|Rembrandt: Balaam and the Ass|
“In all things, reason should prevail,” wrote William Penn. Yet in quite a few things, we have lost reason altogether.
In this week’s portion, Balak, the pagan king of the Moabites, is desperately trying to protect his commonwealth. Israel has just routed Moab’s neighbors—the Bashonites and Amorites—and Balak knows that his nation may very well be next. So he engages the services of a non-Israelite prophet, Balaam, whose task is to get the God of Israel to curse the Jewish people.
In terms of military history, praying to one’s personal deity for victory is hardly remarkable. That’s what prayer is for. No more surprising is hiring a cleric to pray on one’s behalf, that’s what clerics are for. What is surprising is that Balaam is not asked to appeal to Moab’s gods for assistance but to enlist the enemy’s God—the Redeemer of Israel—instead.
By way of an imperfect analogy, imagine if in the Middle Ages a Catholic general were to ask the Pope to invoke Muhammad as a way to curry advantage against an invading Moslem army. The idea abounds with absurdity. Even if Muhammad had any say in the matter, why should he forsake devotees of the Koran for a people who entirely reject the Word of Allah?
Yet, this is Balak and Balaam’s very strategy. ‘Make the God of Israel abandon his flock of monotheists and embrace the pagans of Moab.’ As to be expected, the plan fails miserably; Balaam is compelled by God to bless Israel instead of cursing them. Which begs the question, why was the plan even attempted?
Rashi brings down an insightful teaching on the verse: “And Balaam awoke in the morning and saddled his donkey.” (Num. 22.21) He writes, “From here we learn that hatred destroys common sense.” Balaam had numerous servants that could have done all his packing, yet in his zeal to curse Israel, he saddled the donkey himself. The stubborn mule of passion stamped out the cool stoicism of reason. Balaam’s heart brimmed with so much hatred there was little room left for good sense.
This aspect of Balaam’s personality is alluded to in the conclusion of the story, after Balaam has unwillingly blessed Israel for a fourth and final time: “Balaam arose and went and returned to his place; and also Balak returned to his way” (24:25). Perhaps the larger sense of the verse is that the repeated interventions of God left no lasting impression in the hearts of both men. Each returns to his old habits and prejudices. The truly stubborn never learn.
Bertrand Russell once quipped: ‘Many people would rather die than think; in fact, most do.” The book of Joshua records that Israel eventually ‘put Balaam to the sword.’ (13.22) Balaam simply could not stay home indefinitely, he had to try again, and his compulsion to harm Israel eventually lead to his own demise.
It is testament to Jewish tradition that in every generation, students and scholars expound and derive new meaning from our beloved texts, and yet somehow, there always remains some new idea to add to the halls of Jewish learning. I fear, however, that what this week’s thought does not add but detract.
For in recent years, when I imagine the face of Balaam, it tends to resemble a certain type of villain that has become the fodder of daily news. Two weeks ago, Balaam resembled a young white man who walked into a Black church study group and with a single pistol turned nine parishioners into martyrs at an African-Methodist Church in Charleston, S.C.. Last Friday, Balaam’s face bore a liking to that of the ISIS terrorists who blew up a Shi’ite Mosque in Kuwait. Intermittently, it is the face of the Ayatollahs in Iran or the Imams of Hamas. As for the latter, no amount of bloodshed and war has diminished their faith in Israel’s inevitable destruction. Such is their stubborn hatred.
Readers are often struck by the absurdity of Balaam’s talking donkey. Like the talking serpent in Eden, the narrative beckons for an allegorical interpretation instead of a historical or scientific explanation. What ought to be noted, however, is that well before this she-ass (supposedly) spoke, the Torah records three times that she “saw the messenger of the Lord” blocking her path. –All while Balaam saw naught. Seeing must always precede speaking. Balaam “the prophet,” may have spoken God’s words, but he did so without seeing any godliness on his own.
One lesson perhaps: We, who pursue tolerance, may reach out to those who cling to racism, anti-Semitism, religious intolerance. We long to start a dialogue. But if the Balaams of the world, do not first see, of what is there to speak?