Parashat Balak

By Hazzan Marcia Lane

In our parashah, we have the story of Balak, king of Moav, who sends emissaries promising wealth to a certain prophet, Bilaam son of Be’or, if Bilaam will curse the Israelites. We know Bilaam is a real prophet because the Torah says, “those who you bless are truly blessed and those you curse are cursed.” (Num. 22:6) That is, Bilaam‘s prophecies come to pass. Not only that, but we know Bilaam is on the up-and-up because he says – repeatedly – to these messengers, “I can only do what Adonai tells me.” In fact, Bilaam says, no matter how much gold and silver Balak gives, “I can do nothing small or great contrary to the word of Adonai, my God.” How extraordinary that Bilaam clearly understands that his power, his ability to bless or curse, comes directly from Adonai – that is, from the same God that Israel acknowledges.

In this section of the story we read the remarkable incident of Bilaam‘s Ass. When an angel-messenger from God stands in his path, sword drawn, ready to block Bilaam, it’s the ass, not the prophet, who sees what’s really happening. Three times Bilaam tries to make the ass go forward, three times she refuses. When Bilaam beats her, “Adonai opened the ass’s mouth.” Bilaam and the ass proceed to have a very ordinary conversation until God finally opens Bilaam‘s eyes, and he sees the threatening angel. He falls on his face in respect and fear, finally seeing what the ass could see all along. The fact that the ass speaks is unremarkable. That she sees – ah, now that’s something amazing!

In the second, longer section of the parashah (Num. 22:36 – 24:25), Balak takes the prophet from place to place, trying desperately to get him to curse the Israelites. In each location, from each vantage point, after sacrificing bulls and rams and seeking God’s guidance, Bilaam repeatedly blesses the people, much to Balak’s growing frustration! Balak even falls into the trap: “What does Adonai say?” And, of course, Bilaam tells him:

“My message was to bless. When He blesses I cannot reverse it. There is no harm in sight for Jacob, no evil to befall Israel.” (Num. 23:20-21)

The rabbinic commentators tie themselves in knots trying to make Bilaam into an evil character, but it’s very hard to read the parashah and decide he was a baddie. Not only does he honestly report only what God puts in his mouth, Torah gives Bilaam some of the most beautiful poetry of the whole scroll, including “Mah tovu o-ha-lekhah Ya’akov, mish-kino-tekha Yisrael!” How goodly are your tents, oh Jacob, your dwelling-places oh Israel!” (Num. 24:5)

There is an interesting connection between the fairytale-like story of Bilaam‘s ass, and the poetic, glorious blessings of the other half of the story. In both sections, the senses of sight and speech are emphasized. Bilaam repeatedly tells Balak’s messengers, “whatever God says, that must I say. I can only speak the words God puts in my mouth.” Then the ass has super-natural powers of vision, seeing the angel of God. Bilaam himself sees the angel. Then Bilaam sees the Israelites from three different points. “Now Bilaam saw that it pleased Adonai to bless Israel….” (Num. 24:1). Over and over, the verbs for sight or vision, and for speaking are repeated in assorted variations. Of course, it’s a prophet’s job (or maybe his primary attribute) to have visions and report them, but as if the Torah was afraid we might not get the message, two of Bilaam‘s pronouncements begin with a formula:

“Word of Bilaam son-of Beor, word of the man whose eye is true.

Word of one who hears God’s speech, who beholds visions from the All-mighty One.” (Num. 24:3-4 and Num. 25:15-16)

In the story of the blind men and the elephant we learn, “Whatever you might think you see depends on where you stand and how you feel” (From the song by David Roth). If we can take a lesson from this parashah it might be that it takes a certain beautiful ability to look at a dusty, teeming, unkempt mass of people and see them “like palm trees stretched out, like gardens by a river, like aloes planted by Adonai.”  In a similar vein, we are wise if, when looking at our children, our partners, our jobs, we can remember hidden potential, and the healing power of a positive vision of the future. And if we direct our energies and our speech to positive language, then perhaps those we bless will be truly blessed.


Hazzan Marcia Lane is a cantorial graduate (2004) and a rabbinic student at AJR.