The Israelites are approaching the end of their forty years in the wilderness. Already they have fought and won wars against Sihon king of the Amorites and Og king of Bashan. They have arrived at the plains of Moab – today, southern Jordan at the point where it touches the Dead Sea. Balak, king of Moab is concerned that they might beat him in battle as well, and the strategy he adopts is to seek the help of the famous seer, Balaam. We only read the beginning of the story in synagogue, but if you read on into chapter 25 you will find the whole of it there.
It is a complicated narrative that has elicited commentary from a large number of our greatest rabbis and scho
lars over the centuries: in many ways (talking donkeys for instance) it seems pretty much like a fable. On the other hand Balaam is one of the earliest biblical characters for whom there is historical evidence. In 1967, the same year as the Six Day War, archaeologists at Tel Deir Allah in the Jordan Valley found a plaster inscription on the wall of a temple. It is in a Canaanite dialect and a rather peculiar version of the Canaanite script, and it contains a reference to a vision granted one night to Balaam by the gods. It dates somewhere between 840-760 BCE.
It used to be thought that the story of Balaam was originally at home in northern Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) rather than in our part of the Near East. Balaam is said to ‘live by the river’ and it was generally felt that the Euphrates was meant. Now it seems more likely that the R. Jordan is the river in question.
Let’s go back to this week’s parashah. Balaam at first refuses to go with the emissaries of the king, but then, when God insists, he does go with them – or possibly when Balaam asks God not once but twice if he should go, God first replies “no’ and then, irritated to be asked a second time, says ‘Oh go on then!’ but doesn’t mean it – as we see in the rest of the story; because an angel bars Balaam’s way and his faithful ass sees it and turns away. So Balaam beats his apparently recalcitrant donkey three times. And the animal, finding its voice, then tells him off! Ok, so this part of the story is probably not quite accurate as given; but it does make us smile. And I, for one, would love to talk to a donkey and see life from the animal’s point of view. Not very complimentary to human beings I would think. I’m sure that animal rights campaigners would find reports by animals about their treatment at our hands extremely valuable in their work.
Balaam – who speaks of the God of Israel – is told to bless Israel, not to curse them as the King wants; and so Balaam obeys, three times in a row. His third blessing begins with the words with which we open almost all of our synagogue services – “How good are your tents, O Jacob.’ Clearly this blessing by a foreign prophet is one which Jews have valued highly through the ages.
Why did God choose a foreign prophet to bless Israel rather than a home-grown one? I suppose the answer must be that self-praise may not be worth all that much, but praise from an outsider – an enemy outsider at that – praise coming from unwilling lips, well, that must be praise indeed.
This is a really intriguing story: why does God first say ‘No’ and then say ‘Yes’? And why, having said yes, does God send an angel to bar Balaam’s path and threaten him with death if he won’t obey God’s word? Even although Balaam has already said he can only carry out the will of God, and not the will of the King?
I think that Balaam asking God twice if he should go with the King of Moab’s envoys is significant. The first time he gets a negative response; but he won’t take no for an answer, so when the second lot of messengers from the king turn up, he asks God again. There’s probably room for doubt that God’s message changes from a ‘no’ to a ‘yes’, don’t you think? Perhaps Balaam hears what he wants to hear? That would be a very human response, and one that many of us are guilty of from time to time – not listening, that is. Not listening to our inner voice, the ‘still small voice’, the voice of God, but instead listening to the voice of our own worse self, that urges us to do the convenient and the comfortable; the thing that we’d rather do, just like Balaam, who was to be paid handsomely by King Balak for his trouble.
We make wrong choices with such ease; it’s much easier – nicer, even – to be ‘good’ to ourselves and do as our everyday impulses suggest, rather than listen to our better selves, the selves that God wants us to hear and be. The temptations we succumb to; the good that we don’t do, the cravings that we feed – these are the things that make us less than we could be, far less than God wants us to be.
Because, of course, we don’t have to obey; we are free to choose, we know that. And we often make the wrong choices; because they are less trouble or more fun, hedonistic peccadillos that we think don’t matter. But they do; of course they do, because they tend to grow and grow; until the idealism of our young years gets drowned in the indulgences of everyday. Well, nearly everyday – there is, of course, that one day a year that most Jews still observe, the day we think makes Atonement for all our sins. But does it? Can it? If we return to our easy ways until next year? And then again repent and again give way to ourselves in an endless cycle?
I’ll leave this thought with you: I would hate to make anyone feel less than they really are – made in God’s image and with God’s love. But to be the best we can be we must listen, not to our selfish, egotistic impulses (our yetser ha’ra as the rabbis called it); but rather to our better instincts (our yetser ha’tov), where we will find God’s still small voice and our own true nature, with which we can do God’s will for us in this world.
Student rabbi Dr Roberta Harris-Eckstein
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.