Parashat Balak 5777

Rabbi Yuval Keren, 7 July 2017

The saga in today’s Torah portion between the talking animal and its angry owner could be described as ‘donkey business’. This somewhat humoristic tale appears to be very different from the dramatic story of the Akeidah – the binding of Isaac in the book of Genesis. Yet, there are many strong parallels between them.

In both stories a man rises up early in the morning, saddles his donkey and sets on his way to fulfil a particular mission. In both cases the men are given a mission that, if successful, might have led to catastrophic results. If Abraham executed his sacrifice, then there would have been no Isaac, no Jacob, and no People of Israel wandering in the wilderness. This would have left poor Balaam unemployed, as there would have been no nation to be cursed years later. Fortunately, Abraham did not sacrifice Isaac, and Balaam gets the job after all. Yet, when he is first approached by the chiefs of Moab, The powerful magician refuses curse Israel. It is only when he is told by God to go that he agrees to do so. Balaam merely obeys God’s command when, like Abraham, he rises up in the morning and leaves with his donkey.

Another common theme between the stories is the fortunate failure to execute the mission. In both cases the ultimate goal is foiled by means of divine intervention. Abraham is stopped by an angel of God at the dramatic moment before he completes his mission. Balaam is stopped by the angel of God and is told to only speak the words that God will place in his mouth. When it is time to perform the curse, God places words of blessing in Balaam’s lips.
These parallels lead me to think that maybe the stories of Balaam and Abraham are the same story. Midrash Tanchumah provides a hint of this when it claims that Balaam is none other than Laban, Jacob’s father in law. If he is Laban then all the people he is about to eliminate by his powerful curses are his very own children. The Midrash continues to criticise Laban for his attempt to destroy his children. It is asking: Assuming that Laban is Balaam the son of Be’or, why then was he given this name? They resolve this question with a bit of Hebrew grammar.

The meaning of the root ‘בלע’ is ‘to swallow’ and the meaning of ‘בער’ is ‘a fool’. Targum Pseudo-Jonathan explains that he was named ‘Balaam’ because he tried to ‘swallow’ the people of Israel. He was named ‘Be’or’ because he tried to eliminate his own children.

The association of Balaam with Laban sounds to me as an implicit connection between Balaam with Abraham and perhaps a criticism of Abraham’s actions. It appears to me that Abraham had a much greater chance of success in achieving complete annihilation of Israel than Balaam ever had. He only had to eliminate a single person in order to achieve this while Balaam had to perform his act on an entire nation. Abraham had a sharp knife while Balaam was only armed with a sharp tongue. Perhaps a tongue is indeed a dangerous weapon but I am not convinced that it presents as clear a danger as a slaughtering knife.

Indeed, I am not the only one who is sceptic about the lethal power of Balaam’s curse. In his anger, Balaam tells his donkey: ‘If I had a sword with me, I’d kill you.’ This great wizard, who apparently could eliminate an entire nations with his curse, could not kill a humble donkey without such a primitive and un-magical device as a sword! In the interpretive translation of Targum Pseudo-Jonathan we hear the full reply to this threat from Balaam’s talking donkey: “You are a complete fool. If you could not curse to death, a humble donkey like me, what chance have you in cursing the children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – the people for whom the world was created?”

The wise donkey realises that more than words are required to eliminate the People of Israel, and that Balaam’s mission is doomed even before he left the house in the morning.

Or was it? Success or failure depends on the definition of the task at hand.

In Abraham’s story, the reader is made aware from the very beginning that the whole saga is a test but Abraham is still in the dark until we reach the happy end. We suspect from the very beginning that God never intends for Isaac to be sacrificed. Balaam makes it repeatedly clear from the beginning of his story that he will only perform according to God’s instructions. It is therefore no surprise that when it is delivery time, he can only bless rather than curse the People of Israel. In both cases the characters act according to Divine will.

I am a great believer in Divine destiny. However, I do not believe that God sits up there and pulls these strings on human puppets. It seems to me that God does work in mysterious ways and sometimes what appears to be one’s intention has to make way to God’s grand plan. What do I mean by that? I can relate to this only from my own life experience.

When I arrived in the UK I had it in my mind that I wanted to become a computer expert. I worked hard for many years to learn the trade. But then during that process I gradually came to realise that this was not to be my destiny. With the good help of my friends and family I began to shift my focus on studying and teaching Judaism. The process was completed at this time of the year eight years ago I received my Rabbinic ordination from the Leo Baeck College.

I do not claim to fully understand God’s plan. I still struggle to explain good and bad events in our world and how these connect with God’s grand scheme. I am still struggling to make sense of the unbelievable atrocities of the Shoah (Holocaust) and the miraculous existence of a Jewish state. I still could not fully explain the atrocious recent loss of innocent life in the Manchester Area and in the Grenfell Tower.

Nevertheless, I am not dismissed from my responsibility to understand God’s plan, and to struggle to fulfil Divine destiny in our world!

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