Lessons of Balaam

Yesterday, synagogue attending Jews the world over heard the story of Balaam. About 200 years ago when I had my bar mitzvah it was my parsha (portion). I believe that one’s parsha is not an accident, and thus this story has a special meaning for me.

A capsule summary is that Balaak, a Canaanite king, sees the nation of Israel coming and worries that he will be swamped and over-run by them. So he tries to hire Balaam, a well-known non-Jewish prophet, to curse the Isarelites. Balaam wants to do it, because he will be well-paid but Hashem (Hebrew for The Name, a respectful traditional term for the big boss upstairs) tells him no. Balaam really wants the money, and keeps asking. Finally Hashem gives Balaam permission.

As he travels to the mountaintop to make the appropriate sacrifice to go with his curse, an angel wielding a sword appears before him but he doesn’t see it. The donkey Balaam is riding sees it and refuses to go forward. Balaam beats it in frustration. Suddenly the donkey is given the power of speech and castigated Balaam for not seeing the angel and for the beating, since the donkey effectively saved Balaam’s life.

Balaam does his sacrifice but when he tries to level a curse, instead only blessings issue from his mouth.

The first in interpreting this is that a talking donkey is comedy gold (and in my bar mitzvah speech gave me the opportunity to use another word for donkey right on the bima.)

But I also took it as a meditation on the power of words. It is difficult with our modern sensibilities to take seriously the idea that Balaam is a sorcerer – perhaps he was more a spin artist hired to make the Israelites look bad – Balak was carrying out an early public diplomacy campaign. But even in reducing Balaam from sorcerer to spin doctor the appearance of the talking donkey emphasizes the power of words. Able to transfer complex ideas and profound feeling: language is an incredible thing – ephemeral and powerful at the same time. Language IS magic.

Religion, for many, exists as an expression of awe. But many of the things that pervade our lives are, when viewed from some distance, awesome. The recent power outages were a quick reminder of what a simply amazing thing electricity (now a common utility) really is.

Maybe this had some impact on me, since I’m a writer.

Another fascinating feature of this pasha is how, alone among all of the Old Testament it focuses on “the other guys.” It is equivalent to the scene in Star Wars when Vader and Tarkin are discussing their next move.  It is interesting that this particular type of plot turn occurs at that point in the narrative.

I’ve spent much of my career trying to understand what adversaries are up to, somehow that doesn’t seem like an accident.

Finally, Balaam himself is a sell out.  He has tremendous skills – after all he can speak with Hashem but he seeks to use them for little more then worldly gain.  Is that, truly, what we are given talents for – to achieve wealth and honor (not bad things in and of themselves) but at the expense of values?

I was blessed with parsha that provides much food for thought for now and the rest of my life.

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