Balak intuited an important truth about the Israelites: Their strength was spiritual, not military.
Yet, for all its importance, the ritual of the synagogue is but a means to an end. In Judaism, behavior takes priority over belief. Faith without deeds will not change the world. And this hierarchy of values the Rabbis articulate in a startling comparison between the figures of Abraham and Balaam.
"Whoever possesses these three qualities is numbered among the disciples of our father Abraham, and those who possess the three opposite qualities are found among the disciples of wicked Balaam: A generous spirit, a humble soul and a modest appetite--such a one is a disciple of our father Abraham. A grudging spirit, an arrogant soul and an insatiable appetite--such a one is a disciple of wicked Balaam" (Or Hadash, Reuven Hammer, 275-276).
At issue in these conflicting worldviews is clearly how we live. For the Rabbis, Balaam personified a lifestyle that turns on the self. The other is always secondary. In contrast, Abraham's virtues combine to contract the ego. Compassion, humility and self-restraint not only privilege the other but also devalue material possessions. Judaism strives for self-control. Nobility of character requires a touch of ascetism.
In his commentary to this passage, Judah Goldin posits that such virtue is not a function of biological descent, but persistent effort. Jewishness is defined by what we do with our lives. Like Abraham, we can choose to follow God's voice as refracted in the sacred texts of Judaism.
Incomparably, that same value scale is enunciated by the eighth-century prophet Micah, whose words constitute our haftarah [prophetic reading] for this week's parashah. The superficial link is his glancing reference to Balak and Balaam. In a deeper vein, he espouses the primacy of ethics over ritual. The goal of genuine religion is not to mollify God with escalating numbers of sacrifices culminating in the offering of one's own first-born child. On the contrary, what God has long demanded is "only to do justice and to love goodness and to walk modestly with your God" (6:8).
Again, the thrust runs diametrically counter to our penchant for self-absorption. The best way to infuse the world with holiness is by harnessing the self. As long as ritual is tethered to that aspiration, it can provide us with the discipline to move beyond ourselves.
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