Commentary on Parashat Balak, Numbers 22:2 - 25:9
After two impressive victories against the Canaanites of the Negeb and the Amorites in Transjordan, the looming military might of Israel throws the leaders of Moab into a panic. Only the land of the Moabites separates Israel from the Jordan River and the conquest of Canaan. Balak ben Zippor, King of Moab, knows that he is next.
In desperation, he takes recourse in an unconventional pre-emptive measure. He summons Balaam son of Beor, a sorcerer from Mesopotamia to curse Israel, making it susceptible to defeat on the battlefield. Though Balaam comes, God frustrates the plan. Within the monotheistic framework of the Torah, Balaam can utter only what God imparts to him. Hence he ends up in rapturous praise of Israel, to the consternation of Balak.
In an imaginative midrash, the Rabbis expatiate on what brought Balak to seize on this particular tactic. Awestruck by Moses, he inquired of the Midianites, among whom Moses had once found refuge when fleeing Pharoah’s wrath, as to the man’s strength. They responded that Moses’ strength resided in his mouth, that is, his prayers were able to move God to act in his behalf. To neutralize that weapon, Balak turns to sorcery. Balaam’s strength also resides in his mouth. His curse will trump Moses’ prayers. Without divine assistance, Israel is eminently beatable (Rashi on 22:4).
As so often, the midrashic genre yields rich insight. Words are weapons when they carry conviction. As long as the prayers of Israel embody deep faith, a sense of chosenness and real dialogue, they have the capacity to keep chaos at bay. With the information at hand, Balak intuited that the ultimate source of Israel’s dominance was spiritual and not military.
The training ground for that resilience of the spirit would eventually become the synagogue, the sacred space that reverberates with the spoken word. How appropriate, then, that the first words we intone upon entering the synagogue in the morning are taken from Balaam’s encomium: “How fair are you tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel!” (24:5) While in the Torah, these words express Balaam’s astonishment at the expanse and quality of Israel’s encampment in the wilderness, in the siddur [prayerbook] they give voice to our gratitude for the sustenance of the synagogue. Throughout its Diaspora sojourn, Israel finds refuge in the synagogue, where prayer and study spin a web of existential meaning. It is the synagogue which generates the vocabulary that enables us to endure and prevail.
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 world views 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 asceticism.
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 Torah portion. 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.
Reprinted with permission of the Jewish Theological Seminary.