You can find the rest of the parsha text on Chabad.org at Balak.
From Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan
(DON)KEY TO REDEMPTION
King Balak of Moab hires the seer Balaam to curse the Israelites. Balaam is a dedicated follower of Hashem. So, when God comes to him in a dream and says, “Accept the job,” Balaam accepts it. But he tells his employers that he can only say what God tells him to say. Still, it seems, Balaam doesn’t yet see the whole picture. But the next morning he saddles up his donkey and rides on out to work.
Along the way Balaam’s donkey sees an angel holding a sword. So, she stops suddenly. By accident, she traps Bilam’s leg against a wall. He becomes angry. He hits her with a stick and curses her. So she says, “What have I done to provoke this? You’ve been riding me for years. Is it my habit to do this?” Balaam says, “No.” Then, his eyes open and he sees the angel. We can guess that he dismounts, because, he bows low to the ground (Numbers 22).
The story continues, but let’s pause here. Because you learn more from Torah when you stop to ask questions. Why does the narrator give Balaam’s donkey a starring role? What are we supposed to learn from the donkey? That Balaam’s spiritual vision is so poor, it’s worse than a donkey’s? No, obviously not. Because even the simplest reader knows that a donkey is a smart working animal.
So, what role does our “best supporting actor” donkey play in this story?
DONKEY: SPIRITUAL GUIDE
Let’s begin with a classical midrashic perspective. Here, every Torah story is also part of a larger story: the promise of our future redemption. But to see the full story, you have to find patterns. Like the patterns across donkey stories. Typically, they star a human character who isn’t sure where they are going. Or what they are going to do when they get there. So, they saddle up their donkey and ride.
Abraham does it when he sets out to offer Isaac on the altar. He only knows he’s going to a place that God will show him. But he saddles up and goes where his donkey takes him (Genesis 22).
Abigail does it when the outlaw David threatens her husband’s life. She does not know what she will say to appease David. But she saddles up her donkey and rides. When she finally meets David, her words to him are a diplomatic masterpiece (I Samuel 25).
When the Shunamite woman’s son falls ill, she rushes out to find the healer Elisha. She has no idea where he is. But she saddles up her donkey and rides. Eventually she finds Elisha, and he saves her son’s life (II Kings 4).
Obviously, the donkey is a spiritual guide. A psychological GPS, if you will. If you are not convinced, look at the stories where people lose their donkeys. When the judge Samson is consumed with anger, he attacks people with a bone from a dead donkey. In other words, he loses what little good sense he had (Judges 15). We first meet Saul, the failed king, when he is looking for his father’s lost donkeys. Spoiler alert: he never finds them (1 Samuel 9).
RIDING THE DONKEY: A MEDITATION
Fortunately, instructions for accessing our own inner donkey GPS are hidden in the Torah. To find them, we look at the Torah through classical hasidic eyes. Thus, we read Torah as a meditation manual. So, we look carefully at what the successful donkey riders do. They follow a three step process. Saddle the donkey; ride the donkey; and dismount. So, to access God’s guidance, you first do a ritual of preparation. Go to your chosen spot, sing your special niggun, read your prayerful words. Next, you ask God a question and you listen for the answer. Listening is a journey; it might take some time. Finally, you are ready to make a practical decision. That’s the three-step process: saddle, ride, dismount.
But, for these lessons, we don’t need to hear a donkey speak. So, let’s look for another teaching. Because every detail in Torah is significant. Especially in Torah’s world of magical realism. In this genre, the overall setting is realistic. But magical things do happen. And characters simply accept this as part of life. Why?
MAGICAL REALISM AND MARGINAL SPEECH
Mishnah Pirkei Avot 5:8 suggests an answer. It lists ten unusual animals, plants and objects from the Torah. God, says the mishnah, made them all. On the sixth day of creation. At twilight, just before Shabbat. So, as I see it, God created a world of magical realism. Here, odd events happen all the time. But we only see them at twilight, so to speak. At the edges of consciousness, in times of transition.
Sometimes, authors use magical realism to showcase edgy perspectives. Such as truths about humans seen by non-humans, like the donkey. And truths about power articulated by marginalized people. For example, when they tell the powerful, “reality is more complex than you think.” Or ask corrupt leaders, “why are you harming me, when you built your life on my back?” This kind of speech is happening right now, especially in North America. COVID-19 has pushed all of us to the edges of everyday reality. And Black, Indigenous people, and People of Color are speaking their truth. Others are seeing it, too; some for the first time. So, they, too, are protesting for justice.
The prophet Zechariah teaches that the renewed leader of Israel – the Mashiach — will be “just, victorious, humble and riding on a donkey” (Zechariah 9:9). Now we can see what he means. This leader will have good judgment. They will pray with humility. And they will pay attention to voices that call for justice. And, if the frustrations of politics pull them off course, a nudge from their inner donkey will bring them back.
May it be so.
From Rabbi Jonathan Kliger
How Good It Is
Mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, mishkenotecha Yisrael / מַה טֹּבוּ אֹהָלֶיךָ יַעֲקֹב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל
How goodly are your tents, Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel (Numbers 24:5)
The Israelites are journeying toward the Jordan River, and pass through the territory of King Balak of Moab. Balak is terrified, and hires the prophet Balaam to lay a curse upon the Israelites. Three times Balaam climbs up to a promontory from which he can survey the Israelite encampment. Each time, instead of a curse, only words of blessing issue from his lips. King Balak is furious, of course, and reprimands Balaam. But Balaam reminds him that as a prophet, Balaam is only capable of uttering the words that God puts in his mouth.
On the final attempt, as Balaam gazes from the highest peak out on a veritable sea of Israelite tents, he utters: “Mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, mishkenotecha Yisrael” – “How goodly are your tents, Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel!” Our sages plucked this phrase from the Torah and placed it at the beginning of our morning prayers.
Missing from our prayer book, however, is the continuation of Balaam’s blessing. In fact, a more appropriate translation of Mah Tovu is more likely in the form of a question; here is the entire passage, opening with a question, and then answering:
How goodly are your tents, Jacob,
Your dwelling places, Israel?
Like palm groves that stretch out,
Like gardens beside a river,
Like aloes planted by YHVH,
Like cedars beside the water,
Their boughs dripping with moisture,
Their roots have abundant water. (Numbers 24:5-7)
I feel so refreshed by this imagery. I am drawn into an oasis of water and shade. And as I recall the arid and forbidding landscape of the steppes of Moab where the Israelites are camped, the picture that Balaam’s words paint becomes even more enticing.
Our sages who placed this verse at the opening of the siddur – the prayer book – understood that the purpose of communal prayer is to refresh our spirits. Life easily becomes a slog through the wilderness, depleting us and distracting us, sucking us dry, so that we forget how good it is to be alive. The purpose of prayer, the purpose of Shabbat, the purpose of entering a synagogue sanctuary (or any other place that feels like a restorative oasis to you), is to ask the question, “How good is it?” and then to list all the ways in which it is truly a blessing to be alive.
This activity does not ignore or negate the difficulties that we face. Rather, it grounds us, refreshes us, and fortifies us so that we might not wilt in the heat of our struggles.
We are certainly traveling through frightening and distressing times. But it is also true that life is good and that we are each immeasurably blessed, and if we can regularly focus on the goodness that sustains us we will be better able to stay sane and kind and strong as we face the uncertain path ahead. The world needs us, our loved ones and our communities need us, but what have we got to give if we are dried up and distracted? We join together in community on Shabbat (and if that’s not possible, then may these words help sustain you) as we create an oasis together, sit in each other’s healing shade, drink life in deeply, and help each other remember that, with all its challenges, life is so good.
From Rabbi David Kasher
THE PATH OF DESTRUCTION – Parshat Balak
What’s so bad about Bilaam?
He’s seems like a nice enough guy. A holy man, even!
Now Balak, the king of Moab – for whom our parsha is named – he’s a real villain. He’s the one who wants to destroy the Israelites. Of course, it’s true he tries to hire Bilaam to put a curse them. But that doesn’t automatically make Bilaam a bad guy, does it?
In fact, when Balak’s men come to Bilaam to make the request, he tells them he has to ask God what to do. And when God then tells him not to curse that people, Bilaam immediately refuses and tells the men to leave.
When they come back a second time, promising riches, he tells them:
Even if Balak were to give me his whole house, full of gold and silver, I could not do anything, big or small, contrary to the command of the Lord my God. (Numbers 22:18)
וַיַּעַן בִּלְעָם, וַיֹּאמֶר אֶל עַבְדֵי בָלָק, אִם יִתֶּן לִי בָלָק מְלֹא בֵיתוֹ, כֶּסֶף וְזָהָב לֹא אוּכַל, לַעֲבֹר אֶת פִּי ה אֱלֹהָי, לַעֲשׂוֹת קְטַנָּה, אוֹ גְדוֹלָה.
Wow – so religious! Bilaam sounds like a perfect saint.
It turns out that God does let Bilaam go this time, but Bilaam makes it clear to Balak that he cannot promise a curse:
I can only utter the word that God puts into my mouth. (Num. 22:38)
הַדָּבָר, אֲשֶׁר יָשִׂים אֱלֹקים בְּפִי אֹתו אֲדַבֵּר.
And guess what? Bilaam ends up blessing the Israelites, much to Balak’s dismay! In fact some of the words of this blessing are preserved in our daily liturgy:
How goodly are your tents, O Jacob; your dwelling places, O Israel! (Num 24:5)
מַה טֹּבו אֹהָלֶיךָ יַעֲקֹב, מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל.
This is no enemy of Israel! This is the author of one of her greatest tributes!
And yet, the rabbis haaaaaaaate Bilaam. For them, he is the epitome of wickedness. They pile on him all the nastiest things they can think of. Including, even, the following unpleasant suggestion from the Talmud:
His donkey said to him…I’ve let you not only ride me during the day, but also sleep with me at night. (Avoda Zara 4b)
אמרה ליה … שאני עושה לך רכיבות ביום ואישות בלילה
Well, as insults go, it doesn’t get much lower than, “You have sex with your donkey.”
So why are the rabbis so anti-Bilaam, when he seems from the plain text of the story to be such a righteous man? Most of the answers come down to the fact that he was willing to ask God again if he could go perform this curse for Balak, after he had already been told by God that this was a bad idea. Didn’t he get it? God said no. So the rabbis suspect that deep down, he really wanted to hurt the Israelites. He was dying to curse them, chomping at the bit, looking for any opening.
But even so, what about the fact that God allows Bilaam to go? Surely Bilaam can’t take the blame for that! It’s pretty clear that he would never defy God openly. If God had said no, he’d never have left.
The rabbis of the Midrash respond to this difficulty with a startling theological statement:
From this, you learn that a person is led down the path that he wishes to go. (Bamidbar Rabbah 20:12)
מִכָּן אַתּ לָמֵד שֶׁבַּדֶּרֶךְ שֶׁאָדָם רוֹצֶה לֵילֵךְ בָּהּ מוֹלִיכִין אוֹתוֹ
Well, this is bizarre! Is the suggestion really that God will tell you anything you want to hear? What kind of God is that, then, and what is the meaning of following God’s will if it is really only an echo of your own deepest desires?
The moral significance of this radical claim may perhaps be discovered by sifting carefully through another rabbinic motif: their constant linking of Bilaam with Abraham.
The Mishnah in Pirkei Avot (5:19), for example, asks:
What is the difference between the students of our father Abraham and the students of the wicked Bilaam?
מַה בֵּין תַּלְמִידָיו שֶׁל אַבְרָהָם אָבִינוּ לְתַלְמִידָיו שֶׁל בִּלְעָם הָרָשָׁע.
…and then goes on at length to explain how different the two figures were – how one was humble and the other haughty, one was rewarded and the other one taken down to the pit of destruction.
The rabbis imagine Bilaam himself drawing this comparison, later, when he proposes to make an offering on “seven altars – I will offer bull and a ram on each altar…”:
“And Abraham only offered a single ram!” (Rashi, v. 23:4)
ואברהם לא העלה אלא איל אחד
It is as if Bilaam is in competition with Abraham, knowing that he stands in Abraham’s shadow and trying to outdo him.
But for all the rabbinic effort to distinguish between Abraham and Bilaam, the Torah itself offers some striking parallels between the two.
First of all, we are told (in Deuteronomy 23:5) that Bilaam is from Aram-Naharayim. This is a place we know from back in Genesis, when Abraham tells his servant to go back to the land of his birth to find a wife for his son, and then we read that the servant “made his way to Aram-Naharayim.” (Genesis 24:10) So Abraham and Bilaam come from the same homeland. They are, in a sense, kinsmen.
And, of course, the whole of the Bilaam story hinges on blessings and curses, which hearkens back to the opening scene in the Abraham narrative, where we read that:
I will bless those who bless you and curse him who curses you. (Gen 12:3)
וַאֲבָרְכָה מְבָרְכֶיךָ וּמְקַלֶּלְךָ אָאֹר
This is from the scene where Abraham is told by God, “Go forth!”… just as Bilaam is eventually told by God to “go.”
In fact, it is this scene in which Bilaam finally goes – the very part of the story that he is most criticized for – that has the most pronounced echoes of Abraham:
Bilaam arose in the morning and saddled his donkey. (Numbers 22:21)
וַיָּקָם בִּלְעָם בַּבֹּקֶר, וַיַּחֲבֹשׁ אֶת אֲתֹנוֹ
Abraham arose in the morning and saddled his donkey. (Genesis 22:3)
וַיַּשְׁכֵּם אַבְרָהָם בַּבֹּקֶר, וַיַּחֲבֹשׁ אֶת חֲמֹרוֹ
He was riding on his donkey, and his two young men were with him. (Numbers 22:22)
וְהוּא רֹכֵב עַל-אֲתֹנוֹ, וּשְׁנֵי נְעָרָיו עִמּוֹ.
He saddled his donkey and took with him his two young men. (Genesis 22:3)
וַיַּחֲבֹשׁ אֶת-חֲמֹרוֹ, וַיִּקַּח אֶת-שְׁנֵי נְעָרָיו אִתּוֹ
An Angel of the Lord stood on the path to stop him. (Numbers 22:22)
וַיִּתְיַצֵּב מַלְאַךְ ה בַּדֶּרֶךְ, לְשָׂטָן לוֹ
An Angel of the Lord called to him from heaven…and said, “Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him…” (Genesis 22:12)
וַיִּקְרָא אֵלָיו מַלְאַךְ ה, מִן הַשָּׁמַיִם… וַיֹּאמֶר, אַל תִּשְׁלַח יָדְךָ אֶל הַנַּעַר, וְאַל תַּעַש לוֹ, מְאוּמָה…
So the incident for which the rabbis accuse Bilaam of wickedness, of pride, and of following his own murderous instincts under the cover of Divine command… turns out to be an eerie replay of that most difficult chapter in the Abraham story: the Binding of Isaac.
And the Binding of Isaac also begins with God’s calling out of that same command: lech lecha – Go forth!
So of course the rabbis hurry in to show how Abraham was righteous and Bilaam was wicked; that command to go was from straight from God while that one was from Bilaam’s own heart; that donkey should have been saddled while that one should have been left alone.
But there is another way that the critique of Bilaam can be read: as a subtle – almost subconscious – critique of Abraham.
Abraham, who like Bilaam, spoke in the language of faith. Abraham, who like Bilaam had the power to deliver blessings or curses. Abraham, who, after all, was only following the voice of God.
We cannot condemn Abraham outright. For he is our father. And his unwavering faith is his greatest virtue, celebrated even by God.
Yet still… the story of the Binding of Isaac has never sat right with us. Was Abraham really supposed to obey that command? Didn’t he jump up a little too quickly to carry it out? Shouldn’t he have known that this wasn’t really what God wanted? Shouldn’t he have protested?
But maybe it wasn’t just a matter of what God wanted. Maybe a part of Abraham didn’t want to protest. Maybe he wanted to show what a great man of faith he was, and was willing to sacrifice his own son to do it.
A person is led down the path that he wishes to go.
God forbid, we could never say such a thing about Abraham.
So instead, we say terrible things about Bilaam. We accuse him of longing for a cursed thing, even though he blessed us. And we condemn him for going, even though God told him to go.
Because he should have known better. Because sometimes, even when you think God is telling you to do something, you don’t do it. Even though it sounds exactly like the call you’ve gotten before – Go forth! – this time, you just know it’s wrong.
And if you don’t, well then we have to wonder, where is this voice of God coming from? Is it really out there, calling to you from somewhere up above? Or is it all in your head?
Be careful walking down this path of destruction – this path you thought God told you to take. For there may be an Angel of the Lord standing in your way, telling you to go no further.
Let’s hope to God you see it in time.
In the world of the Tanakh, donkeys are well-respected, highly-valued working animals, with a number of legal rights. They are entitled to one day off per week. They must not be expected to keep up with a gigantic ox, or to carry a heavy load. Donkeys in the Tanakh work hard, and they work everywhere. They provide transportation, and they also provide spiritual guidance.
The most famous equine spiritual guide stars in Parshat Balak.
As the story opens, King Balak’s messengers approach the prophet Bilam, offering him a short-term contract to place a curse on the Israelites. God speaks to Bilam and says, “Do not go on this mission.” Bilam reports this answer to the messengers. King Balak does not accept the prophet’s refusal, and he sends higher-ranking messengers to press Bilam. Bilam continues to say no. Later that night, however, Bilam has a numinous dream. God appears and says, “Go on the mission…just be sure to speak only as I direct you.”
So Bilam saddles up his donkey, and rides off with the messengers. The donkey travels as usual until she sees an angel blocking her way. She veers off to the side. With a flick of his riding crop, Bilam signals to her to return to the path. But the angel allows the donkey to go in only one direction. She moves in the only way she can, and her rider Bilam hits a wall. He flicks his crop again, but the donkey sees no alternative route and does not move. Bilam loses his temper and hits her with his staff. Instead of moving, she asks, “Have I ever steered you wrong?”
Bilam is not the only Biblical character who is guided by a donkey.
Avraham saddles up his donkey as he prepares to follow God’s instruction to offer his son Yitzchak. Avraham does not yet know the precise destination, but trusts that God will let him know.
Avigail rides a donkey as she heads out to avert a massacre. It seems Avigail’s husband has insulted the war hero David, and David’s band is on its way to put the man in his place. Avigail knows only that David, whom she has not met, is a very violent man. Yet, as she dismounts from her donkey, she finds the words that calm David down.
The Shunamite woman, a disciple of the wandering prophet Elisha, relies on a donkey in her time of need. When son suddenly becomes deathly ill, she saddles up her donkey and heads out to find Elisha. She finds him, and he heals her son.
When something must be done, but you aren’t sure exactly what, you saddle up the donkey, your intuitive guide to the right destination. The Torah’s stories about donkeys are rooted in real-life experiences with these reliable animals. Intelligent and cautious, a donkey assesses a situation, makes a decision, and rarely changes course. Once a donkey trusts the person accompanying it, the donkey becomes a friendly, playful, and loyal companion.
Many people feel as though they have an inner voice guiding them to clarity in times of stress. The philosopher Socrates called this voice his daimon, his guiding spirit. Because the voice of the daimon expresses a deep natural wisdom, some people picture it as an animal guide. People may choose animals they find beautiful, exotic, and inspirational. They may choose animals they find familiar, with whom a close relationship has revealed to them the possibility of seeing from a foreign point of view.
The writers of the Tanakh chose the familiar, respected donkey to represent the daimon. Its familiar presence hints at spiritual processes hidden in ordinary life. Its respected status reminds us to listen to its teachings. More significantly, the image of traveling with a donkey allows authors to hint at three stages of accessing the daimon. First comes a ritual preparation, “saddling up the donkey.” Next comes an extended listening, “riding the donkey.” These steps lead to an understanding of the message, reaching the destination and “dismounting.” These are the steps that Avraham used to find faith; Avigail used to find words of peace; and the Shunamite woman used to find healing.
In Bilam’s case, something goes wrong as he is riding. Frustration and anger block his ability to listen. The story tells us the source of his confusion. First God says “don’t go”; then God says “go.” It seems the mixed messages put Bilam on edge. He follows the last instruction, saddles up the donkey and rides – but the donkey brings him to a wall. Spiritually speaking, Bilam prepares to sort things out through inner reflection, but he hits a wall in his discernment. Enraged, he lashes out at his guide and threatens to kill it with his sword. But when the donkey asks, “Have I ever steered you wrong?” Bilam can only say “No.” He has no choice but to reflect on the meaning of the wall he has hit.
When he opens his inner eye, he sees the angel. “Why are you hitting your donkey?” asks the angel. “Your donkey saves your life.” Perhaps Bilam still does not know how or why he lost touch with his daimon. But he does know that he wants to reconnect. He apologizes to the angel and asks for guidance.
Bilam finds his way through the anger to clarity, but not all donkey riders in the Tanakh are so fortunate.
The early Israelite judge Shimshon puts his physical strength in service to the people. But his use of his strength is guided by his undirected anger. This anger destroys his personal life, and ultimately it destroys his public life as well. At one point, his wife leaves him for another man. He sets fire to some fields; the owners retaliate with another fire, killing Shimshon’s wife. Shimshon attacks them with the bone of a dead donkey. At this point, the dry bone is all that remains of Shimshon’s inner guide. When Shimshon throws the bone away, nothing at all is left of his inner compass. By the end of his life, Shimshon is completely blinded. All that remains is the force of his anger, and his last act is an act of revenge.
Do not disrespect your donkey: such is the Tanakh’s teaching. This steady, stubborn, plodding, cautious, loving guide is a counterbalance to anger. When anger threatens, use the three-step method to activate the donkey daimon. Prepare ritually for prayer, take time to receive a message, and only then make a practical decision. Through this method, we can come to know the right road, the peace-making words, and the path to healing.
The prophet Zechariah teaches that we never outgrow our need for this method. He declares that the renewed leader of Israel – the Mashiach — will be “just, victorious, humble and riding on a donkey.” Yes, the gifted leader will have already cultivated stellar middot, stellar inner qualities. But the leader will not rest in personal qualities alone. The leader will be guided by God’s inner presence along the right path, speaking words of peace, and finding healing.
If the frustrations of politics pull this leader off course, a nudge from the inner donkey will bring the leader back. May it be so.
From Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies
Alone or Together
Rabbi Adam Greenwald
“Then Balaam said to Balak: “Stay here beside your offerings while I am gone. Perhaps Adonai will grant me a manifestation, and whatever God reveals to me I will tell you.’ And he went off alone.” (Numbers 23:3)
Balaam, the pagan prophet, was hired by King Balak of the Moabites to curse the Israelites as they make their way across the wilderness. Balaam agrees to the mission, and take his fee, but first he tells the King that he needs some time alone in order to receive a “manifestation” of God and to ascertain the exact content of his message of doom. What happens next is stunning. In his solitude, Balaam finds a completely different message than the one he was seeking. He discovers that — try as he might — he cannot speak a curse, but rather can only offer blessing upon blessing to the Israelites.
I am both intrigued and challenged by the idea of solitude as a means of attaining this sort of insight.
Solitary pursuit of spiritual truth is well-attested in the Jewish tradition. The great Talmudic sage, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, retreats to a cave to study and meditate and there attains such an intense level of spiritual development that when he emerges everything he looks upon is engulfed in flames. A less violent version of this type of retreat for the sake of enlightenment is found in the stories of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, whose long walks in the forest prepare him to lead a spiritual revolution that would transform Ashkenazi Judaism over the next two centuries. In the Hasidic literature of the movement he started this practice gained a name: hitbodedut.
Indeed, hitbodedut predates any of these figures. Many of our most prominent Biblical personalities are recorded to have had their most profound revelations of God in moments of solitude. Jacob dreamed of a ladder to heaven while sleeping alone in a rocky field. Moses encountered a burning bush “beyond the wilderness” herding sheep for his father in law Jethro. Elijah heard the Divine voice while hunkered down in a lonesome desert cave. Of course, the Jewish tradition is by no means alone in holding up examples of this type of solitary spirituality as a path of connection with Divine — Jesus and Mohammed each retreat to the desert, and the Buddha sits alone beneath his bodhi tree.
More unique, perhaps, to the Jewish tradition are the strong voices arguing against isolating oneself from others. Prayer, an activity that might seem best suited for moments of rapturous solitude, can generally only be done as part of a minyan– a gathering of ten adult Jews. Torah cannot be read aloud except in a community. Weddings cannot be celebrated, nor can the dead by memorialized without the presence of companions and witnesses. Even study is not a solitary pursuit in traditional Jewish communities—rather, study almost always takes place in hevruta, a pair that seeks to unlock the essence of a text through vigorous debate and exchange. The Talmud compares the learning of study partners to the battle of gladiators, as their iron swords clang and clash with one another and provide showers of sparks, so too do the arguments of hevruta partners give forth sparks of holy meaning (Ta’anit 7a).
Balaam’s isolation gave him the opportunity to perceive God and to transform his message of destruction into one of blessing. However, we learn from our tradition that isolation from the community can deprive one of the spiritual opportunities presented by deep relationship with other human beings. We are left with a tension: Should one seek the still, small voice of God, in the silence of the desert or the cacophony of the world?
It seems to me that as with most questions of spirituality, the answer to this question is probably yes and yes. Spirituality requires both stillness and relationship. Insight comes from both peaceful, solitary reflection and from boisterous, holy debate. Without the quiet that Balaam sought out, he might not have found his words of blessing. Without the presence of sacred community encouraging, bolstering, and challenging us, we might not find ours.
From Jewish Sacred Aging
Balak: A People Apart…But How Far?
Rabbi Richard Address
This week we come to a portion replete with challenges. The famous line of this portion, found in every prayer book and sung in many congregations is from the blessing the reluctant “hero” Bilaam gives to the Israelites: “Ma Tovu” ” How Beautiful/Fair/Good are your Tents O Jacob” (Numbers 24:5).
This is a portion that speaks of curses turned to blessings, talking asses, political challenges and ends with slaughter. A tough portion, no doubt. In the middle of conversations between Balak and Bilaam and Bilaam and God, who, as the portion tells us, helps turn the requested curses into blessings, we discover one passage from Bilaam that, in one of his transitional moments, speaks to so many issues both communal and personal. Bilaam: “How can I damn whom God has not damned, How doom when God has not doomed? As I see then from the mountain tops, Gaze on them from the heights, there is a people that dwells apart, not reckoned among the nations.” (Numbers 23: 8,9)
What does it mean to be a people apart? Was this some sort of premonition of much of Jewish history? Surely, for much of our history we have been a people apart, often not by our choice. Yet, there are some who see this apartness as a means of keeping Judaism alive. Often many contemporary scholars chafe at the creeping assimilation of contemporary Judaism as a sign of decay, rather than strength. Is it better, they seem to say, to maintain distance and not become “like all the other nations”? But in a modern world, how do walk that line between being part of the general community and maintaining a sense of separateness? There is no meeting or convention or discussion within our contemporary community that does not address this question. What are the boundaries of involvement? How “apart” must we stay to keep out identity?
There is also another way of looking at this. Does being “apart” mean to be alone, cut off from other people, communities and self? Indeed, the text speaks of a “am l’vadad” Rabbi Jonathan Saks, on the portion, plays with that word “”vadad”, referencing other usages of the concept of being alone and how negative it is. He maintains in his commentary that, according to a stream within Rabbinic Judaism, “a people that dwells alone eventually became not a blessing but a curse”.I think what Saks is also trying to say to us is something we have discussed here before. The “curse” of being alone is one that leads to destruction of self. We are reminded, especially as we age, that being “apart” from society instead of being a part of society can be a cause for alarm. It is not good to be alone, as Genesis [2:18] reminds us. Is this section of Torah telling our community that as well? Is is saying that the more we cultivate division, the more isolated we become and the more isolated we become, the more in danger we really are.
Rabbi Richard F Address
RELATIVELY SPEAKING – Parshat Balak
I’m so excited. This week, we’re going to take a look at one of the most extraordinary pieces of Jewish philosophy I have ever come across. And I mostly just want to you to see this astounding thing for yourself.
But we’re not just going to turn straight to it and start reading. We will get there, as we always do, by following the classical commentators through a chain of connections, from the text of the Torah on outward. So let’s first back up, and take a look the verse that will bring us there.
We begin with a talking donkey. Parshat Balak may be the strangest parsha of them all. It interrupts the Torah’s narrative of the Israelite journey through the desert to record the conversation between an enemy king who hires a prophet named Bilaam to curse the people of Israel. But when Bilaam travels to meet with the king, an angel of the Lord stands in the road to block the way. Bilaam can’t seem to see it, but the donkey he’s riding does, and stops in her tracks. Bilaam has no idea what’s going on, so he begins to beat the donkey, to get her moving. And then, out of nowhere:
The Lord opened the donkey’s mouth, and she said to Bilaam, “What have I done to you that you have struck me these three times?” (Num. 22:28)
וַיִּפְתַּח ה אֶת פִּי הָאָתוֹן וַתֹּאמֶר לְבִלְעָם מֶה עָשִׂיתִי לְךָ כִּי הִכִּיתָנִי זֶה שָׁלשׁ רְגָלִים
Now, of all the insanely weird things about this moment in the Torah, the only detail that Rashi feels the need to comment on here is the phrase “these three times.” Because the word for “times” here – regalim (רגלים) – is an unusual one. If you’ve read through the Torah before, though, the word may sound familiar, and perhaps you can anticipate what Rashi is going to say:
these three times: This was a hint to him, saying, “You seek to uproot a nation which celebrates three festivals (שָׁלשׁ רְגָלִים) in a year?”
זה שלש רגלים: רמז לו אתה מבקש לעקור אומה החוגגת שלש רגלים בשנה
Rashi is reminding us that this same word – regalim – was used before, in the Book of Exodus, to refer to the pilgrimage festivals:
Three festivals you shall celebrate for me in the year. (Ex. 23:14)
שָׁלֹשׁ רְגָלִים, תָּחֹג לִי בַּשָּׁנָה.
Those three festivals are: Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot. Each one is tied to a particular point in the agricultural cycle, and so, as a way of thanking God for the continued sustenance of the land, each requires a journey to Jerusalem, to appear before the Lord with an offering.
But what does any of that have to do with our scene here in numbers with Bilaam and the donkey? One of the greatest commentaries on Rashi, the Gur Aryeh – written by the great Jewish philosopher, the Maharal of Prague – takes that question up:
If you will say: what’s different about this commandment, that it should be hinted at, rather than any of the other commandments? One may say, it is because Time always has a beginning, a middle, and an end. And the people of Israel are at the beginning, at the middle, and they will be at the end. So God gave them these three festivals.
ואם תאמר, מאי שנא מצוה זאת – שרמז לו – משאר מצות. ויש לומר, כי הזמן יש לו ראשית אמצעי וסוף, ובא לומר לך כי ישראל הם בתחילה ובאמצעי ויהיו לבסוף. וכנגד זה נתן להם הקדוש ברוך הוא שלש רגלים
Okay, this is all very cryptic, but he seems to be saying something about the eternality of people of Israel – that they will endure throughout history. So maybe Bilaam should know better than to try to curse them.
Still, it isn’t clear how exactly the festivals represent this eternality. And it certainly isn’t clear what he is saying about the nature of Time. The Maharal even admits that he hasn’t fully explained himself, and so he sends us to one of his other books, Gevurat Hashem, where he promises to explain more fully. So let’s go take a look.
Of the times that are designated in the Torah, we find three of them that the verses connect together: The Feast of Passover, the Feast of Shavuot, and the Feast of Sukkot. And these are called the Three Pilgrimage Festivals…
הזמנים המקודשים בתורה, מצאנו שלש מהם חבר הכתוב אותם ביחד הם חג המצות וחג השבועות וחג הסכות והם נקראים שלש רגלים
We also find that the Torah set the time for these three festivals according to the produce of the land. With Passover, it is written, “During the time of the spring month, for in it you left Egypt…and then the Feast of the Harvest [Shavuot], for the first fruits of your labors, and the Feast of Gathering [Sukkot], at the end of the year.” (Ex. 23) So we see that these three times – the spring, the harvest, and the gathering, culminate in bringing produce into the house. And this requires further investigation: for what do these times have to do with produce?
גם מצאנו אלו שלש רגלים קבעה התורה זמנם בתבואת הארץ, בפסח כתיב (שמות כ”ג) למועד חדש האביב כי בו יצאת ממצרים, וחג הקציר בכורי מעשיך, וחג האסיף בצאת השנה, הרי לך שלשה זמנים האביב והקציר והאסיף שאוסף התבואה לבית, ודבר זה צריך תלמוד מה ענין המועדים אל תבואה
And now, Ladies and Gentlemen, the Maharal is going to blow your mind:
Know then, that Time has a connection to Matter. And this is clear to one who studies wisely, for Time has Continuation and Division, just as Matter has Continuation and Division. For Matter persists, but it can also be divided. But what’s more, Time is affected by Matter, for Time is renewed through Movement, and Movement is the product of Matter. So if we look deeply, we see that Time, and Movement and Matter are all joined and connected in every way. (Ch. 46)
דע כי הזמן יש לו יחוס אל הגשם ודבר זה מבורר למי שעיין בחכמה כי ההמשך והחלוק אשר יש לזמן הוא דומה להמשך וחלוק הגשם, שכל גשם יש לו משך והוא נחלק. ועוד כי הזמן נתלה בגשם כי הזמן מתחדש מן התנועה והתנועה היא לגשם, והמעיין ידע כי הזמן והתנועה והגשם משתתפים מתיחסים בכל דבר
Look, I won’t pretend to understand exactly what the Maharal is saying here. Not at all. But what is striking, to someone reading this in the 21st century, is the way that these ideas echo Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, which first describes a relationship between Space and Time (in the famous equation E=mc²), and then suggests that the momentum of matter affects the curvature of spacetime (which thereby explains gravity in geometric terms).
Now, I’m not one to suggest that pre-modern religious thought anticipated the theories of modern science. That isn’t my point here at all. I’m just amazed that the Maharal, in the 16th century, was even thinking about the possibility of a relationship between Time and Matter. And more, that he found a grounding for these abstract ideas in the particular phrasing of verses in the Torah. That kind of interplay between theology, literature, and philosophy – to me – is a thing of beauty.
But what does any of that have to do with Bilaam? Well, Bilaam is being warned, remember, not to mess with the nation that celebrates these three festivals. And the Maharal tells us that these festivals represent Israel’s eternality, their persistence through the beginning, middle and end of history. I cannot help but remark, then, that in this chain of ideas we have been tracing, the Torah of Moses stands at the beginning of our journey, the Philosophy of the Maharal in the middle, and the Science of Einstein at the end. Three Jews, divided by time, but united by peoplehood, and by ideas.
If Bilaam knew that he was standing at the beginning of a history that would flow through these three great thinkers, would he have saddled his donkey that day and rode out to curse the nation of Israel? Or would he have stayed at home, and recited there the words of prophecy for which he would come to be known best:
How goodly are your tents, O Jacob!
Your dwelling-places, O Israel! (Num. 24:5)
מַה-טֹּבוּ אֹהָלֶיךָ, יַעֲקֹב
“The Power of Humility”
By Rabbi Janet Madden, Ph.D., ‘11
Humans often refer to donkeys as the epitome of foolishness or stubbornness. But in cultures that are reliant on its help and support for human labor that is necessary to sustain life, donkeys are no joke.
Millennia before the appearance of such characters as Francis the Talking Mule, Mr. Ed, Dr. Doolittle’s aspirational “Talk To the Animals,” or the Donkey in William Steig’s book Shrek (and the subsequent movie franchise), the donkey that plays so central a role in Parshat Balak countered the human stereotype of the dumb animal. Balaam’s talking donkey possesses more than the ability to speak in human language: unlike its rider, this animal accurately perceives the power of the Divine.
In the mysterious mystical Jewish text Perek Shira (Chapter of Song), each element of creation sings a unique song to the Creator of All. Amidst all that inhabit the earth, the seas and the heavens, only the human being is absent. Perhaps it is the spaciousness of the silence that occurs in the absence of human voices that allows each creation to sing its own unique song to the Divine. “The Song of the Donkey” takes its text from I Chronicles 29:11— “For all of these are Yours, Adonai: the greatness, the strength, the beauty, the victory and the glory, everything in the heavens and the earth. Yours, Adonai, is the kingdom and the sovereignty to every leader.” Its song provides another example of the Donkey’s awareness of the Divine as the Source of All; as in Parshat Balak, the humble, often-mistreated and overlooked donkey comes to teach human beings. Brayed forth in a donkey-voice, it is a proclamation of the ways in which G-d is literally manifest in every aspect of creation.
Parshat Balak also holds interesting commonalities with other Jewish sacred texts. The Hebrew word for donkey, chamor, means “matter of clay,” a meaning synonymous with a lack of spiritual content. In its connection with Saul, David, Solomon and Absalom, the donkey is associated with royalty: Zechariah prophesized that the Messiah will ride into Jerusalem on a donkey. In Tractate Berachot 56b, the Talmud teaches that a dream in which a donkey appears symbolizes hope for salvation. And there is an ironic and powerful intra-textual donkey reference within the Torah: Balaam, a man as unlike the Abraham of the Akedah as we might imagine, also saddles up his donkey and sets out on a transformational journey that involves an angelic encounter and a Divine intervention.
A diviner who bargains with G-d and then disregards Divine instructions, Balaam is blinded by his own pride and covetousness to G-d’s power, G-d’s word, and G-d’s messenger. What he does respond to is the donkey’s refusal to obey—a refusal that saves his life but also forces him to hear. The man who does not heed the word of G-d listens to what the donkey says. The donkey’s speech opens Balaam’s ears and eyes: his immediate repentance is effected by his realization of his limitations as well as of the miraculous and infinite power of the Divine.
Balaam, too, is given the power of miraculous speech. He finds himself filled with the spirit of the Divine, unable to curse the Israelites, instead blessing them as he spontaneously, prophetically and poetically.
The story of Balaam and his talking donkey is embedded in Parshat Balak not as a moment of comic relief. It is a profoundly central lesson about our human proclivity to imagine ourselves more important and powerful than we actually are. The humble Donkey teaches us that we humans often fail see G-d’s messenger, even when that messenger stands before us. And in rebuking its rider, the Donkey reminds us of that we are obligated to acknowledge and appreciate our relationship with all of Creation—and to thank and bless the One who has given life to us all.
From THe Maqam Project
Balaam’s Donkey Vision: Letting Go of Literaliam
A Biblical story, from parshat hashavua:
The king of Moab approaches the prophet Balaam, hoping to hire Balaam to curse the Israelites (Numbers 22:2-24:5). After dreaming that God tells him to take the job, Balaam sets out with his donkey. Inexplicably, God becomes angry with Balaam for accepting, and sends an angel to block the path.
Balaam does not see the angel, but his donkey does. When she refuses to walk forward, Balaam beats her. She speaks to him in his own language, reminding him of her reliability.
His eyes open to a new reality, so that he sees the angel and receives its message. He then blesses the Israelites in rich poetic language, describing their “rising star” and their “good tents.”
What changes for Balaam?
Balaam begins his seer’s journey believing that whatever God tells him in a dream is to be interpreted literally, as the true path to follow. He does not consider metaphorical possibilities or interpretations, as other Biblical dreamers such as Joseph and Daniel do. His dreams do not speak to him of his own psyche and its challenges; they pose no riddles for him to pursue.
Balaam experiences God only as a commander, and himself as a rule-follower. Balaam does not experience God as a living force in psyche and nature, or imagine that his own thoughts and feelings could express or influence God. On both these counts, he differs from earlier Biblical figures such as Abraham and Moses.
It is time for Balaam to change, and his donkey knows it.
As longtime co-workers and companions, Balaam and his donkey communicate regularly through shared action, likely making mutual decisions in a kind of silent dance. On today’s mission, however, the dance breaks down. Balaam sets them on what he thinks is good a path, but the donkey’s options quickly narrow, until there is nowhere for her to go. Physical gestures, her usual means of communication, are ignored, even beaten down.
Finally, as a last resort, the donkey speaks in human words. To Balaam, this is so out of the ordinary, so beyond his previous experience as a seer, that he says, “You are mocking me!” But no, she indicates; she is not. She is, she says, a faithful companion who has journeyed with him everywhere.
In her words, “You have ridden on me me’odcha ad hayom hazeh” (Numbers 22:30). These four Hebrew words combine to make an absolutely unique idiom, not found elsewhere in the Bible. One possible translation, “You have ridden on mean again and again for you — until today,” suggests that something is about to change in Balaam’s attitude towards his donkey.
If the grammar is slightly misread, the word me’odcha can be seen as a cognate of the word mo’ed, sacred meeting. On this more playful reading, Balaam’s donkey says, “You have ridden me to all your sacred meetings — until today,” suggesting that Balaam’s understanding of meeting the divine is about to change.
And that is exactly what happens. Balaam’s eyes open to new possibilities. Suddenly, the world around him is alive with divine communication. He hears his donkey teach; he sees an angel visiting him; he begins to understand the depth and beauty of metaphor. He uncovers new depths in his psyche, meeting his inner guides, respecting a greater diversity of life-forms, and revising his image of God.
Intrigued by this interpretation? Finding too many holes in it? Read the full length version here.
From American Jewish World Service
Featuring a magician, sorcery and a talking donkey, Parashat Balak is a paranormal parashah. Despite including these somewhat less relatable features, however, the parashah offers us profound and relevant lessons about the very mundane and human behavior of listening.
The parashah details Moabite King Balak’s unsuccessful attempt to curse the Israelites by contracting Bilam, a renowned gentile magician. Bilam is thwarted at various steps in the process and ends up blessing B’nai Yisrael three times, rather than cursing them. In fact, one of his blessings is featured in our daily prayers: How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!1
A cursory read of the parashah implies that Bilam is decent—even virtuous. He turns to God for guidance at each juncture and refuses to curse the people of Israel, despite King Balak’s incessant demands. The Rabbis, too, proclaim Bilam’s potential in no uncertain terms: “There never arose in Israel a prophet like Moshe, but among the nations of the world there did arise; and who is that? Bilam son of Beor.”2 That the commentators acknowledge the prophetic status of a non-Jew is surprising. That he is compared with Moshe Rabbeinu is astounding.
Yet Pirkei Avot presents a very different view of Bilam: “The disciples of our father Avraham have a good eye, a meek spirit and a humble soul. The disciples of the wicked Bilam have an evil eye, a haughty spirit and a gross soul.”3
How do we resolve this apparent contradiction in the rabbinic understanding of Bilam? Bilam’s own words to Balak provide a hint: “Whatever word God puts into my mouth, that shall I speak!” he says.4 His declaration reveals that God needs to put words directly in his mouth in order for Bilam to give them voice. Bilam’s ears, it seems, are blocked. Though his words have power, Bilam does not truly listen. It is his inability to listen—to be humble, to be compassionate and to heed God’s word—that separates Bilam from Moshe and Avraham.
Bilam’s inability to listen also leads to his undoing. When the officers of Balak come to fetch Bilam, he appears to reiterate God’s word and tells the officers: “Go to your land, for God has refused to give me [permission] to go with you.”5 While it seems on first glance that Bilam is acting virtuously, on closer inspection it is evident that Bilam did not faithfully listen to God and accurately recount God’s mandate to him. What God had actually said to Bilam was, “You shall not go with them! You shall not curse the people, for it is blessed!”6 Bilam omits the last two essential points.
The Or HaChaim, an 18th-century Talmudist, writes that this omission gives rise to the following scenario:
God was angry because Bilam didn’t tell the princes what God had really said, and instead, acted as if going with them was his own decision. Thus God humiliates him by blocking his path, by giving him an obstinate donkey, by showing him that the donkey sees and hears better than he does.
In this analysis, God punishes Bilam for failing to honestly transmit the full three points to the officers by making his donkey “see and hear better than he does.” Bilam’s inability to listen closely to the word of God stands in sharp contrast to his donkey’s perceptive abilities. But did Bilam, in fact, not hear God? Or did he hear and willfully disobey? Perhaps God had to put words directly into Bilam’s mouth because he chosenot to listen. Perhaps Bilam selectively recounted God’s mandate to the officers of Balak not because he failed to hear the full message, but rather because he preferred to ignore the Divine command.
Like Bilam, when we don’t truly hear—or when we choose not to listen—we run the risk of diminishing our potential. I learned this lesson in 2004, in the cloud forests of Ecuador, where I was living and working as a teacher in a small, rural village. On my daily bike-ride to school, I would pass a concrete medical clinic with a bright “Clinica” sign hanging over the door. The smells and sounds made it clear that there were cows inside and one day I marveled aloud, to one of my students, at the level of care that the ill cows seemed to get. She didn’t seem to understand the question. “In the U.S., I don’t think we bring sick cows inside the clinic,” I explained. She burst out laughing, “No! They’re not being treated at the clinic. That’s just where we keep our cows when it rains.”
She went on to explain that, years earlier, a philanthropist had decided to build a health clinic for the village. He contracted with a landowner but never consulted with local Ecuadorians. If he had done so, he would have discovered that there were no doctors in the village and that local mores dictated that sick men and women be treated in their homes, not in a hospital. Thus, the clinic he built stood vacant for several years until farmers started using it to house cows while it rained.
While his intentions were admirable, the philanthropist missed an opportunity to build something truly useful. Deep listening—the kind that can help us bridge cultural differences and huge gaps of power and privilege—is difficult. Despite the challenge, we must do it to ensure that our intended blessings never become curses.
1 Numbers 24:5.
2 Midrash Tanaim Dvarim chapter 34.
3 Pirkei Avot 5:19.
4 Numbers 22:38.
5 Numbers 22:13.
6 Numbers 22:12.
From Rabbi Menachem Creditor
Balak #ParshaTweet: Sorcerers, talking donkeys, and mid-air transmogrified curses teach one thing: magic is real and must be used for good.
From Rabbi Simon Jacobson
Balak: The Secret to Immortality
From Rabbi Saraleya Schley
Parashat Balak (Numbers 22:2-25:9)
My Eyes are Uncovered as the Divine Sees Me 07/06/20110
A talking donkey and a sword-brandishing angel draw us into the story of Bilaam, a non-Israelite prophet who communicated directly with YHVH, the Hebrews’ Divinity. The Moabite king, Balak, was terrified of the Israelites after their conquest of neighboring tribes and promised Bilaam riches in exchange for cursing the Children of Israel. However as YHVH promised, Bilaam could only speak the words that YHVH placed in his mouth – despite Bilaam’s intention to curse the Hebrews, only words of blessing were uttered: “Ma tovu ohaleykha Ya’akov, mishk’noteykha Yisrael – how goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel.” (Numbers 24:5) In the beginning of the story, Bilaam’s eyes were metaphorically-covered and he could not see an angel that was blocking his path. His faithful donkey had to begin speaking to startle Bilaam into awakening.
What does it take for me to walk through the world with eyes uncovered –to see the hidden levels of Reality? Conversely, what might it mean for me to be seen by the eyes of the Divine? Our story teaches us about spiritual sight and inspires us to ask what it means to act in alignment with the Divine Will.
For Rebbe Nahman (Likutei MoHoRan 13:4), our holy deeds allow the Divine power of vision – koah ha-r’ut, to focus on us and to thereby influence our lives. If Divinity sees me as I live through increasing awareness of the underlying Unity, I am influenced to bring more Sprit and intentional action into my life. We remember that we are the eyes through which the Conscious Field experiences the universe –[“ner Hashem nishmat adam – the human soul is God’s lamp” – Proverbs 20:27].
The role of holy friends and community is to allow us to see God more clearly and to allow God to see us more clearly. Through the power of Divine seeing, we are able to discern more clearly our soul’s purpose. As we evolve and become more transparent to the Unity – as we are seen more clearly – our will and the Divine Will are increasingly aligned, and then our mission can manifest more clearly. Through our prayer, study and rightful action [as the Sages tell us (Pirke Avot 1:2) , these are the 3 foundations of the world – al ha Torah- learning, al haAvoda- Divine Service, al g’melut hasadim-deeds of generosity], we become more transparent to Divinity. And the better the Holy One sees us, the closer my desires – as refracted by my limited consciousness – are in Alignment with that which the Universe desires for me.
Let us be blessed that our eyes be opened to the wonders around us and to the multiple levels of Reality, as Bilaam’s eyes were opened. Let us hear the voices of all the creatures and see the angels in our paths who are just trying to guide us. Whenever we open our mouths to speak negativity, let only words of goodness and blessing be spoken!!! May we live lives of increasing transparency to the Divine Eyes so we can fulfill our paths and purposes.
Hero or Villain? (5766/2006)
The Torah presents a positive portrait of the seer Balaam son of Beor. Balaam is approached by King Balak, and asked to curse the Israelites. Balaam replies that he can only follow God’s guidance. He speaks directly with God, and only agrees to King Balak’s terms after God approves them.
The Torah also presents a negative portrait of Balaam. When Balaam leaves on King Balak’s mission, God is angry with Balaam for going. It turns out that Balaam is so estranged from God that Balaam’s donkey can see angels better than Balaam can.
These two contradictory stories placed side by side make it difficult to figure out what sort of a holy person Balaam was – genuine prophet or mercenary charlatan? Perhaps this explains why Biblical commentators have spent so much energy trying to figure out the meanings of Balaam’s name. He is a man “bli-am” – without a national loyalty, who can hear God’s voice without prejudice. He is a man “bal am” – one who confuses people and leads them away from God. The gematriya of his name equals that of “one who interprets dreams.”
Several explanations of this diversity of opinion are possible. Perhaps Balaam was a controversial figure in his time, someone who attracted both praise and blame. Or perhaps the Torah has a more personal lesson for us. Even the most spiritually elevated among us have occasional blind spots; even the most confused among us sometimes achieve clarity about God’s messages for us.
From Reb Mimi Feigelson
Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies
REPRINT FROM REB MIMI FEIGELSON – 5768
God’s Postal Service
Torah Reading: Numbers 22:2-25:9
Haftarah Reading: Micah 5:6-6:8
Growing up experiencing moments when I was forbidden to do something that at that time seemed unacceptable, I would challenge my mother: “But why…” Her classic response was “Do you want me to write you a letter?!” as if telling me that what she said should be sufficient. But I always wondered what that letter would say. How would she explain reality differently, or perhaps, how would I experience reality differently.
I often believe that our core experiences and perceptions don’t change. They manifest differently as we mature and evolve, but nonetheless, the core desires and questions that molded us in our childhood and youth return to visit us.
Therefore, it is in a similar way that I find myself saying at different junctures of my life, “If only God would write me a letter or send me a postcard…” In those moments when I don’t know what to do; in times of confusion or temporary blindness I hear this request reverberating inside of me: “If only God would send me a postcard with some guidance…”
The truth is that I have learned that God does send us such messages, but it takes some training to learn how to decode them.
In this week’s Torah portion Bilam is sent many such messages, but he is blinded with his desire and cannot read them. It seems to me from reading the story of Bilam’s journey with Balak’s messengers that God’s will is clear. In chapter 22, verse 12, God explicitly tells Bilam to not go with Balak’s representatives. Is there reason to think that God changed his mind just because Balak sends more important emissaries? (Bamidbar 22, 16)
Another angle to look at this would be in God’s response to this second visit. God says to Bilam: “If these people have come calling for you then go with them…” (Bamidbar 22, 20). One could say that this is proof that God approved of this journey, but the Torah clearly in verse 22 of our chapter tells us that God was not happy. Bilam goes not because he is sent by God, but rather he is being driven by the people that have come to call for him. He is not manifesting God’s will but rather the will of Balak the king of Moav. Perhaps we can read this verse as a form of exclusion – “go with them” means that Bilam goes with them and not with God.
The next few verses come to divert us from this seemingly Godless journey. The language seems familiar as it echo’s Avraham and Yitzchak’s journey to the Akeida (the binding of Yitzchak). In Breishit 22, 3 Avraham rises early, saddles his donkey and sets out with his two lads. In our story Bilam doesn’t rise so early… but nonetheless he too saddles his ass and takes his two lads with him. It is the element of vision that is so different for our two hero’s. We’re told that on the third day Avraham lifts up his eyes (Towards God? Towards the world he walks in?) and he sees Har Hamoriah (Mt. Moriah). His eyes lifted towards God and the world as His manifestation, to see and hear God’s will.
Bilam also has an encounter with the number three, but for him it reveals the moments of his blindness! Three times he doesn’t see what his ass sees! As a manifestation of the animal world, of nature, she can see what life has put in front of her eyes. Her master is blind to that which in right there!
Bilam wanted to fulfill Balak’s wish and therefore could not see the multiple ‘postcards’ that God was sending him. Each time his animal diverted from her way was a message from God to turn back. A message that Bilam had diverted from the way of God. Bilam’s determination deafen’s and blind’s him, shutting him off from God’s true voice, from those divine ‘postcards’.
One may ask how can we develop these eyes to see and ears to hear the messages that God sends us. It is told in the Talmud (Chulin 95b) that when Rav did not know whether or not to go somewhere he would go down to the river and see if the ferry that connected both sides of the river was coming or not. If it was coming, he knew that he was meant to go to the destiny he set out for. But if the ferry wasn’t coming he knew that he was meant to stay home. (Think about standing and waiting for a cab on Fifth Ave. in New York not knowing whether to head towards the Village or not…) Though this may seem somewhat simplistic, what it is offering us is a lens into the life that we live and surrounds us – how does the environment respond to our desires? And what is the relationship between our personal desires and God’s desire for us? What are the missions that God is sending us on? What Rav is asking of us is to align ourselves with our environment, look and listen to what the world is telling us as God’s messenger.
God sends us postcards every day. The only thing is – they aren’t rectangle with a shinny picture on one side and words on the other. God’s postcards come in the form and shape of people and events. They come at times in the form of a challenge that demands of us to exit our comfort zone and push ourselves to overcome our inhibitions. At times they manifest in the shape of a hand held out to us with love and care. And sometimes, if we allow ourselves to trust ourselves they come in the form and shape of a new, innovative or creative thought that we have witnessed for the first time.
Returning for a moment to my mother’s “letter writing” – It had been years since she was offering to “write me a letter” and the phrase had sunk deep into my childhood memories. Until one day, one Shabbat night, my nephews were misbehaving and my mother asked them to stop. When one of them asked “why”, or as he asked in Hebrew, “Lama?” all of a sudden I heard her say: “Ata rotzeh sh’ani echtov l’cha mictav?!” I fought to hold back my laughter, thinking to myself: “Mazal tov, twenty years later and now she’s offering to write letters in Hebrew…”
Sometimes God’s postcard comes in a language that we don’t immediately understand. This is where friends, family and a good ‘dictionary’ come in handy. Despite what it may seem like at times, they always arrive.
May we have the patience and courage to read the postcards as they come in. May we be blessed with holy interpreters in those moments of confusion and doubt. May we be blessed with eyes and ears to experience our lives as an ever-unfolding story that is continuously being written.
From Rabbi James Stone Goodman
I think he was a real prophet [Sifre on Deut. 357]
though I don’t think he spoke G*d
that is — he didn’t bless he didn’t curse
he didn’t have the power of either [Meam Loez]
words in that way do not curse
there is no such power
(still — we will defeat ourselves
if left alone).
— nor did he have the power to bless
we were already blessed! [Meam Loez]
Something missing in his vision don’t you know
he was blind in one eye [Numbers 24:3 and Sanh. 15a]
he was missing the eye that sees his own smallness
with his good eye he saw the greatness of G*d
— he was that kind of prophet. [Hacohen al HaTorah, v.4, p.115]
We Are Always Waiting
The text doesn’t say outright
the donkey made human sounds
surely the presence of God communicated to Bilaam
through the donkey
as if the animal had spoken
or maybe it was all a vision — [Rambam, Guide II:42]
The mouth on that donkey —
another of the ten miracles created in the in-between time [Avot 5:9]
not the six days not the Sabbath either
between the suns, between-time
part day knowledge part night knowledge —
built into Creation at the mystery time
miracles to appear when necessary
like saving science
stem cells, transplants
the cures we are waiting for
the peace we are praying for too
when we howl
HEY — WE ARE WAITING HERE —
hurry, something wonderful
created but not-present
like the mouth of Bilaam’s donkey speaking
— when it came time for the animal to speak
Just in time –
O holy Shabbes Inspiration Balak
in which Balak King of Moab brings the prophet Bilaam from the north
for cursing instead –
Maqam Mahour, similar to Maqam Rast
except the upper tetrachord is Ajam.
Every Shabbat has a particular maqam associated with it.
Maqam cognate to Maqom
C  D [1/4] E half-flat [1 1/4] F G  A  B [1/2] C
Rast on C Ajam on G
Mahour means disappointment or anger, it is used only twice a year,
on Shabbat Toldot and Balak. On Toldot, Esau is disappointed,
on parshat Balak, the king Balak.
THE TALKING DONKEY AND THE BRAYING MINYAN
— A Midrash —
by Reuven Goldfarb
In the days long ago, when the stories in the Bible weren’t written down yet, when the experiences of our ancestors were fresh and immediate, not yet the stuff of legend or paradigmatic models of positive or negative behavior, our tribes encountered a mighty prophet, Bilaam, a gentile, but one with a direct pipeline to the Almighty. He had been hired by Balak, the Moabite King, to curse us.
Now in those days, our tribes were still fairly distinct from one another. Not much intermarriage had yet taken place, nor had any land been distributed. Each tribe had its own camp and marched toward the Land of Promise in set divisions and formations.
In addition, each tribe had already acquired characteristic traits. Issachar, for example, was described by our forefather Jacob as “a strong-boned donkey,”
and Naftali as “a deer running free.” Nowadays, even though the tribes have merged, to a great extent, some of these characteristics persist among our people.
Now we know that HaKodesh Baruch Hu did not approve of Balak’s request that Bilaam curse the children of Israel, nor of Bilaam’s greed when offered much gold and honor, despite his protestations that he would only utter what God had put in his mouth. God showed his displeasure by sending an angel with a drawn sword to stand in Bilaam’s way as he rode along on his donkey.
The donkey saw the angel and shied away, but Bilaam did not see it and beat the poor animal, whereupon the donkey opened her mouth and protested, “What have I done to you that you beat me these three times?”
Bilaam, quite infuriated, shouted, “You have been playing games with me!” He even said, “If I had had a sword in my hand just now, I would have killed you!”
His donkey pleaded, “Am I not your old donkey? You have been riding on me as far back as you remember. Have I every been in the habit of doing this to you?”
Bilaam replied, “No.”
God then gave Bilaam the ability to see, and he perceived the angel standing in the road, with a drawn sword in his hand. Like most people who see an angel with a raised sword upbraiding them, Bilaam straightened up fast. He asked, humbly, whether he should continue his mission or turn back. The angel told him to go ahead, provided that he really only uttered the words that God would put into his mouth.
God really wanted him to go on this journey, but only with the right attitude. His ulterior motives were not sound, for he had been tempted by the promise of much wealth and great honor should he say the words that the King wanted to hear.
Now this part of the story is pretty well known — and yet it never fails to surprise and to please its readers and listeners. After all, the most surprising thing about the story is not that the donkey spoke, but that Bilaam didn’t notice anything unusual about it. Well, maybe was a bit of a Shaman as well as a prophet, and altered states were a common experience for him.
Anyway, back to the tribes of Israel and their particular characteristics. Issachar was like a donkey, strong but stubborn, patient but determined. We learn from Reb Shlomo that Issachar, who is associated with Iyar, the month of Counting the Omer, the month of Pesach Sheni, that Issachar always knows what time it is. The ArtScroll commentary notes that “two hundred heads of [the] Sanhedrin came from this tribe.” One of their specialties was establishing the cycle of leap years, thus regulating the calendar. Issachar is a steady, reliable bearer of burdens, an essential component of Jewish nationhood. If this story is in large part about a talking donkey, it’s also about a braying minyan.
A braying minyan always knows what time it is. It knows when to start davening, when to light candles, when it’s time for silence, where in the service the Kaddish may be recited, and which broches are appropriate for each occasion.
But there’s another tribe that’s part of our heritage, the tribe of Naftali, the graceful free-running deer, the founder of the playing minyan. Naftali loves to improvise, to dance, to gambol, to utter ecstatic strings of words, which are sometimes regarded as poetry or spontaneous mantras. The playing minyan and the braying minyan would seem not to have a lot in common. And yet these tribes and the other 10 tribes were destined to coalesce into one nation, just as the 13 original colonies did.
But before that could happen, they had to travel their separate trajectories, reach their own limits, hit their own dead ends, and realize how much they needed each other. Let’s see how their different journeys got played out in this parashah.
Oy vey! There’s more to this parashah than the episode of the talking donkey and the blessings that Bilaam was obliged to confer on us.
Let’s imagine a comparable situation today and project it backwards in time, to the era of our ancestral desert wayfarers.
How does the braying minyan daven? They light candles on time, they daven the same melodies as the previous week and the week before that — in fact, without the melodies they would have a hard time remembering the words properly. They bray and bellow — not always on key — stamp their feet, bump into each other good-naturedly, end early enough to have a good meal, and then they go to bed, always before midnight, and rest very well.
The playing minyan comes together with a quick, light step; they greet each other with lavish and extravagant terms of endearment; they pour forth profuse words of blessing, and race around in giddy circles proclaiming their oneness. At the end, they say, “That was a great service! Want to go clubbing?” A second one asks, “Who’s playing?” “The Midianites!” another one cries, and they race off to the nearest tent to hear the renowned stars perform their unique ethnic songs and exotic tribal dances. “What a treat!” they say. “Maybe we can bring some of this vitality into our worship circle.” “Oh, those braying donkeys would never let us do that.” “We can form our own herd. We’re wild! Not like those domesticated donkeys — so staid and conservative.”
We learn from the Midrash that the Midianite girls lured the Hebrew boys into joining their rites; rites which included heaving excrement at the statues of their gods. The poor boys, caught up in the frenzy, and thinking that God would approve of this desecration, did not realize that this was the form of worship actually employed by the Midianites. God punished them for their idolatry, just as the angel would have killed Bilaam and spared his donkey, had the donkey not saved her master’s life by turning aside.
Sof, sof, the tribes recognized that they needed to learn from one another how to worship the Creator correctly. After all, they reasoned, we’re all quadrupeds, even though some of us have split hooves (and split personalities) while others have solid hooves and one-track minds.
And that’s how the deer, Naftali, learned to bray, and the donkey, Issachar, learned to play, like the deer and the antelope play. Together, they were finally able to PRAY.
From Reb Sholom Brodt
מַה טֹּבוּ אֹהָלֶיךָ יַעֲקֹב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶיך יִשְׂרָאֵל
AHAVAT YISRAEL RIGHT IN THE MORNING
MAH TOVU O’HALECHA YAAKOV MISHKENOTECHA YISRAEL!
HOW WONDERFUL ARE YOUR TENTS YAAKOV, YOUR DWELLING PLACES ISRAEL
This ‘passuk’ [verse] is one of the most famous verses of the Torah. We recite it every day, at the beginning of Shacharit – the morning services, as soon as we enter the House of Prayer. Understanding this verse is thus pertinent to each day of the year. The opening verses of our parsha reveal the very interesting and unusual background of Balaam’s blessings:
AND BALAK THE SON OF TZIPOR SAW ALL THAT ISRAEL HAD DONE TO THE AMORITE. AND MOAB BECAME TERRIFIED OF THE PEOPLE [OF ISRAEL] BECAUSE OF THEIR GREAT NUMBERS AND SO MOAB DETESTED THE ISRAELITES. MOAB SAID TO THE ELDERS OF MIDYAN “NOW THIS COMMUNITY [OF JEWS] IS GOING TO GNAW AWAY EVERYTHING AROUND US JUST AS AN OX IN THE FIELD DEVOURS THE VEGETATION OF THE FIELD.” AND BALAK, THE SON OF TZIPOR, WAS KING FOR THE MOABITES AT THAT TIME. SO HE SENT MESSENGERS TO BALAAM, THE SON OF BEOR, TO PETAR, WHICH LIES ON THE RIVER IN THE LAND OF HIS PEOPLE TO INVITE HIM TO SAY “BEHOLD A NATION CAME OUT OF EGYPT, BEHOLD THEY HAVE COVERED THE FACE OF THE EARTH AND THEY ARE SITTING RIGHT OPPOSITE ME. AND NOW PLEASE COME AND CURSE THIS NATION FOR ME FOR THEY ARE MORE POWERFUL THAN ME, PERHAPS I WILL BE ABLE TO STRIKE THEM AND DRIVE THEM OUT OF THE LAND; FOR I KNOW THAT WHOEVER YOU BLESS IS BLESSED AND WHOEVER YOU CURSE IS CURSED.” [Bamidbar 22:2-6]
Balak ben Tzipor had been appointed to be the king of Moab. When the children of Israel were approaching his land, on their way to Israel, he was terrified, for he knew of their victory over the Amorites, a strong nation, led by a strong king. So he called on Balaam, a very powerful but unholy prophet, to come and curse the Jewish people, hoping that this would weaken Israel sufficiently, and thus enable him to beat us in war. How Balaam finally got permission from Hashem to go to Balak, and his amazing journey with his talking ass, is an entire topic in itself. Hashem did not allow Balaam to curse us and instead of uttering curses Hashem made him pronounce blessings. The most famous of all of these is:
“MAH TOVU O’HALECHA YAAKOV MISHKENOTECHA YISRAEL!” –
HOW WONDERFUL ARE YOUR TENTS YAAKOV, YOUR DWELLING PLACES ISRAEL [Bamidbar 24:5]
We need to understand the meaning and significance of these words. What exactly, inspired Balaam to praise the ‘tents’ of Yaakov and the ‘dwelling places’ of Israel? Why did the Rabbis choose this ‘blessing’ for the opening prayer of the morning services? This verse adorns the walls of so many shuls and it has inspired many niggunim – why?
The Talmud derives the following Halacha from this verse:
MISHNAH. IN A COURTYARD WHICH HE SHARES WITH OTHERS A MAN SHOULD NOT OPEN A DOOR FACING ANOTHER PERSON’S DOOR NOR A WINDOW FACING ANOTHER PERSON’S WINDOW. IF IT IS SMALL HE SHOULD NOT ENLARGE IT, AND HE SHOULD NOT TURN ONE INTO TWO. ON THE SIDE OF THE STREET, HOWEVER, HE MAY MAKE A DOOR FACING ANOTHER PERSON’S DOOR AND A WINDOW FACING ANOTHER PERSON’S WINDOW, AND IF IT IS SMALL HE MAY ENLARGE IT OR HE MAY MAKE TWO OUT OF ONE.
GEMARA. Whence are these rules derived? — R. Yochanan said: From the verse of the Scripture, “And Balaam lifted up his eyes and he saw Israel dwelling according to their tribes.”4 This indicates that he saw that the doors of their tents did not exactly face one another, whereupon he exclaimed: WORTHY ARE THESE THAT THE DIVINE PRESENCE SHOULD REST UPON THEM! [Baba Batra 60a.]
Based on this teaching of Rabbi Yochanan, Rashiexplains what impressed and inspired Balaam to say Mah Tovu – “he saw that the entrances [of their tents] did not face one another.” [Bamidbar 24:5]
We were living “b’tzni-ut” – following a code of modesty. ‘Tzanuah’ means hidden. ‘Tzni-ut’¬ – modesty, is a very important ‘midah’– behavior attribute that we are supposed to live by. Our tents were positioned in a manner that would afford each family, privacy. We did not, nor did we desire to, look into each others tents without permission.
‘Tzni-ut’- modesty, is usually considered in the sense of not flaunting what one possesses for any number of reasons, so as not to arouse inappropriate responses. For example, one who is blessed with wealth should not flaunt it in order not to arouse jealousy; or not to arouse a sense of being better than those who have less. Halacha – Jewish law, expects us to dress modestly, even in the privacy of our homes.
Although our traditional understanding of Rashi’s comment is very deep, and it does explain what so greatly impressed Balaam, it still does not seem to explain why we would recite and meditate on this verse upon entering the shul to ‘daaven’. Is there a connection between ‘tzni’ut’ – modesty and prayer?
Rashi cites another Rabbinical teaching found in Sanhedrin: since Balaam actually wanted to curse us and it was Hashem who caused him to change the curses into blessings, therefore, we can deduce the curses that he wished to bring upon us, from his blessings. And so the Rabbis understand:
Balaam sought to curse that we shouldn’t have Houses of Worship and Houses of Torah Study – but Hashem made him say: “HOW WONDERFUL ARE YOUR TENTS YAAKOV;”
Balaam sought to curse that the Shechinah should not dwell amongst us – but Hashem made him say: “[HOW WONDERFUL ARE] YOUR DWELLING PLACES ISRAEL.”
Now we understand why the Rabbis chose this verse for the opening of our prayers as we enter into our tents of worship, into the dwelling place of the Shechinah. However this explanation does not seem to take into account that which actually impressed Balaam – namely the fact that the entrances of their tents did not face each other.
In the ‘Nusach Ha’ari’ siddur, right before “Mah tovu…” one finds the following very interesting instruction from the holy Ari-z”l:
It is proper to say before [beginning] the prayers, “I accept upon myself the ‘mitzvat asei’ – [positive ‘do’ mitzvah] of ‘V’AHAVTA LE’REI-ACHA KAMOCHA – LOVE YOUR FELLOW AS YOU LOVE YOURSELF”
The Talmud teaches us that when daavening, it is best to daaven with a ‘minyan’. All the ‘bakashot’ – request prayers, are written in the plural form; “heal US, redeem US, bless US” etc. Even when praying privately, an individual should always pray in the name of all of Israel. Why is this so important?
“If the brother is a brother then the father is a father.” – a well known Chassidic aphorism. In our prayers we say “Avinu Malkeinu” – our Father our King. And Hashem says, “If I am your father do you know your brothers, do you know your sisters? Do you know how they are? Do you know if they have what they need?” If I want Hashem to listen to my prayers, to care for me, as a father listens to and cares for his child, I had better unite with all my brothers and sisters – for if the brother is not a brother then the father is not a father – chas v’shalom!
“Rachmana leeba ba-ee!” The Compassionate One desires the heart. “To serve Him with all your heart.” – Prayer is the “service of the heart”. Prayer is not only bringing my requests to Hashem; it is an act of love – in prayer we come close to Hashem, we arouse our love for Hashem. True love for Hashem can only be true if we love all His children. Daavening for yourself AND for everyone else is an act of love — “Love your fellow as yourself”. By accepting this mitzvah upon yourself before daavening, you are connecting yourself and your prayers with all of Israel.
Ahavah-Love is what unites us. There are two levels of love and unity. People usually feel united with others who are like themselves. If you dress as I do, if you eat the same foods as I do, if you shop at the same stores as I do, if you think as I do, if you vote for the same politicians as I do, if you share the same tastes and likes as I do, if I like the way you look, then I like you and we are ‘united’.
However this kind of love and unity is dependent on external factors and on what ‘I’ like and what ‘you’ like – this is self-centered love. Should enough of these external factors change, our unity is weakened and threatened. Ah! But then there is a much deeper level of unity…
On the higher level of love and unity, the external factors are not important; our unity is independent of these. We are united because we are all part of the One. The soul of a Jew is a ‘cheylek Elokah mima’al mammash’ -a veritable part of G-d above. Yes, we do have many differences, and these should be appreciated, no less than you appreciate the multifaceted variety of life forms, colors, sounds shapes and structures found in nature. Yet, everything is part of the Oneness of Hashem. Each person, including their different and various thoughts, including those you don’t agree with, are part of Hashem’s Oneness. In uniting with everyone in this deep way, we are living the reality of the hidden Oneness of Hashem. Only when we stop defining ourselves and others in physical terms and instead we learn to see ourselves and others as veritable parts of G-d above, only then will we be capable of truly fulfilling “Love your fellow as yourself.”
These two levels of love and unity are alluded to in Rashi’s commentary; Balaam seeing that the “entrances of their tents were not arranged one opposite the other”, can be understood to mean that Balaam saw that we were living on the higher and deeper level of unity and community. Our unity was independent of our self-centered needs and likes. We did not need to look into each other’s tents, to decide if we should or should not be united. We recognized that that which unites us is something much deeper that what can be seen externally. We had actually united in a deep unity. Upon seeing this, Balaam was disabled from cursing us, and in fact ended up praising and blessing us.
Accordingly we can now understand why this verse was placed at the beginning of the morning prayers, to be recited as soon as we enter the shul. As soon as we enter Hashem’s House, the first and most important thing is not to come in as a separate and separating individual, but rather to enter as an individual who is deeply united with his people. It is for this reason that we are to recite and meditate on the deep unity and love that inspired Balaam to say “Mah tovu ohalecha Yaakov, mishkenotecha Yisrael”, upon entering Hashem’s House of Love and Prayer.*
[* that was the name of Reb Shlomo’s shul, first in SF and later in Yerushalayim]
The Ariz”l’s instruction: It is right to say before [beginning] the prayers, “I accept upon myself the ‘mitzvat asei’ – [positive ‘do’ mitzvah] of ‘V’AHAVTA LE’REI-ACHA KAMOCHA – LOVE YOUR FELLOW AS YOU LOVE YOURSELF”, clarifies the intent of reciting the Mah Tovu verse. This acceptance upon yourself to love your fellow as yourself is the prerequisite to ‘tfilah’ prayer. When you live in unity you can daaven. When daavening in unity, your prayers are an act of love and unity, not only with Hashem, but also with all of Israel – and they will be readily accepted.
When we truly unite with each other, the Shechinah dwells amongst us, and then the shul really is a House of Hashem. The King of all Kings wants His Shechinah to dwell among us. But first we must, together, form the vessel of ‘Knesset Yisrael’, the vessel that is formed by the collectivity of all the souls of Israel to receive the presence of the Shechinah. This unity and love which we accept upon ourselves, has to extend all through the day. And each time we return to Hashem’s House we reaffirm our acceptance and commitment to live in unity and loving harmony.
Soon it will be the 17th of Tammuz, the second of the four fast days commemorating the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash. Thus we are starting the ‘three weeks’ of mourning. The Talmud tells us that the 2nd Beit Hamikdash was destroyed because of ‘sinat Chinam’ — baseless hatred. We also learn that anyone who does not get to see the rebuilding of the Beit Hamikdash in his days, it is as if it was destroyed in his days. What do we need to do to help rebuild the Beit Hamikdash? Many holy Rabbis have been teaching that just like the Beit Hamikdash was destroyed because of ‘sinat chinam’, it will be rebuilt out of ‘ahavat chinam’ — baseless love.
May we all be blessed to truly renew and deepen our ‘achdut’, oneness and unification with each other and with Hashem, and may we merit to see the reestablishment and return of the Beit Hamikdash, [which is already complete, it only needs to be brought down from heaven to earth] quickly in our days, together with the speedy arrival of Mashiach Tzidkeinu. Amen, kein yehi ratzon.
From Rabbi Simon Jacobson
Balak: The Talking Donkey
Listen to Your Body
A mysterious event in this week’s Torah portion reveals a phenomenon new to modern psychology—that we must listen to our body’s voice, which carries messages, memories and potent power
One of the strangest episodes in history takes place in this week’s Torah portion. The gentile prophet Balaam is commissioned by Moabite King Balak to curse the Jewish people. Balak felt threatened by the Jews. He wanted to defeat them in battle and drive them away.
Initially G-d does not allow Balaam to go. But after Balak’s emissaries beseech him G-d permits him to go, saying “But only do exactly as I instruct you.”
Balaam got up in the morning, saddled his female donkey and went on his way. G-d plants His angel in the road to oppose him.
When the donkey saw G-d’s angel standing in the road with a drawn sword in his hand, the donkey went aside from the road into the field. Balaam beat the donkey to get it back on the road. G-d’s angel then stood in a narrow path through the vineyard, where there was a fence on either side. When the donkey saw G-d’s angel, it edged over to the side, crushing Balaam’s foot against the wall. [Balaam] beat it even more. G-d’s angel continued ahead, and he stood in a narrow place, where there was no room to turn right or left. When the donkey saw
G-d’s angel, it lay down [refusing to budge] for Balaam. Balaam lost his temper and beat the donkey with a stick.
G-d then opened the donkey’s mouth and it said to Balaam, “What have I done to you that you beat me these three times?” “You have embarrassed me [or: been playing games with me],” shouted Balaam at the donkey. “If I had a sword in my hand just now, I would have killed you!”
The donkey replied to Balaam, “Am I not your [faithful] donkey, upon which you have been riding from back when until this day. Have I ever been unmindful to you?” “No,” replied Balaam. G-d then opened Balaam’s eyes and he perceived the angel standing in the road, with a drawn sword in his hand. [Balaam] kneeled and prostrated himself on his face.
G-d’s angel said to him, “Why did you beat your donkey these three times? I have come out to oppose you, because your errand is obnoxious to me. When the donkey saw me, it turned aside these three times. If it had not turned aside before me, as it did now, I would have killed you and spared [the donkey].”
Balaam said to G-d’s angel: “I have sinned! I did not know that you were standing on the road before me. If you consider it wrong [for me to go], I will return home.” G-d’s angel said to Balaam, “Go with the men. But do say anything other than the exact words that I declare to you.
The narrative continues with G-d compelling Balaam to bless the Jews instead of cursing them, to the chagrin of Balak and his cronies.
This story with the talking donkey is puzzling from beginning to end. If G-d didn’t want Balaam to go to Balak, why didn’t he just stop him from going? If for whatever reason G-d wanted to block his way with an angel, why did he hide the fact from Balaam and allowed the donkey to see the angel – after all Balaam not the donkey was the prophet?!
A Torah axiom states that G-d does not perform miracles in vain. Why then was this miracle of miracles necessary, to have the donkey see the angel, resist moving on, until the donkey ends up speaking?! This miracle would have been totally unnecessary if Balaam had seen the angel himself. Why the need to open the donkey’s mouth?!
The plot thickens: the Mishne states (in the Ethics of our Fathers) that the “donkey’s mouth” was one of the ten unique things created at dusk on the sixth day of creation! In other words, G-d planted this episode from the beginning of time by creating the “donkey’s mouth” for the day when the donkey would speak to Balaam!
Why is the “donkey’s mouth” so significant?
Torah speaks in the language of man. Beneath the literal meaning in the Torah narrative lay layers upon layers of deeper dimensions. Within the “body” of the story lies it’s soul – profound spiritual and psychological insights that illuminate the nature of our psyches and provide direction how to deal with the challenges of life. Every character in Torah, every episode of its narrative, parallels a facet of our personalities.
The story of Balaam and his donkey is the story of our own lives, with a multitude of lessons.
The Hebrew word for donkey is “chamor.” [A female donkey (jennet) is called “osson.” “Pered” is the Hebrew name for a mule (or a hinny), a hybrid borne of a horse and a donkey. But the general name for donkey, male or female, is “chamor”].
The Baal Shem Tov explains that “chamor” also means matter. In Exodus the verse states: “When you see the donkey of your enemy being overburdened by its burdens, don’t ignore it. It’s incumbent upon you to help relieve its burden.” Interprets the Baal Shem Tov: You observe “chamor” – your physical body and the coarse materialism of life – and you see that it is your enemy, opposing all things spiritual, and feeling overburdened by the sublime responsibilities of the soul. You may then consider ignoring the body so that it does not distract you from fulfilling your calling. You may even want to punish your body through asceticism and self-affliction. Say the Torah: No! You are responsible to support, refine and elevate the “chamor,” even if it is ostensibly your enemy.
Balaam the prophet represents the paradox of a spiritual man locked in a decadent lifestyle. Each of us has two dimensions: A sacred side and a profane one. A person may be deeply spiritual, yet also profoundly corrupt. Indeed, the Talmud says “the greater the person, the greater his evil inclination.” An extraordinarily gifted person always has equally powerful unique challenges. Left without discipline these gifts can be abused. And when they are, it is very difficult to get through to the person. Because the smarter he is, the better are his excuses and his ability to cover his tracks. He can mask his subjectivity with brilliant smokescreens.
At it’s extreme, you have Balaam: A prophet willing and delighted to use his Divine power to curse an entire nation.
Spiritual corruption or distortion is worse than other forms of corruption, because it uses a very positive force for negative ends. In other instances of corruption, you can always hope that a person’s conscience and spirit can be aroused. But once the spirit has been corrupted, and the soul has been taken hostage by destructive forces, what recourse is left?
The same holds true for any abuse perpetrated by a person who is supposed to love you: A parent, a sibling, a spouse. With strangers we have our guard up. If a stranger is abusive, s/he cannot hurt you that much because you don’t necessarily expect much from a stranger. But abuse coming from a loved one hurts us in the deepest place: the place of love. A parent, for instance, is supposed to love you, and as a child you are vulnerable before your parent. Thus, when the parent is abusive, it touches the very core of our beings: our souls. The worst abuse is the one that scars our most vulnerable places. Nothing is worse then love itself – and the source of love – being (ab)used in a cruel way.
So what is the antidote to this epitome of distortion? If the gifted person, or the one who is supposed to be providing love, has become corrupt to the point that he cannot even listen, how then do you get through to him.
The dilemma is also from the perspective of the abusee (the survivor): Once someone has been hurt in a deep part of his spirit, he doesn’t allow anyone in. So how can he be reached?
Yet, G-d in His infinite wisdom precedes the cure before the illness. Even when the soul may be unable to hear the message, the body has its own voice that speaks to us.
In modern psychology there is a phenomenon, which we shall call “psychological hypothermia.” When a child suffers severe abuse from a loved one (especially if its ongoing), the child will go “out of body” to separate himself from the experience. One of the reasons for this is presumably because the child cannot tolerate the possibility of a loved one hurting him. He therefore disassociates from the experience, as if it didn’t happen to him.
Hypothermia is “a decrease in the core body temperature to a level at which normal muscular and cerebral functions are impaired.” When a child, for instance, falls into ice-cold water, and his temperature drops to dangerous levels, the child will go into a state of shock, which shuts down the primary life functions to the point that the child may appear dead, in order to preserve the bare minimum energy for the vital organs. In other words, in order to survive the conscious faculties have to temporarily stop functioning.
The same is true psychologically. For survival purpose, sometimes we have to detach from an experience, to the point that we may be unaware of it in our conscious minds.
Yet – and this is the big yet – even as our conscious spirits may be unaware of the experience, our bodies remember them. Every experience in our lives is etched into the memory of our bodies. That is why we talk about experiencing “knots” and “tightness” in our bodies. Psychological feelings do not remain in the mental domain; they seep into the body, causing all sorts of physical reactions (“knots in the stomach” is one mild example). Anxiety oozes toxins into your body. Strong traumatic experiences tie up your body in knots.
In severe cases, the personality shift that happens at the time of abuse remains long after the experience. A child may grow into an adult that has actually shifted his personality, and is living, in some ways, like another person, often having “out of body” experiences. So severe was the initial abuse.
But, even when the soul, for whatever reason, is unable to consciously acknowledge an experience, the body has stored it away, for the day when it will be safe to emerge.
And therein lies the true power of therapy and growth: To help an individual find safety and security, so that he or she can then work on “untying the knots,” and allowing himself to access the soul that he had to hide away so long ago.
By no means is this a simple process. It can even be torturous at times. Yet, in a strange way this phenomenon is a testimony to one of the greatest resiliencies of the human being: G-d allows a child to survive even the worst experiences, and then gives him the strength to reconnect with himself when the times is right and the situation safe.
Even when the soul is not conscious of the memory, because the abuse came from a soul connection – a loving person – the body is endowed with a wisdom that does remember. And it holds the secret till the day when the soul will be able to hear the message.
This is the inside story of Balaam and his donkey. G-d could not get through to Balaam on a fundamental level. He saw that Balaam was intent on going to Balak and helping him implement his malevolent plan. But even when the soul cannot be reached, the body can. So it is the “chamor” – the body – that sees the “angel,” and it is the body that cries out to the person prodding him to open his eyes.
What is most fascinating about this concept is that usually we associate awareness with the soul. Yet, Jewish mysticism teaches that the body too was created by G-d. It therefore contains unique Divine energy of its own. Indeed, the body carries enormous power stemming from the Essence of G-d, which in some ways is superior even to the energy of the soul!
But often when our bodies speak to us, beckoning us to act, we may ignore the voice. Or worse: We may “beat” the body, as Balaam beat his donkey, because it is becoming a nuisance and distracting us from our misguided plans.
So, we have many voices available to us. In healthy situation, and in many instances, it is the voice of our souls that we should be heeding. Yet, at times our bodies carry important messages for us.
The question is: Are we listening?
From Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
On blessings and curses (Radical Torah repost) 2006
“Now Balaam, seeing that it pleased the Lord to bless Israel, did not, as on previous occasions, go in search of omens, but turned his face toward the wilderness.”
Earlier in the parsha (parashat Balak), we learned that Balak was agitated to see the Israelites — victors in war against the Bashanites — encamped beside him. They were so numerous, Torah tells us, that they hid the earth from view. (I imagine a valley, sage and scrub, blanketed with people and goats and tents.) So he hired Balaam, talented with curses, to curse these new and warlike neighbors so that they might go away.
Curses one and two have failed, and now Balaam turns his face to the wilderness. He turns his back on Balak and regards the desert, the empty place where God is easy to find. Often in Torah, revelation is found not among the teeming throngs of civilization but b’midbar, in the wild place of the desert, and this is where Balaam looks for guidance.
“As Balaam looked up and saw Israel encamped tribe by tribe, the spirit of God came upon him. Taking up his theme, he said:
Word of Balaam son of Beor,
Word of the man whose eye is true,
Word of him who hears God’s speech,
Who beholds visions from the Almighty,
Prostrate, but with eyes unveiled:
How fair are your tents, O Jacob,
Your dwellings, O Israel!”
When Balaam gazes into the wilderness, his eye settles on the one thing that doesn’t belong, the encamped community only recently alighted in this valley. It is when he looks upon the children of Israel that the spirit of God comes upon him. The human connection forged in regarding this spirited band of newcomers causes the prophetic spirit to arise in him.
He asserts first who he is, and then that his senses are unified in perceiving God. He proclaims his position vis-a-vis the Eternal — prostrate, befitting the moment of encounter — but assures us that his eyes are unveiled.
Mystics of many traditions use the metaphor of veils — and the lack thereof — in talking about encountering God. “The paradox of the veil is simply that things are not God, but God is present in the things,” writes William Chittick. God cannot be seen with the eyes or understood with the mind, but God can be seen “by the unveiled heart.” Balaam’s heart may have been closed to God at the beginning of this story, but after his encounter with the angel on the road — after God opened his eyes — Balaam is a different man. He has learned Who is beyond the veil of ordinary existence. Facing into the desert, Balaam is again awakened into the deep reality of what the unveiled heart can perceive.
With eyes unveiled, Balaam sees a new reality. Instead of seeing a military threat, a foreign people to be feared — as Balak had seen — Balaam looks into the hills and sees a people who travel with the Holy Blessed One in their midst. He sees with mochin d’gadlut, his “big mind” or expanded consciousness, instead of mochin d’katnut, constricted consciousness. And in that moment of seeing, all he can do is offer praise.
“How fair are thy tents, O Jacob / Thy dwellings, O Israel,” he says. In this synechdoche, the patriarch symbolizes the whole. Jacob is the earthly, embodied side of the patriarch, the aspect that inhabits physical spaces. Israel is the other side of the coin, the part of the patriarch which wrestled with the angel of God and came away blessed. Where Jacob has tents, Israel has dwellings — in Hebrew, Israel has mishkanot, like the holy dwelling-place of the indwelling Shekhinah.
Each of us is both Jacob and Israel; we have Jacob-ness and Israel-ness in ourselves. And each of us can make the leap from inhabiting a tent to inhabiting a dwelling-place. When we wrestle and dance and dream with Torah, we transform ourselves from worldly Jacob to engaged Israel, and we embody Balaam’s blessing.
Balaam compares the Israelites to palm-groves, to gardens beside a river; to aloes and cedars, branches dripping with water and roots drinking abundant moisture. (Clearly this is the sacred text of a desert people — these words wouldn’t be half so remarkable in a rainforest.) Of course, some of Balaam’s imagery might be problematic for us today — as when he foretells how the Israelites will devour enemy nations and crush their bones! Maybe today we aspire to a gentler mode of intercultural interaction.
In the end, Balaam strengthens both blessing and curse. “Blessed are they who bless you, / Accursed are they who curse you!” he cries. I can’t help seeing a hint of the doctrine of karma in his words. When we offer blessings for the people around us, we invite blessing to flow forth from the Source of All Blessing; when we offer curses, we turn away from that shefa, that divine flow, choosing spiritual drought.
As we study parashat Balak this week, may we be blessed with the ability to choose blessing for all. May our eyes be opened, and may we understand deeply and fully how the stance we take toward our neighbors creates the reality of how we interact.
And Balaam arose in the morning, and saddled his ass (22:21)
In order to place before man the “free choice” that is essential to his mission in life, G-d so ordered His world that every positive force has its negative counterpart. Were there to exist a good element which cannot be put to corrupt use, then man’s potential for evil would be disadvantaged and would not present the equal challenge which makes for the choice factor in life. In the words of King Solomon (Ecclesiastes 7:14), “One corresponding to the other, G-d created.”
But this “equality” between good and evil extends only to the most superficial level of reality. When a person learns to look beyond the surface of things to their inherent purpose, he will see that only the good in the world is real and substantial. Good is an existence in its own right, while evil exists merely to provide the tension which imbues the positive acts of man with meaning and significance.
Hence, there cannot be anything “original” to evil, which is but a shallow, corrupted refraction of the good in the world. If Balaam was able to transcend the norm with the intensity of his hate, this was only because, centuries earlier, Abraham had done the same out of love of his Creator.
(The Lubavitcher Rebbe)
I called you to curse my enemies, and, behold, you have blessed them altogether (24:10)
The Talmud forbids to name ones child after a wicked person, quoting the verse (Proverbs 10:7), “The name of the wicked shall rot.” Yet an entire section of Torah is named after Balak, King of Moab, to whom the Midrash accords the title “who hated [the Jewish people] most of all their enemies.”
For Balak is the Parshah of the future, where evil is transformed to good and curses emerge as blessings. It is in Balak that the most beautiful verses describing the uniqueness of Israel and the specialty of their relationship with the Almighty issue from the vile mouth of Balaam, summoned by Balak to curse the Jewish people. And it is in Balak that the most explicit reference to the era of Moshiach in the Five Books of Moses is found, in the form of a prophecy by the selfsame Balaam.
“Let Moses, who loves them, rebuke them,” said G-d when the people of Israel needed rebuke, for rebuke from a loving heart is many times more effective. “And let Balaam, who hates them, bless them,” for the blessing of an enemy is so much more real than a lovers praises.
In the Parshah of Balak we enter a Moshiach-like world—a world of “the greater wisdom that comes from folly, and the greater light that comes from darkness” (Ecclesiastes 2:13).
From Reb Zalman
Mah Tovu: An Organismic Whole
The following comes from Reb Zalman on this week’s Torah portion, Balak. [NOTES by Gabbai Seth Fishman]
When Balak called on Bilaam to come and curse the people,
Balak, as we get it from the Torah, was an Aramean, because Pethor, the city where Balaam was, was near the Euphrates and not quite where the Moabite country was.
[NOTE: Numbers 22:5, “Balak sent messengers to … Pethor, which is by the river of the land of his people.”]
now there are several words being used for curse:
The Zohar has a remarkable thing about how Balak was a magician.
[NOTE: Zohar Balak (3:184b) states that Balak was called “ben Tzipor“ because he would use a bird as a means to perform his magic and he also understood wisdom by way of a bird.]
For Balak, there was something impossible at that point about handling the Jewish people’s presence, and therefore, he wanted to have a kind of curse put on. Not everybody believes that verbal curses or magic and voodoo can really influence things, but this is exactly what Balak wanted; he really believed that curses work.
The lightest curse is kal, l-kalel, which comes from “making light off,” and just sort of like, “insulting.”
The next one is arur which is really much stronger. And it was this second kind of curse, arur, that Balak wanted to do.
Aror is to remove the protection from somebody. A person under the influence of a curse of Arur will not then be protected. Then, the karmic power that was to have taken vengeance on a person is able to do so.
Nokev is the strongest one, as he says “kavah li.”
Kavo is the strongest one because it makes a hole in the life-envelope of the person and draws out the blood, similar to the way the blood is taken out when a person is slaughtered. The blood is life-blood so when it is removed, the life energy is taken out. That’s the curse associated with Kavo.
Bilaam wanted God to agree that there should be a Kov, but God didn’t even agree to Arur.
And so, back and forth between God and Bilaam, we find him in a situation where he is struggling to find a place from which he can begin to curse, a place from which he can begin to hurt.
And this is true even today. When we look at the way people who want to harm Israel are dealing with us, they’re always trying to find a vantage point from which they can say that what we are doing is bad and is wrong.
Though Bilaam was promised more gold and silver than he could carry,
[NOTE: cf., Rashi quoting Tanchuma on Numbers 22:17]
even in him, there was a certain kind of truth-seeking when he says, I cannot do anything but what God puts in my mouth.
[NOTE: E.g., Numbers 22:38, and ff.]
What was it that he saw that made him finally say, (Numbers 24:5), “How good are thy tents, oh Jacob, thy dwelling places Oh Israel?”
The answer is that when he saw that the people were dwelling in tribes around the sanctuary, that was so powerful for him: He saw the beauty and the integration of it all.
And he saw the ideal of how a people should exist, namely in tribal forms around the sanctuary.
Now what are tribal forms? Every tribe had its own connection to a sign of the Zodiac.
[NOTE: Tribes: Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Reuben, Simeon, Gad, Ephraim, Menasseh, Benjamin, Dan, Asher, Naftali. Signs: Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, Virgo, Libra, Scorpio, Sagittarius, Capricorn, Aquarius, Pisces.]
When people are making a circle and they line themselves up according to their birthdays to create a total Zodiac, that brings about a great deal of harmony.
If the people in the Congress sat themselves around the Senate or House of Representatives according to their sun signs, , instead of by party affiliations, the likelihood is that the Leos or the Aquarians would create a lot more harmony. And if the American people could “seat themselves around the Constitution” in the same order in which their birth signs put them, the likelihood is we would achieve a great deal more harmony in our political system.
So it is critical that when we come to shul we make sure that the people who are in the synagogue, (though they may be of different signs and modes of being), can look at each other and say, “We all belong.”
In an organismic situation, every one of these twelve tribes contributes to the other.
And we are also saying the same thing as we extend this notion to include us and other religions. There must be a recognition that among klal yisrael and beyond, we are all part of the organismic whole. In relation to other religions, we see ourselves as a vital organ in the planetary life, along with the other vital organs.
If we are healthy in the interaction of our own tribal forms, we will be able to help bolster the health of other groups as well.
From Rav Kook
Balak: Tents and Dwelling Places
The evil prophet Balaam wanted to curse the people of Israel, but instead found himself blessing them, “How goodly are your tents, Jacob; your dwelling places, Israel” (Num. 24:5).
Is the repetition in Balaam’s blessing only poetic? Or is there a deeper significance to these two forms of shelter, the ohel (tent) and the mishkan (dwelling place)?
The Journey of the Soul
As we strive to grow spiritually, we make use of two contradictory yet complementary methods. The first method is our aspiration to constantly improve ourselves. We strive to attain greater wisdom and enlightenment. We seek to continually refine the emotions and ennoble the spirit.
The second method is the necessity to restrain our striving for spiritual growth, in order to assimilate changes and guard against spiritual lapses. We want to internalize our spiritual and ethical gains, and maintain our current level. This means that we must curb the desire for growth, so that our ambitions do not overextend the soul’s natural capacity for change.
The tent and the mishkan are both forms of temporary shelter. Both relate to the soul’s upwards journey. However, they differ in a significant aspect. The tent is inherently connected to the state of traveling. It corresponds to the aspiration for constant change and growth. The mishkan is also part of the journey, but it is associated with the rests between travels. It is the soul’s sense of calm, its rest from the constant movement, for the sake of the overall mission.
Surprisingly, it is the second method that is the loftier of the two. The desire to change reflects a lower-level fear, lest we stagnate and deteriorate. Therefore, the blessing mentions tents first, together with the name Jacob, the first and embryonic name of the Jewish people. The need to stop and rest, on the other hand, stems from a higher-level fear, lest we over-shoot the appropriate level for the soul. For this reason, the blessing mentions “mishkan” together with the name Israel, Jacob’s second and holier name.
In any case, both aspects are required in order to achieve stable spiritual growth. Balaam’s prophetic blessing praises the balanced union of “How goodly are your tents, Jacob,” the soul’s longing for change, together with the more restful state of “your dwelling places, Israel,” restricting growth in order to avoid unchecked advancement, thus enabling the soul to properly absorb all spiritual attainments.
(Gold from the Land of Israel, pp. 269-270; adapted from Olat Re’iyah vol. I, pp. 42-43)
Copyright © 2006 by Chanan Morrison
From Rabbi Miles Krassen
Parshat Balak, 5770
We come now to Parshat Balak, which is, for the most part, the story of Balaam the prophet. The interesting thing about Balaam that isn’t explicit in the Torah text itself, but is in the tradition, is that Balaam is viewed as basically the equal of Moshe Rabbeinu. That is to say, Balaam is no slouch. He is not just any sort of ordinary black magician that Balak has handy. In fact, in our tradition he’s viewed explicitly as being on the same level as Moshe Rabbeinu. What that means is that he is the Moshe of the “other side.”
In the kabbalistic tradition there is the side of holiness and what is called the “other side,” which is a euphemism for saying, “the mirror image of Holiness,” which has the same structure, as it’s made up of the same sefirot and the same qualities and energies. But the other side has the purpose of retarding progress. So there are the evolutionary forces which are represented by the aspects of Holiness, of which Moshe Rabbeinu is the transmitter, or the deep mind that connects to the Divine Source and affects the nature of reality decisively through its power to articulate the directions that come from the Divine Source Itself. In the case of Moshe Rabbeinu, the messages that he gets are evolutionary, they’re pointing towards the future. Everything that is on the side of holiness has zeh le’umat zeh. We have the verse (Kohelet 7:14) that says, “one thing was made corresponding to the other,” meaning that if you have something on the side of Holiness, just as in the Newtonian sense, there is an equal and opposite force on the other side. There is something resisting, except in this instance it is not exactly equal and opposite. In a certain way, it’s equal because it’s on the same level of functionality, but there’s still a clear distinction, because in the long run, it wouldn’t be social evolution unless something actually progressed, unless something actually evolved. So, holiness is ultimately higher than the other side, but we can’t discount the other side, meaning that the process of evolution takes a lot of time. The reason evolution takes a lot of time is because there are opposing forces. The curser, Balaam, has a power that’s similar to Moshe Rabbeinu, but its power is the other side form that offsets the virtuous power of Moshe Rabbeinu. Balaam’s primary function is to curse, that’s to say, to articulate the form of energy that is resistant and that channels and manifests the destructive elements that retard the evolutionary process.
So what we see in this parashah is basically this: we have this king, Balak. Balak represents the powers of the current establishment that are frightened of progress, they’re frightened of evolution. Balak sees that the forces that followed the evolutionary direction of Moshe Rabbeinu have had a certain measure of success and that frightens the established order because everyone wants to maintain itself. That’s a fundamental principle of evolution: everything that exists has a desire to live and to continue living. So Balak’s operation is to see, “how can I hold back my own destruction?” And the way Balak goes about this is to turn to the mirror image of Moshe Rabbeinu, who is Balaam.
Balaam is Balak’s prophet, his divine mouthpiece, so to speak. So, Balak goes to Balaam and says, “look, we’re in trouble here, because there is this revolutionary teaching that is coming through and it’s had some success, and if we’re not careful, we’ll be finished! So, I want you to use your power, your equal and opposite power, to put a curse on the evolutionary forces, which is to say, to unleash a potent form of energy that will retard the success and progress that comes through the holy side, through the message of Moshe Rabbeinu.”
Now, Balaam is actually very high, so what he says to Balak…he doesn’t simply respond by saying, “neat! Cool! Okay, let’s do it! I know I’m going to get paid well for this because it means a lot to you.” But what Balaam says to Balak is, “look, I’m going to tell you something: I might be the equal to Moshe Rabbeinu, I have a lot of power and that’s to say, I’m tuned in to the Divine Purpose and so I can really bring a lot of powerful stuff through. But the truth of the matter is, there’s not one thing I can do on my own. I’m only really channeling, as the mouthpiece, The Articulator, The Shaper of the Opposite Forces of Resistance that are only a part of the total picture. Really, I’m not a separate entity unto myself because there really is only one Totality and there is only one Source driving everything according to Its will. So, I understand what you’re asking me to do, but I can only do it to the extent that I get the message from the Divine Source.” And that’s the answer Balak gets from Balaam.
Of course, what we see is that Balaam can’t really deliver anything but a blessing because the fact of the matter is the evolutionary message and direction is going to materialize. And so the best that he can do is expressed in the verse in which he says, er’enu ve-lo’atah, “I can see where this is leading and it’s not going to be immediate.” Asherenu ve-lo qarov, “I can hold it back, to some extent, so that it won’t be happening right now, but,” darach kokhav mi-Ya’aqov ve-qam shevet mi-Yisrael, “whatever I’m going to do to retard this, it’s inevitable that the Star of Guidance, the Light of the Future will be leading the lower aspect of the human part of us, which is Ya’akov. This is the part of us that has to be transformed. And the shevet, which is the ascendancy and scepter, will ultimately emerge from the higher evolving level of Yisrael.”
So, there’s a teaching given over that illustrates the difference between Moshe Rabbeinu, who’s the tzaddik, meaning the channel for Divinity on the holy evolving side, and Balaam, who’s on the opposite side, which is the channel for Divinity on the holding back side. A verse from Shemuel says, “Tzaddik moshel yirat Elohim, “a tzaddik rules through yirat Elohim, through awe of the Ultimate Power.” And the Midrash explains, “Ha-Qodesh Baruch Hu gozer v’tzaddik mevatlo,” “the Holy One determines what’s going to happen, but a tzaddik can cancel it out.” This is the very opposite of Balaam. Balaam can’t cancel out anything, he can only do. He can only express the form of retardant power that G-D wishes to be currently operative. But on the holy side of Moshe Rabbeinu, the ultimate difference is that the tzaddik can actually go higher than the power that is predominating in any particular time, which is the “Divine decree,” the gezeyrah. And so, through the power of the heart of the tzaddik, which has the intention of fostering evolution and leading people in that direction, there is the ascendency. There is something special. Even though Balaam is on the same level as Moshe Rabbeinu, there is that little extra, because Moshe can actually go beyond any manifestation that presently exists and bring down a higher evolutionary light that can literally transform things and make the situation better.
In giving over these teachings, I try to shape things in a new way, but I’m not sitting here simply making all of this up! I draw from teachings that are explicit in the tradition, but whose meaning for the emerging paradigm is hidden in plain sight and ready to be revealed.
If you look in the p’shat, the apparent meaning of just what appears in the Chumash, Balaam is an enigma in that he is brought in to curse and yet he delivers the most beautiful, poetic blessings. There is something very ironic here, but it’s hard to understand. In the esoteric tradition he is given tremendous kavod in the sense that he’s the other side of Moshe Rabbeinu. We could go much more deeply into that teaching, but the point is that while there are offsetting powers, there is a slight and deciding advantage on the side of holiness. But this is obviously a process in which there are retardant conservative forces.
Admittedly, I reject the more dualistic paradigm in which there is a need to completely vilify Balaam and Balak. That’s dualistic in that there is absolute evil and absolute good. Rather, in the new paradigm we see a complex system involving various forces that perform different functions. But what might be considered negative or dark forces are clearly “taking their orders from the same source” or, to put it another way, participating in the same holistic process, and they don’t really have any power to overcome the “Divine Intent.” It is this that is really the message, the key to Balaam for us. Yes, he really is powerful, but he has no independent power, no independence at all! On the other hand, in a way, on the side of holiness there is a quality of freedom. There is a certain freedom that enables a really devoted being to have the capacity to elevate beyond the present configurations, the “Divine decrees” and through this one can actually change something. That’s the transformative power. Balaam doesn’t have the transformative power, only a kind of retardant power, a resistance factor.
~ Rabbi Shefa Gold’s Torah Journeys ~
NUMBERS 22:2 – 25:9
This Torah portion tells the story of a prophet named Bil’am hired by King Balak to curse the Israelites. This prophet-for-hire has an amazing adventure which includes listening to his talking donkey and encountering angels. In the end Bil’am blesses the Israelites with the words ‘Mah Tovu.’
HERE IS THE STORY of our evolution as prophets. The blessing of Balak expands and deepens the place of prophecy in our lives.
In our story, Balak tries to hire the prophet Bil’am to take a journey to curse the people Israel. Bil’am follows Divine guidance and refuses at first, but then after a second delegation implores him, God advises the prophet to go, but reminds him that on this journey of prophecy, he must listen and respond to the word of God. When Bil’am sets out, God immediately becomes angry.
To receive the blessing of the portion of Balak, we must first solve this mystery. Why would God be angry with Bil’am for promptly fulfilling a Divine request?
The answer unfolds in the amazing story of his journey during which the true meaning of prophecy is revealed. Three times a Divine angel with sword in hand appears to Bil’am’s donkey who obediently changes her course in response. Each time Bil’am, losing his temper, beats the poor donkey with a stick. Finally she speaks to him saying, “What have I done to you that you should treat me this way?” Only then are Bil’am’s eyes opened. He sees the angel his donkey had seen all along, and he bows to the ground. Again Bil’am is told to continue on his journey, but is reminded again to pay careful attention to the word of God.
And now the mystery of God’s “anger” is revealed. God is saying, “You must pay attention to my word as it appears in each step of your journey. My word comes to you through the wisdom of your body (the donkey that has carried you so loyally all these years), through the details of your embodied life, and through all your worldly senses. Here is how I address you now, and not only in dreams or visions.” Through the story of Bil’am and his talking donkey, God expands for us the meaning of prophecy.
WHEN BIL’AM’S EYES ARE OPEN he can really pay attention – and profound words of blessing can flow through him. Three times the flow of blessing and prophecy pours forth, as if to atone for the sin of beating the donkey three times – ignoring the Divine wisdom of the body.
As the flow of prophesy begins, Bil’am falls to the ground, his eyes unveiled. As we touch the earth, honoring our earthiness, and stay true to the word of God as it is spoken through the donkey part of us, then we will be able to transmit visions of goodness and victory to the world.
THE SPIRITUAL CHALLENGE
ALL OF US ARE BURDENED in some measure with the belief that body and spirit exist as two separate realms. Because this belief is buried so deeply, we may not even know it is there. But it is a lie that exacts a steep price and bars us from touching the fullness of what it means to be human which is to be a “holy animal.”
Often our journey of spirit removes us from the holiness of the body… or our journey of embodiment disconnects us from the vastness of our spiritual reality. Behind these tragic journeys is the lie that body and spirit are distinct and separate worlds. The lie is: if you yearn for one, then the other must be sacrificed.
Through the marriage of body and spirit, prophecy is born. The spiritual challenge of the Torah portion Balak is to listen to the word of God through the voice of the body, through the voice of an embodied divinity that surrounds us in each moment, that permeates our world at each step of our journey. Psalm 95 says, “Hayom: Im b’kolo tishma-u!” Today: If only you would hear His voice! God’s voice is manifest in the Here and Now of the ordinary details of our lives… and we will hear it, if we pay attention.
WE ARE CHALLENGED to receive God’s voice in the sound of this world – in the voice of a friend, an animal, the wind, or the body that has been carrying us so loyally all these years. We are challenged to wake up to whatever has been occurring below our range of awareness, whatever we have dismissed as unworthy or undeserving of our attention. It is there that the word of God must be discerned.
1 see “Spirit Buddies” for an explanation of this aspect of practice.
For Guidelines for Practice please click link to website.
From Rav DovBer Pinson
Weeks Energy for Parshas Balak
Rav DovBer Pinson
Transforming Doubt into Wonder 2011
The Torah reading this weeks opens with the words “Balak… saw all that Israel had done…He sent messengers to Balaam..please come and curse this people for me.”(22:2-6)
Balak is the King of Moab, and he summons the prophet Balaam to curse the people of Israel. The Zohar teaches that “Never were two sorcerers greater than Balak and Balaam. Balaam’s power was in his mouth and eyes while Balak’s power was in the actions of his hands. Each needed the other for in order to implement a curse, both speech and action are needed.”
Who are these two people and what is this tremendously negative quality that they embody?
The clue to their particular brand of ‘evil’ can be understood by deconstructing their names, and the way those names relate to the archenemy of Israel – the nation of Amalek.
The names Balaam, Balak, and Amalek are all are phonetically interconnected.
Balaam is spelled ב/ Beis- ל/Lamed- ע/Ayin- מ/Mem
Balak is spelled ב/ Beis- ל/ Lamed- ק/Kuf.
Amalek is spelled ע/Ayin- מ/Mem- ל/Lamed- ק/Kuf.
Notice that the first two letters of the name Balaam and Balak are the same- a ב/Beis and ל/ Lamed, and the last two letters of Balak – ל/Lamed and ק/ Kuf are the same as the last two letters of the name Amalek.
In addition, take the last two letters of the names, Balaam (ע/Ayin – מ/Mem) and Balak (ל/Lamed- ק/ Kuf) and together they spell the word Amalek – ע/Ayim-Mem- ל/Lamed- ק/Kuf
ב ל ע מ
ב ל ק
ע מ ל ק
Amalek was the first of the nations that the Israelites contended with in their journey through the desert. Until Amalek attacked the nation of Israe they were considered untouchable and miraculously protected. Amalek changed this image, casting doubt on the previously viewed invincibility of the people of Israel. As such, the idea of Amalek came to embody the negative quality of doubt. In fact, Amalek and the Hebrew word for doubt, Safek have the same numeric value, two-hundred and forty.
The remaining first two letters of the name Balaam and the name Balak – form the word ‘balbel’ – which translates as mixed up, confused and generally chaotic.
ב ל ב ל
The deepest, most devastating form of Kelipa/concealment is doubt. It is a hindrance to all forms of spiritual/mental/psychological growth. Doubt leads to chaos and stagnates all types of movement.
When a person suffers from doubt, be it self-doubt, a doubting of others, or doubting that there is an alternative to the predicament in which they find themselves, they stop moving forward. Doubt cripples through sarcasm, cynicism and pessimism.
This is the fearsome power of Balak and Balaam, the ability to cause doubt and confusion.
Yet, doubt is not always unhealthy. There is also holy, productive doubt, and that is the wonder that opens a person to new possibilities.
While unhealthy doubt is debilitating, healthy doubt encourages growth and progress.
There is negative doubt which is crippling. This is an uncertainty wherein the doubt causes a person to do nothing. And then there is the possibility to transform that same doubt. Namely, turning the negative doubt into a positive, productive doubt. This is a doubt that is rooted in Keser – a place of all possibility. Negative doubt is where nothing is possible and positive doubt is where everything is possible.
When Balaam tried to curse the Israelites, blessings emerged from his mouth instead. The unholy, crippling doubt was replaced with blessings and transformed.
The Energy of the Week:
Transforming Doubt into Wonder
This week’s energy gives us the ability to connect with certainties.
On a deeper level, the week’s energy infuses us with the power to transform negative, crippling doubt and confusion into a healthy sense of wonder and possibility.
If there is doubt in your life that is preventing you from growing or progressing, take the time to recognize the negative impact of the doubting, allowing yourself to gradually replace the state of confusion with a place of positivity and possibility.
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