Tuesday, January 27, 2009


This week’s Parshah, Balak, is home to one of the most famous and also problematic stories in the Torah, that of Balaam and his talking donkey. Here’s a short summary:

The Hebrews have defeated that Amorites and Amalekites and settled on the borders of Moab. Balak, king of Moab, is worried that he is next, and goes to the king of Midian for advice, particularly about Moses, since Moses lived in Midian during his self-exile from Egypt after he killed a slavemaster.

The king of Midian tells Balak that Moses’ power is in his relationship with God. To counter this power, Balak sends for the sorcerer Balaam, who is known to be on good terms with God and who seems to have sufficient power to bless and to curse that he can offset Moses’ power.

Balaam, confronted with that unfailing combination, flattery (those whom you bless are blessed, those whom you curse are cursed) and large amounts of money is definitely interested, but communes with God and God tells him not to go, so he declines. Balak asks him to think about it and sweetens the deal, and Balaam begs God to let him go, which God reluctantly does, but warns Balaam again that he is not to curse those whom God has blessed.

On the way to Moab, Balaam’s donkey balks on the road and Balaam beats him – this happens three times before it is revealed to Balaam that the reason the donkey is balking is that there is an angel in the road with a sword ready to kill Balaam for going against God’s wishes. Balaam is remorseful and offers to turn back, but the angel tells him to go on, but to speak only what God has given him to speak, namely that he may only bless, not curse, the people he is going to be brought to pronounce on (he doesn’t yet know it’s Israel).

When Balaam comes to Moab, King Balak brings him to hilltops overlooking the Hebrew camp, builds him altars and sacrifices and bids him curse Israel, and Balaam blesses them saying that he can only say what God gives him to say. Balak keeps upping the ante, taking him to other sites hoping something will change, and on the third try, Balaam pronounces the final blessing, Ma hatovu ohalecha Yaacov, mishkenotecha Yisrael – how good are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel and Balak sees it is hopeless and sends Balaam home.

In studying various writings on this parshah I was unable to find anything close to a definitive interpretation, Talmudic or modern. The various writers focus on what seem trivial details to me – the fact that the donkey was stopped and beaten three times, that Balaam was given three opportunities to curse the people, that the places where the angel stopped the donkey were each narrower than the last – none of this speaks to me. One thing that does seem significant, though, is that each time Balaam talks to God or to the angel, nothing changes. God starts out saying that Balaam is not to curse those whom God has blessed, and this doesn’t change. Even after the dramatic episode of the donkey and the angel, Balaam is left where he started.

A couple of weeks ago I talked about the “still, small voice” in which God was revealed to Elijah. On the High Holy Days, the Unetane Tokef prayer says that on the Day of Judgment “The great Shofar is sounded and a still small voice is heard.” In my earlier remarks I said that I thought that faith is responding to that still, small voice, but what is that voice?

Jewish teaching holds that human beings have two conflicting impulses, the yetzer hara or impulse toward doing bad things and the yetzer hatov or impulse toward doing good things, and for me the story of Balaam is about this. Rather than merely an impulse, I think that that internal voice is where God lives in all of us. In my personal spiritual journey over the past 40 years or so I’ve come to believe less and less in the notion of God as some supernatural being sitting somewhere called heaven and watching us, as the song says, “from a distance.” Rather, I believe that each of us is a manifestation of God and that God in toto is all of us – said another way, each of us is God acting in the world from one point of view and if we could get together enough to share and respect all of our points of view, that would be God realized as God. That gives a whole other dimension to the Shema, where God is one, God is unity, might mean that God is realized when we are unified as one humanity.

So that “still small voice” is our communion with God. When Balaam speaks to God and doesn’t like the answer he gets, he goes back for another conversation and gets an answer he likes better, albeit one that is conflicting – you can go, but you cannot curse these people. How familiar is that? We know from our better nature, our yetzer hatov, what is the right thing to do, and yet there is that nagging urge to do something that sounds better – the yetzer hara in action. So we go ahead and do what we want to do, and that little voice keeps stopping us, slowing us down, and causing us conflict. Like Balaam in his encounter with the angel, every time we engage in the argument with ourself, we are left where we started, pulled between the two arguments with no one to resolve it but ourselves.

And finally, like Balaam, we come to the moment of truth when we hope that we, like Balaam, will in the end do the right thing. Balaam finds himself unable to curse those whom God had blessed – he opens his mouth and what comes out, three times, is a blessing. If those of great faith in the Torah teach us anything, it is that the yetzer hatov, the voice of God within us, will ultimately win out. Abraham is the model of listening to God – to the point of circumcising himself and being willing to sacrifice his son. The Torah never suggests that Abraham did not have second thoughts or doubts, only that, in the end, he did the right thing. Moses questioned his fitness for the task God gave him, but went ahead based on God’s word. Daniel entered the lion’s den, Job accepted his trials, and David went to face Goliath. None of them would have been human if they had not had doubts and second thoughts. Prophets – Elijah and Jonah, to name two, tried to run from what God gave them to do, only to return and do what was right.

One question that I and others have wondered about is why God stopped talking to people around the time the Second Temple was destroyed. Up till then God spoke to the prophets either directly or through angels or in dreams and visions, but since then no one, not even the great rabbis such as Maimonides, Rashi, or the Baal Shem Tov have claimed direct communication with God. Does that make sense? Not to me. I believe that God never stopped talking to people – rather we abandoned a metaphor, the metaphor of a disembodied God speaking to us in a conversation as a person would. I believe that God has always spoken in that internal, still, small voice and continues to do so if only we will listen.

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