By Hope Levav (Gesher ’85)
This week’s parsha offers us a tale of foiled plans and unexpected speech. It provides us with the opening words for our morning tefila, the famous tried-to-be-a-curse line that was transformed into a lovely appreciation of the Israelites and their desert camp. And it all happens because of the fears of the Moabite king, Balak, for whom the parsha is (somewhat unusually) named.
After seeing the Israelites’ victory over the Amorites, Balak is nervous that it will be impossible to defeat them in battle. Balak sends messengers to secure the services of Balaam, a prophet. His idea is to have Balaam curse the Israelites so that the Moabites will have a chance to defeat them.
At first Balaam refuses the request, as God has instructed him not to curse the Israelites. Eventually, Balaam agrees to go to Moab–though he is a bit of a Trojan horse, since God has instructed him to do/say only what God tells him to do. Rashi suggests that Balaam thinks he may be able to convince God otherwise, once he arrives to Moab.
Balaam saddles up his donkey and is on his way to Moab. Though God had previously given permission for Balaam to go, God now angrily places an angel with a sword in his hand on the road ahead of Balaam. But Balaam cannot see the angel. Perhaps he is too distracted by his desire to get to Moab and trying to figure out how to change God’s mind about the curse. Strangely, Balaam’s donkey sees the angel. Three times the donkey moves to avoid the angel, and three times Balaam punishes the donkey with physical violence. At this point, God puts words into the donkey’s mouth, and she demands to know why she is being beaten–after all, she was only trying to protect him from the angel’s sword. God allows Balaam to see the angel; he becomes frightened, and he offers to turn back. The angel suggests that Balaam should continue to Moab, while reminding him that he is only authorized to speak the words of God regarding the Israelites.
The presence of the talking donkey is surprising. In Pirke Avot 5:6, the donkey’s mouth is mentioned as one of the ten extraordinary creations that God created at twilight, just before the first Shabbat. The donkey’s non-verbal warnings are met with aggression. Even the fact that the donkey speaks doesn’t alert Balaam that something important requires his attention. How often do we ignore messages of advice from those closest to us? How often do we miss the dangers right before our eyes–especially when we are consumed with desire for fame, power, or other rewards? Balaam is in a tough situation, caught between the demands of an earthly king and the commands of a heavenly one.
What follows once Balaam arrives to Moab is a protracted back and forth between Balak and Balaam, as every time Balak orders Balaam to curse the Israelites, a blessing comes out instead. The third and final transformed curse starts with the words, “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!” These words, often sung, “Mah tovu ohalecha Yaakov, mishkenotecha Yisrael!” can be heard around camp as shacharit begins every morning. Why were these words chosen to be said as we enter our makom tefila each day–as we begin to engage with the world around us? Perhaps they are there to remind us to carefully consider our words, to pay attention to positive advice, and to take every opportunity we are given to offer up a blessing. Perhaps we are supposed to remember Balak, the namesake of this parsha, and the transformative miracle of his legacy: the Talmud teaches us that this king, who sets out to destroy the Israelites, is said to be an ancestor of Ruth, the great-grandmother of King David.
Opportunities for blessings and chesed are all around us; all we have to do is look around and pay attention. Shabbat Shalom.