July 3: 8:13 p.m.
Who is the storyteller? Is he reliable? All writers face these questions.
This week’s parsha begins with the Moabite king Balak sending messengers to the sorcerer Balaam with a proposal. The king resorts to flattery: “Whoever you bless is blessed; whoever you curse is cursed.” Balak believes in the power of the word and in the holy hit man’s capacity to manipulate it; his curse could annihilate the Jewish people, the latest threat to his kingdom.
The narrative focuses not on the king but on his spiritual adviser and is seemingly told from his perspective. The plot holds us in suspense as Balaam does not immediately accede to his patron’s request. Piously, he bids the messengers stay overnight while he sounds out the divine will. The God that Balaam believes in bears a remarkable resemblance to the Almighty. Like the king, and many rabbinical commentators, readers may first be impressed by Balaam’s claim of access to the Deity.
However, Balaam receives a flat rejection; tersely, God explains that Israel is not to be cursed, but is intrinsically blessed.
Living up to his role as God’s honest broker, Balaam can only tell the messengers to go home. However, he relays God’s reply not as a blunt refusal but as a pretext for denying the king his request. In reality, his desires and the king’s converge. Balaam postpones consent, using God as a cover to raise the stakes and his self-importance. A more prestigious deputation arrives, offering higher honors; they too are turned down. How can God’s prophet go against the divine word? Nevertheless, the messengers are asked to stay overnight.
What does Balaam hope to gain? Does he think he can change God’s mind? This time, God lets Balaam accompany the messengers to the king, on condition that he not utter anything except what God puts in his mouth.
The rabbis conclude that Balaam had prophetic powers and presented a substantial threat. The man wields a weapon matching that of the Jewish people. If each nation of the world is represented by a physical organ, then Israel is epitomized by the mouth: the love of language, discussion — the Torah. The weapon that Balaam proposes against them also delivers the power of words.
The Torah tells us, “Never has there arisen in Israel any prophet with such a close relationship to God as Moses.” The Sifrei comments, “Not among the Jewish people, but among the nations there has: Balaam.”
Balaam’s bluster and self-regard is comically undercut, however, by the admonishments of an ass. What God’s prophet is blind to, she sees and articulates. Balaam will go on to defy Balak once again, blessing rather than cursing Israel.
Is Balaam’s talking donkey the moral center of the tale? For one moment, yes. But previous resonances of Balaam’s moral condition are apparent.
Pirkei Avot says, “Anyone whose goodness outweighs their wisdom, their wisdom will endure; anyone whose intellectual pretensions outweigh their goodness, their pretensions will not endure.” The latter fits Balaam perfectly.
The Talmud credits Moses as the author of the Balaam episode, suggesting he was able to empathize with inimical viewpoints.
Years before, after the Israelites worshipped the Golden Calf and were saved from destruction only through Moses’ intervention, God invited him to ask for something for himself. Moses asks: “Show me Your ways!” The Talmud (Berachot 7a) interprets this request as “Why do the righteous suffer?” In writing of Balaam, the Hitler and Goebbels of his generation, was Moses distressed that God might have been taken in by a virtuoso with no moral foundation?
In his farewell speech, Moses says: “But the Lord your God refused to heed Balaam: Instead the Lord our God turned the curse into a blessing for you, for the Lord your God loves you.” As a midrash puts it, the rebuke of a well-wisher is preferable to a blessing from one who “blesses” despite himself. The Balaam story reminds us that the curses in the Torah derive from an authentic source in “the Lord your God who loves you,” who can turn all curses around.
Freema Gottlieb is a writer and lecturer. Her book, “The Lamp of God: A Jewish Book of Light,” is available on Amazon.com. Her talks on the weekly Torah reading may be found on YouTube.