil’am struck the ass. Then the Angel stood in a hollow way between the vineyards, and the ass saw, and thrust herself unto the wall, and crushed Bil’am’s foot, and he struck her again. The Angel then stood in a narrow place, where was no way to turn. The ass saw the Angel, and she lay down under Bil’am; and Bil’am’s anger was kindled, and he struck the ass with his staff.
G*d opened the mouth of the ass, and she said unto Bil’am: ‘What have I done to you, that you beat me these three times?’
Bil’am said to the ass: ‘Because you have make me a mockery; if only it was a sword instead I would have killed you.’
The ass said to Bil’am: ‘Am not I your ass, upon which you have ridden all your life long until this day? have I ever done anything like this before?’ He said: ‘Well, no.’
Then G*d opened the eyes of Bil’am, and he saw the Angel of the LORD standing in the way, with his sword drawn in his hand; and he bowed his head, and fell on his face. (Numbers 22.23-31 excerpted)
The parable may be explained:
The King is no one person, but rather those who allow, encourage, support, or simply stand by. Without them the curse-makers would have neither audience nor power. This week, once again, the King is those who support violence against those they define as Other.
The mercenary is no one person, but rather those who carry out the mandate of the King: those who carry out the violence. This week, they are those who beat up peaceful protestors, those who vote for hate, those who shoot. Like Bil’am, they, and we who are carried along with them, cannot see the catastrophic destruction that lies directly ahead in the path we are taking.
And the donkey, this week, is Charles Kinsey, a behavioral therapist in North Miami, who in the course of taking care of a patient with autism who had run away from a group home was shot while lying on the ground. Bil’am is so busy being embarrassed because his servants are laughing at his inability to control his ride that he does not even notice that the animal is suddenly expressing human sensibilities – moreso than any human in the story.
In the end, King Balak does not succeed. Bil’am attempts to create a curse on the Israelites, but it is turned into a beautiful song of praise, the Mah Tovu. And the donkey with common sense is justified, in the end, by G*d. The Israelites in their peaceful encampment on the steppes of Moab don’t even seem to know what’s going on.
Neither do we, and there is no respite today from horror either. We, who have no clear sense of how to turn a curse into a blessing, can only look around and wonder how we might learn to more closely listen to the voice of our own G*d given common sense – even if it seems to be awakened from an unlikely place. Even – perhaps especially – if it seems to be coming from that at which we are angry, or that of which we are afraid. The Other, after all, is a part of the All of which you and I are also, after all, a part. We have to realize what we don’t know, and calm down enough to seek out and listen to the human sensibility we need.
This week’s parashat hashavua finds us in the Book of Numbers (BaMidbar, “in the wilderness”, is its Hebrew name) in chapter 23. We are offered a curious perspective in this parashah. There are a few places in the Torah in which a non-Israelites teaches the Israelites, but this is the only place in which an enemy of Israel offers a truth about Israel both to Israel and to its detractors.
The truth-teller is Balaam, a prophet-for-hire (not all prophets are Israelites). The enemy is Balak, King of Moab. He imports Balaam to his kingdom and brings him to the front lines of his territory to curse Israel for him. Keep in mind that an curse in that day was believed to be like a well-placed land mine today, protecting your land from all incursion.
But Balaam, having prepared himself to receive the word of G-d and to exclaim it from a high hill overlooking the Israelite camp, opens his mouth and not a curse but a blessing comes out.
How shall I curse, whom God has not cursed? And how shall I execrate, whom ה has not execrated? (Numbers 23.8)
Balaam tells the truth to the powerful politician who has hired him; the King of Moab is exasperated but respects, in the final analysis, that Balaam, as a prophet, “can only say what G-d puts in [my] mouth”. (Num. 23.12)
He had everything to gain by lying, but Balaam was professionally obligated to speak the truth as he saw it. Balak is going to have to figure out another way to protect his kingdom from the enemy he perceives on his borders.
We have no indication that Balak thought twice about it, that perhaps Balaam’s words might lead to the insight that Israel was not necessarily an enemy. One the blood is up and running, it is very hard for a human being to hear that our perception of an enemy is wrong. Yet it might very well be wrong.
Our tradition warns us to always hold the other in the כף זכות – khaf zekhut, meaning to give everyone the benefit of the doubt (Pirke Avot 1.6). This literally means that we are to assume that there is merit, or at least understandable motive, in all those others we encounter, in person or through the hearsay of gossip or media. It is very difficult to do that when we already know who our enemies are. But after all, so did Balak; he knew that we were his enemy. Even after Balaam told him three times in this parashah that Israel was a blessing to him, he kept looking for the curses.
On this Shabbat, don’t assume you know the enemies that threaten your life. Rather, look for the hidden blessings that might lurk even in the place where you expect only curses. As it is noted in the teachings of the Sages, it is only within darkness, after all, that we are able to see light. And in that light, held up by or upon someone you thought was an enemy, you might see something that will bless your life.
This week’s parashah is once again curiously, albeit appropriately, named, this time for a king who is hostile to the Jewish people and suspicious of them; or so it seems. King Balak of Moab is concerned about the Israelites approaching his kingdom and camping nearby. His response is to act to defend his borders, not by raising an army or passing a budget to buy the latest war weapons, but by hiring a prophet (a vocation not exclusively Israelite, apparently) to curse the Israelites. A potent weapon if he can pull it off….
The prophet, Balaam, receives the King’s messengers and agrees to go with them to the King, warning that his ability to help would not depend upon reward: “even if Balak gives me a house full of silver and gold, I cannot do anything small or great that would transgress the word of the Lord, my God.” (Numbers 22.18)
Sure enough, Balaam arrives at the Israelite campsite, after some adventures that include a wonderful, funny cameo with a talking ass, and is unable to do King Balak’s bidding, which is to curse the Israelites. Instead, the words that come out of his mouth have become a sort of blessing, traditionally uttered when a Jew enters a shul:
Mah tovu ohalekha Yaakov, mishk’notekha Yisrael – “how good are your tents, Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel” (Numbers 24.5).
What did Balaam see, that he praised Israel’s tents? Rashi suggests that “he saw that they pitch their tents so the doorways should not be opposite each other (respecting each other’s privacy).” In other words, they pitched their tents with consideration for their neighbors. Each had concern for something other than just her own tent, his own view, or their own situation.
How is your tent pitched? What are you saying about your neighbors by the way you have chosen to create or maintain your dwelling-place? Do you live within a homeowners’ association, or simply live surrounded by those with whom you do, inevitably, share physical space? How do you recognize it, or turn away from it? Is your tent one that would draw Balaam’s praise?
In his book Bowling Alone the sociologist Robert Putnam suggests that one of our biggest social challenges is in the way we relate to our neighbors. We are more likely to sue than to settle an issue over the back fence. Our lack of engagement with our neighbors results inevitably in more loneliness, more alienation, and less human kindness.
May your tent be blessed by not being pitched alone.