Parashat Balak 5778

Rabbi Rachel Benjamin – 29 June 2018

 
Balaam, The Seer Who Couldn’t See

Much in the Torah is of timeless wisdom, lessons that speak to the heart, as relevant today for the human condition as they were when they were first written down, thousands of years ago. In that light, on the face of it, this week’s Torah portion seems rather strange. In it, a Moabite king, Balak, asks a heathen prophet, Balaam (who has a direct line to God) to curse the Israelite people in anticipation of battle. It contains a donkey that can talk. There is a sword-wielding angel, visible only to the donkey. And when Balaam goes to curse Israel, out of his mouth come blessings! It is, indeed, a bizarre story but, as with so many of the narratives in the Torah, it is fertile ground for discussion and interpretation.

In the parashah, there are a number of words and phrases relating to ‘seeing’ or ‘not seeing’. That thread appears right at the beginning of the Torah portion when we learn that Balak, king of Moab, ‘saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites’. The story then hinges on what Balaam’s donkey can see, and what Balaam himself, at first, cannot see.

Balaam gets angry enough with his donkey to want to kill her, believing that she has made a fool of him. It is ironic that this prophet, visionary, seer, the one who claims that he is ‘the man whose eye is true’ (Num. 24:3, 15) is unable to see God’s angel blocking his way.

The title of the Torah portion is Balak, but it is really about Balaam. It is far from clear what God is doing – God speaks directly to Balaam, a non-Israelite prophet, and tells him not to go and curse the Israelites, for ‘they are blessed’. Then God appears to have a change of heart, and tells Balaam he may go, but be careful to follow God’s instructions precisely. Then, when Balaam goes on his way, God gets angry with him and, seeming to have yet another change of heart, sends an angel to stand in his way. When Balaam finally sees the angel, he is reminded once again to follow God’s words exactly. God is clearly unhappy with Balaam’s mission, but ultimately uses it as a means of blessing the Israelites, thus overturning Balak’s plans.

In the fifteen verses containing the pivotal part of the story when the donkey saves Balaam’s life (22:21-35), the verb ‘to see’ appears five times. Despite that, the message of the story is not blindingly clear. On the contrary, one of its messages may well be that all is not as it appears. What you see is not necessarily what you get, and seeing just with our eyes, is not enough.

Balaam doesn’t look beyond his donkey’s unusual behaviour, to ask himself why his faithful beast, who had served him well all his life up to this point, would act so out of character, in refusing to continue on their path.

This story reminds us that what you see at first glance isn’t always the full picture. Do we tend to engage with many of the people we encounter in our lives only as far as we need to, to get what we want out of the encounter, without considering them fully themselves? Sometimes we need to look closer and deeper to see what is really there. Al tistakel ba-kankan ela b’mah she’yesh bo, taught Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi, ‘do not look at the container, but rather at what is in it’ (Pirkei Avot 4:20).

The key to the story of Balaam’s donkey is in our ability to see beneath the surface. Perhaps this is one of our most demanding tasks – to see beyond the hardships and challenges we all face in our lives, to see the faces and personalities of the people we encounter in our lives… not just to look, but to really see – to try to walk as others walk, experience what they experience, and see what they see.

We don’t question when good things happen to us – we seem to take that as our due. Certainly, it is easier to recognise benevolent real-life angels. But what of the sword-wielding strangers standing in our way? How are we to recognise them as angels? Can we somehow find a way to see the challenging situation, the people who irritate us, for example, as messengers from God?

The key, of course, is in our ability to see, in the broadest sense of the word. Much of the time, we look but we don’t really see. Balaam was not able to see beyond the inconvenience his donkey’s behaviour caused him, and he is ultimately judged unfavourably for this. Many of us go through our lives seeing, but not really seeing. Wrapped up in the details of our lives, we don’t stop to see the angels – with or without sword in hand – standing in our way, trying to direct us.

Our morning liturgy begins with the words of Balaam, Mah tovu ohalekha Ya’akov, Mishk’notekha Yisrael, “How good are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel” (Num. 24:5). The Talmud understands the ‘tents’ and ‘dwelling places’ to be the synagogues and houses of Torah study (Sanhedrin 105b). This weekend, Liberal Jews from all over Britain and beyond will gather together for the Liberal Judaism Biennial Weekend, to make St Johns Hotel in Solihull our synagogue and house of Torah study. I look forward to seeing you there.

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