Shabbat Balak: Fear and Loathing, and a Talking Ass

This week, parashat Balak allows us to appreciate the importance of parables to communicate difficult truths concisely and memorably. As our story opens, one King Balak of Moab hears his people talking about the immigrants – the Israelites – nearing their border:

 

“This horde will consume everything around us like cows eat all the grass of a field.” (Num. 22.4)

 

Balak’s full name is Balak ben Zippor, “son of a bird,” and true to his name, he is carried along by the gathering storm of public opinion. He turns to Balaam, a prophet famous far and wide, and puts into place a plan to attempt to destroy the immigrant population that so threatens his people.

 

“Put a curse on this people for me so that I can defeat them and drive them away. I know that you are effective: your blessings bless, and your curses curse.” (Num. 22.6)

 

And so the destructive wheels are set in motion. As a prophet, Balaam knows that his power to bless or curse is really just an ability to see what already exists. Yet his greed is aroused by the reward the King promises, and so he saddles his ass and heads for the Israelite camp.

 

Neither he nor the King can see the truth of the situation: that the death they plan for others will also threaten them. As many human beings, they believed that they could make themselves safe by destroying others, unaware of the deeper network of connection that ensure, in ethics no less than in physics, that an individual’s acts echo and reflect in widening ripples that, in the end, include us all.

 

In this parable, only the ass sees it, in the form of an angel holding a threatening fiery sword in their path. Predictably, she turns aside from the certain death before them; Balaam, who does not see it, beats her repeatedly until finally “Hashem opened the ass’ mouth” (Num. 22.28) and she is able to enlighten the human being.

 

The Torah does not record what Balaam learned in that moment; it is only when he stands and looks at the Israelites that we see the change in him. The words he utters are of praise, so beautiful that unto this day we recite them as the opening song of our prayers:

 

מה טובו אוהליך יעקב משכנותיך ישראל

Mah tovu ohalekha Ya’akov mishkenotekha Yisrael

How beautiful are the tents of Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel! (Num. 24.5)

 

Were the people of Israel really that beautiful on that day? We’ve seen our ancestors act as badly as any other people – no better and no worse. Perhaps what Balaam learned was that there is so much we cannot see, and that invoking the possible beauty of the immigrants at the border was as easy as fixating on the fear of other possibilities. Perhaps, in that moment when he blessed them, the people of Moab were able for the first time to see past their anxiety to consider these strangers, perhaps, as peaceful; perhaps, even, as friends.

 

It is not enough to denounce weak leaders who follow the winds of nativist bigotry for their own political gain. Although some will denounce those of us who see immigrants as our friends and act to demonstrate it, we make a powerful statement when we show up. We have done so, more times than we should have to, and we will do so again. As Jews, we know the heart of the immigrant, since we ourselves have been immigrants, we ourselves have been strangers, we ourselves have been vulnerable.

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Shabbat Balak: Not Just a Funny Story

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.