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Parashat Hukkat – Balak 5780

July 2, 2020

A D’var Torah for Parashat Hukkat – Balak
By Rabbi Len Levin

We are reading two parshiyot this week, each rich in lessons. We can only present a few hors d’oeuvres here; enjoy the rest at your leisure!

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The ritual of the red heifer raised many puzzles for the rabbis, to the point that they said that the wise king Solomon, frustrated in trying to solve them, gave up in despair and said: “All this I tested with wisdom, I thought I could fathom it, but it eludes me.” (Ecclesiastes 7:23; Pesikta Rabbati 14:1) The central mystery arises from the fact that it is a ritual for purification from contact with death. We are still struggling to understand the causes of death, which even now are evolving and mutating as we try to cope with them. A favorite question was: How is it that the ashes of the heifer are the agent of purification, yet the priest who prepares them is rendered unclean by them? Perhaps a contemporary analogy to this phenomenon is the doctor or nurse who spends all day healing the sick, who at the end of the day must throw all his or her garments into the laundry and take a long, hot shower to be purified of the residue of the day’s work.

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The portion of Balak and Balaam raises other challenges. In my adolescence, I was stimulated by the interpretation of Maurice Samuel (Certain People of the Book, Knopf 1955) which provided me with the kernel of my present understanding of this enigmatic pagan prophet.

The political and military conflict of Israel and Moab is accompanied by a propaganda and public relations competition. Balaam is an intellectual, with a much deeper understanding of the spiritual issues at stake than his employer, the king Balak. As intellectual, he perceives the truth. As hired public relations agent, he is paid to parrot a party line that he can see through all too clearly. He is caught between the demands of his pocketbook (see Numbers 22:17–18) and those of his intellectual conscience.

Central to that inner conflict is the difference between two religious outlooks. In the pagan outlook, the gods are selfish beings who can be bribed through sacrifice and manipulated through magic and divination. (Numbers 23:1, 23:13–14) In the Israelite outlook, God is the God of truth who cannot be bought, bribed, or manipulated. (“Lo, there is no augury in Jacob, no divining in Israel!”—Numbers 23:23) Balaam knows that God cannot be manipulated, yet he has been hired to manipulate God after the pagan fashion in order to coerce God to curse the Israelites. He tries to strike a balance: how much truth can he convey without alienating his employer? Can he somehow produce a result that will satisfy Balak while remaining within the bounds of God’s truth?

The Israelite narrator has fun ridiculing this hypocritical pundit. We are reminded that the semantic connotation of “asinine” has an ancient history. A prophet who thinks he can bamboozle God must have a level of intelligence and spiritual sight inferior to that of his donkey. What the donkey can see—the arm of the angel stretched out to forbid his blasphemous journey—Balaam is blind to. (Numbers 22:31)

For the time being, integrity prevails and Balaam utters the classic blessing of Israel’s habitations that even now adorns our synagogues and opens our prayer services (Numbers 24:5). But in the end, Balaam imparts to Balak his fatal knowledge of the Israelites’ weak spot, leading to the spiritual disaster of Baal Peor (see Numbers 31:16), and he also suffers death for his collaborative role (Numbers 31:8).

Political leaders and their house intellectuals still conduct an uneasy partnership. The demands of power and truth often pull in different directions. The prophet Isaiah envisioned an ideal political leader imbued with the spirit of divinely inspired wisdom, counsel, and reverence (Isaiah 11:2). Such leaders are rare in the real world. In the meantime, those intellectuals who serve political leaders must balance the dictates of serving their masters and declaring truth to all those who seek it.
Rabbi Len Levin is professor of Jewish philosophy at AJR and editor of Studies in Judaism and Pluralism.