Thursday, 06 Jul 2017

Written by Iris Ferreira

D’var Torah Parashat Balak

 

Most of us have undergone instants of panic, when we are so overwhelmed by the events happening to us that we are not able to analyse them and to respond appropriately to them. This seems to be what happens to Balak, the king of Moab, and to Balaam in our parashah.

 

At the beginning of the parashah, the Moabites and the Midianites are afraid of Israel, because Israel has just won a war against the Amorites. The king of Moab fears that Israel may devastate his land, so he asks Balaam to curse Israel. The result of their efforts is that Balaam is compelled to bless the people of Israel four times instead of cursing them. Later on, in the parashah Matot, the Midianites are defeated by Israel in a war.

 

Was the fear of the Moabites and the Midianites legitimate? It seems to me that it was not. Indeed, the Amorites were defeated by Israel only because they attacked them. If they had let Israel cross their country and had not waged war against them, they would probably have remained at peace. So, if the Midianites and the Moabites did not attack Israel, they had no reason to fear them.

Furthermore, the first parashah of the book of Deuteronomy tells us that God forbade to Israel to wage war against Moab. Thus, the fear of the Moabites seems doubly inappropriate.

 

Why the Moabites and the Midianites were so afraid of Israel and therefore were not able to find an appropriate response to their arrival?

Maybe the sight of the whole people of Israel, who had a recent victory against the Amorites, made them feel vulnerable. We can assume that the Moabite and Midianite princes were not used to such a feeling and did not want to acknowledge it. They desperately wanted to keep their image of powerful rulers, even to themselves.

 

If they had been able to recognize their vulnerability, they would have not acted against Israel, but rather they would have sought peaceful agreements with them. Then, the war of Israel against the Midianites in the parashah Matot would have been avoided; Balak and Balaam would have also avoided to themselves lots of anxiety and failures in their attempts to curse Israel.

The events of the parashah seem all the more tragic that, since the beginning[1], God informs Balaam that Israel is blessed and cannot be cursed. Despite this warning, Balaam decides to join Balak in order to curse the people. During his way, he is shown signals of warning. An angel appears in front of his ass three times, and three times the ass tries to avoid the angel, without being able to get rid of him. Each time, the angel appears in a more narrow space. Two facts are particularly striking in Balaam’s response to this situation: he does not see the angel and he beats his ass. Let’s explore more deeply these attitudes.

When Balaam finally sees the angel, it is because he is compelled to see him: his ass has stopped in front of the angel, and she compels Balaam to understand that her behaviour is unusual. Once Balaam is forced to acknowledge this abnormality, he sees its cause: the angel standing in the middle of the path.

Balaam could have seen the angel before, if he had wanted to. His attitude is comparable to that of an ill person who denies his or her illness until the symptoms become so strong that he or she cannot deny them anymore.

 

The second striking behaviour of Balaam is that he beats his ass each time that she goes astray or stops. Why does he use such violence? One answer could simply be that he is a violent man. But this fact may hide another reality: each time that his ass avoids the angel, he feels that he cannot master everything. He cannot even control the way followed by his ass. We can assume that Balaam feels deeply frustrated because of this lack of power – his frustration, when he is confronted by his own limitations, manifests itself violently when he strikes his poor ass.

 

Later on, Balaam himself becomes the ass. Indeed, three times Balak asks him to curse Israel, but Balaam is not able to obey this command – as his ass was unable to follow the path Balaam wanted because of the angel. God puts words in the mouth of Balaam, as he put words in the mouth of his ass. Balaam tries to curse Israel from three different places without success; the angel appeared in three different places before the ass, and she was not able to escape him. Balaam has to undergo Balak’s anger, as his ass had to undergo his own anger.

Thus, the episode of the ass seems to be a warning to Balaam, as if the angel wanted him to understand: “What you have just done to your ass, who was caught between me and you, is what will happen to you if you responds to Balak’s command: you will be caught between him and the Eternal. So it is better for you not to go”.

But Balaam did not want to understand the message. Finally, he was killed during the war which opposed the Midianites to Israel in the parashah Matot.

 

Thus, it seems that we have to be careful not to behave like Balaam or Balak. First, even when confronted by fearful events, we have to force ourselves to calm down and to analyse the situation before responding to it. Before acting, we have to acknowledge our weaknesses and to compromise with them, rather than denying them and thinking we are more powerful than we actually are. Last, it seems important to be very responsive to the signals we receive from our body, from other people, and from our environment so as to avoid mistakes which may have serious consequences.

 

Iris Ferreira LBC rabbinic student

[1] Numbers 22,12