Parshat Balak, Numbers 22:2-25:9
“How lovely are your tents, O Jacob; your encampments, O Israel!” These beloved words in praise of Jewish community, which have become part of our everyday liturgy, come from the parasha for this week. The story in which they are spoken resonates down the centuries to us, not only because the tale itself is compelling, but also because it illuminates miracles accessible to all of us, if we are open to them.
The narrative involves three main characters: Balak, the king of Moab; Balaam or Bilaam, a Moabite prophet; and a donkey. King Balak has sent Balaam on a mission to bring about the downfall of the Israelites, as they trek through the wilderness on their way to Canaan. Balaam begins by resisting the king’s heinous plan. After praying to God — and receiving God’s blessing, perhaps in a dream — Balaam accedes to the king’s demand. But then, as he starts out the next morning riding his donkey, Balaam — inexplicably — finds himself the object of Divine rage rather than protection for agreeing to go on the mission! The God who had pledged to help him now places obstacles in his way: a donkey that stops short in the middle of the road and refuses to move; an invisible angel blocking the path, who is described as “as an adversary”; and at last, a spoken rebuke by the donkey after Balaam has, in frustration, struck the animal to make it go forward.
Only when the donkey speaks — another inexplicable event! — is Balaam able to “open his eyes” and “see” the angel who is standing in their way. But he first had to open his ears as well, to acknowledge the donkey’s valid complaint at being hit!
Balaam then continues on his travels to the “high place” overlooking the Israelite camp. King Balak meets him there, commanding him to build altars and make sacrifices in preparation for the cursing ritual he has ordered Balaam to perform. Balaam makes these preparations as he’s been ordered to do, but then goes off alone to pray, saying to King Balak: “Perhaps YHVH will grant me a manifestation; whatever is revealed to me I will tell you.” From then on in the story, Balaam’s words are actually God’s voice: Although King Balak had ordered Balaam to curse the Israelites, Balaam can speak only blessings — the third inexplicable happening!
Much has been written about this story and about the character of Balaam, from the earliest rabbinic times up to the present day. Was Balaam an evil magician bent on destruction of Israel or was he a true non-Jewish prophet of the One God? Is this one story or a composite of several stories woven together? There are many ideas.
I see a different kind of purpose in this tale, one that arises from the very elements in it that defy rational explanation. These are presented as objectively impossible occurrences: the donkey that talks; the adversarial angel in the road; the man who can only bless although he’s been sent to curse. Pirkei Avot 5:6 even names the donkey’s mouth as one of the 10 miraculous things created at twilight before the first Shabbat. But, as is so often the case with biblical stories, the inexplicable happenings can awaken us to deeper wisdom — one might say, to everyday miracles.
The first is the miracle of opening our ears to hear and absorb a truth that contradicts our preconceived assumptions. In our story, the donkey teaches Balaam, and therefore us, the Divine power of open-hearted listening.
The second is the miracle of opening our eyes to see what is really there, instead of persisting in an inaccurate, one-sided assessment of reality. The adversarial angel teaches Balaam, and therefore us, the Divine power of open-eyed vision.
The third is the miracle of recognizing the enormous influence of words, and the necessity of choosing words that heal rather than hurt. God’s own voice teaches Balaam, and therefore us, the Divine power of healing speech.
Particularly in this year’s high summer season of hot days and heated exchanges, let us take to heart the story of Balak and Balaam as guidance for tempering our own words and actions with clear-eyed compassion in our dealings with each other.
Rabbi Doris Dyen is the spiritual leader of kehillat Makom HaLev in Pittsburgh. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic association.