Every year the story of Balaam and his talking donkey recalls for me one of my childhood’s favorite TV sit-coms “Mr. Ed” featuring that friendly talking Palomino horse in the barn.
More seriously, the Biblical Balaam fantasy is a profound tale of good and evil, sensitivity and hard-heartedness, faith and cynicism. Though named for Balak, the King of Moab, the Torah portion is more about Balaam, the non-Jewish sorcerer and prophet than Balak and perhaps ought to have been named for him instead.
Balak feared the Israelites as they crossed through his territory, so he sought Balaam’s prophetic assistance by paying him to curse the Israelites thereby softening them before an armed conflict. Balak must have known that the children of Israel had scored already two military victories against the Canaanites of the Negev and the Amorites in Transjordan, so hiring Balaam was an attempt to move the advantage to Balak’s favor. Only the land of Moab separated Israel from their conquest of Canaan. The King must have feared what might befall him and his kingdom.
Instead of cursing Israel Balaam offered a blessing so beautiful and powerful that it became an integral part of our morning liturgy:
“Mah tovu o-ha-le-cha Yaakov – How goodly are your Tents of Jacob, Mish’ken-o-te-cha Yisrael – Your dwelling places O Israel.” (Numbers 24:5)
A number of questions come to mind about this story: What are we to make of Balaam? What is his purpose? What are his origins? Why is this story here? What is the modern relevance?
My friend, Rabbi Misha Zinko, many years ago wrote about this portion and some of his insights are worth sharing.
Balaam comes from Pethor, near the Euphrates River. In Jewish mysticism, the river is a direct link to God. Balaam’s origins suggest that he was immersed from his youth in a spiritual environment that inspired his prophetic capacities.
Balaam’s full name was Balaam ben B’or – b’or can either mean “fool” or “burned.” Balaam is either a brutish fool of a man or a man burning with divine insight…or both.
The rabbis interpret “Balaam” as “b’li am” – meaning, “without a people.” He was as his name – an independent sorcerer, out for himself, unattached by tribal custom, and unconstrained by social convention.
If we evaluate Balaam based upon his blasphemous actions and defiance against God when he made the deal with Balak to curse God’s people, we have to conclude that he was a fool. But if we judge him based upon his origins near the river and his poetic words of praise for the children of Israel, then we might regard him as burning with a desire to offer a blessing to God’s people.
Rabbi Zinko suggests that considering these two aspects of the Balaam character, each of us too has within us the two traits of Balaam. On the one hand we can be blind to the wonders around us just as Balaam was blind to the angel holding a sword and standing in his way as he prepared to curse the people. On the other hand, Balaam’s spiritual antenna were so finely tuned that when it came time to curse Israel, he blessed them with God’s word instead.
How often are we blind to the wonders in front of us? How often are we insensitive to the cruelty in our communities, country and around the world? Like Balaam, however, we’re also capable of perceiving God’s presence and acting in a Godly way. When we’re aware and spiritually tuned, our eyes behold unnoticed grace, we intuit the divine within the human condition, and we act accordingly.
Having fulfilled his mission to bless Israel, Balaam returned “M’komo – to his Place.” Rabbinic tradition understands the Hebrew word Makom to be synonymous to God. The story suggests that Balaam returned to a “Place” where he drank from the river of Godly insight and glimpsed the divine destiny of the children of Israel. It was in that mind-frame that he offered words of blessing instead of cursing.
May we do the same.