Parashat Balak 5781

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A D’var Torah for Parashat Balak
By Rabbi Doug Alpert (’12)

Responding to a request from a congregant at my Shul, for quite some time now we have been studying the role of angels in Judaism. I was grateful for the suggestion as I immediately knew the source for our studies, the book, A Gathering of Angels by Morris B. Margolies z”l. I grew up with Rabbi Margolies as my spiritual leader. As I am continually looking for opportunities to cite and honor all of my teachers to have the opportunity to do a deep dive into Rabbi Margolies’ most widely read work has been a source of great joy to me. Rabbi Margolies has had an enormous influence on my work as rabbi; particularly his passion and courage in confronting controversial issues of social injustice.

A Gathering of Angels has served as a valuable tool for wonderful discussion in my Shul regarding how we see angels vis-à-vis our relationship with G-d. Specifically, our seeming need for intermediaries in our desire to connect with G-d. Are angels or some other entity (read rabbi) a necessary go between to receive G-d’s blessing? Who is qualified to transmit blessing?

In this week’s parashah, Balaam as a sorcerer would be a most unlikely source to transmit blessing. Nahmanides observes that Balaam is a diviner from the land where all people are diviners [like the Philistines], and that he was willing to mislead Balak’s messengers regarding G-d’s true intentions. (Ramban Nachmanides, Commentary on the Torah: Bamidbar/Numbers). Rabbi Elazar asserts that Balaam was guided from above via the voice of an angel. Rabbi Yonatan said it was a hook; that Balaam was like a fish with a hook in its mouth uttering blessings against his will and controlled by the master holding the fishing line. (T. Bavli, Sanhedrin 105b)

However, a contrary perspective characterizes Balaam as one who evolves over time from a sorcerer to a prophet. Nehama Leibowitz cites to Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch in suggesting that Balaam’s blessing, originally emanating solely as the will of G-d, over time becomes Balaam’s own inner conviction. (Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Bamidbar [Numbers], p. 287).  In describing Balaam’s blessings for Israel, Nehama Leibowitz follows his “ascent from common sorcerer to a prophet ‘who hears the words of G-d’ and may note how these changes in his character and mood are reflected in the preparations attending each poetic effusion of his.” (Leibowitz at p. 290)

Bolstering his status as prophet is Balaam’s future orientation; what will happen to Israel in the end of days (Numbers 24:14). “I see it but not now. I perceive it but not in the near future…” (Numbers 24:17).  Balaam’s words should be understood eschatologically; seeing in a people whose immediate prospects are grim – i.e., consigned to wandering in the wilderness, and sets forth a vision of hope far into the future. (Ellen Davis, Opening Israel’s Scriptures, p. 92)

All of which is to say that Balaam, while not being our obvious choice to transmit G-d’s blessing provides a different and beneficial perspective to Israel. Someone coming with an outsider’s perspective can open us up to new ways of seeing ourselves. The outsider may be someone truly outside of the community, or someone from within who has been marginalized by our communities.

Dr. Ora Horn Prouser in her book Esau’s Blessing: How the Bible Embraces those with Special Needs opens our eyes to how much we can learn from those with special needs. While we are prone to marginalize the disabled, Dr. Horn Prouser “emphasize[s] that the Hebrew Bible does not fit the traditional mold because it does not depict the disabled as villains or outsiders… these personalities play a major role in the narrative. Applying disability studies to the Bible… opens up possibilities for educational, ethical, and sociological contributions to all of biblical studies.” (Esau’s Blessing at p. 3). Our great Biblical personalities, notwithstanding their disabilities, or more aptly stated, as a result of their disabilities, have much to teach us. They are our blessing.

This leads me back to where I started and the role of angels as intermediaries. Rabbi Margolies recognized that “it became ever more clear… that angels are better understood as symbols of forces that operate within every one of us. Some are forces for good, some for evil; some are healing and protective [i.e., blessings of healing] some destructive.” (A Gathering of Angels at p. 10)  Angels, and whomever we attach to as our intermediaries to bring us closer to G-d, exist to teach us about ourselves; to “narrow the vast chasm that separates us from G-d.” (Ibid p. 11)
Rabbi Doug Alpert (’12) is the rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami-Kansas City’s urban, progressive synagogue. He is the immediate past president of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Kansas City as well as Missouri Healthcare for All.