Balak - weekly Torah portion

I am confident that in our crowd everyone knows the story of Balaam who is summoned to Balak the son of Zippor, the king of Moab. Balak was very concerned from what has already happened to his neighbors and had to find a solution to this problem. So, what is better than calling for a master sorcerer, a diviner, and ask him, “please come, curse this people for me since they are too mighty for me; perhaps I may be able to defeat them and drive them out of the land. For I know that he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed”? Demanding a little and flattering a lot have always worked. Initially, by God’s instructions, Balaam refuses to join the messengers who called upon him. He receives an explanation for that, “Do not go with them; you shall not curse the people, for they are blessed.” Balaam dismisses the messengers but Balak is stubborn, and God has a change of plans, “If the men have come to call you, rise up and go with them; but only the word which I speak to you shall you do.”

Next morning Balaam is on his way riding his donkey, but at a certain point on the road it sees something that Balaam fails to see. She moves sideways and in response Balaam struck it. This repeats itself three times. Only then the donkey opens its mouth and she speaks to him, “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?” Balaam responds angrily, “‘Because you have made a mockery of me! If there had been a sword in my hand, I would have killed you by now.’ The donkey said to Balaam, ‘Am I not your donkey on which you have ridden all your life to this day? Have I ever been accustomed to do so to you?’ And he said, ‘No.’” It is only then that God opens Balaam eyes to see what is really happening and he sees “the angel of the Lord standing in the way with his drawn sword in his hand; and he bowed all the way to the ground.”

The angel repeats the questions, “Why have you struck your donkey these three times?” Balaam has an answer, “I have sinned, for I did not know that you were standing in the way against me. Now then, if it is displeasing to you, I will turn back.” In response Balaam in instructed once again, “Go with the men, but you shall speak only the word which I tell you.” And so he goes to meet Balak and when they do he makes a statement, “Behold, I have come now to you! Am I able to speak anything at all? The word that God puts in my mouth, that I shall speak.” There are two interesting conversations here, one is mysterious, the other humanly, but there is a connection that may teach us a thing or two. Both the donkey and Balaam speak. This is possible for the donkey, even though it is an animal that is not capable of speaking, and only this once she must convey a message to the men with blinds who thought he was leading her. Balaam, on the other side, he can speak, he is a human being with that special capability. However, even though he can speak as much as he likes, he will not be able to carry any message other than what God will instruct and permit him to say. He may be able to speak but he is only a dumb carrier of words.

This conflict between Balaam and his donkey, a man who can see but is blind to the occasion is interesting. Balak takes Balaam three times to three locations, the build altars and sacrifices bulls and rams. Only in the third time Balaam gets it. His eyes open “and the Spirit of God came upon him” as he says, “The oracle of Balaam the son of Beor, And the oracle of the man whose eye is opened; The oracle of him who hears the words of God, Who sees the vision of the Almighty, Falling down, yet having his eyes uncovered”. He suddenly realizes the greatness of this occasion and part takes in it with the internal words, “How fair are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel!” Not exactly the curse that Balak was expecting, and once complaining the wizard adds a few frightening prophecies. “Then Balaam arose and departed and returned to his place, and Balak also went his way.”

“The Emperor’s New Clothes” is a story by Hans Christian Andersen, certainly a different story but maybe having a common lesson. In his story the Emperor was quite a vain person who spent his time getting for himself beautiful clothes having elaborate colors and patterns. He was seeking weavers to weave for him the most wonderful clothes ever seen. Now that was a tough thing to do but some came up and suggested that they can weave a cloth that only wise people will be able to see, those who are stupid will not be able to see it. They worked and worked and eventually lay the invisible, and non-existing may I add, garment on the emperor’s nude body. Of course nobody in his court would say a word about it, who in his or her right mind would want to be pointed out as being hopelessly stupid. The bunch of flatterers of the court would certainly not assist the emperor with that, and therefore he decides to march in a procession and showoff the beautiful new clothes. It was just this innocent boy in the crowd who shouts aloud, “The emperor is naked!”

In Andersen’s story the donkey, the young boy in this story, speaks his mind innocently and speaks the truth. The donkey makes it clear to Balaam who actually controls matters, and that he may not think that he controls everything in his world, regardless of all the flattery he may be hearing from his aids and advisers. Both Balk the King of Moab and the Emperor of our story share the shame. In order for us to be able to say, “How fair are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel!” we must open our eyes and face the truth.

Shabbat Shalom.

Reuven Marko, 12 July 2019, 10 Tamuz, 5779

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