Parashat Balak: The Premise of the Story

Posted on June 25, 2021 by Ed Tolman

There is much to unpack from this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Balak.  It is a well- known story of a man sent to curse our people only to have the curse turned into a blessing, and it is a story seemingly out of place.  It is a story to which neither Moses nor the Israelites marching toward the Promised Land are witness. It is a story in which God speaks to or through a person of questionable ethical standing and, of all things, to and through an animal with apparently solid ethical standing.  It is a story that contains fear and deception and reversals (in current parlance, flip-flops), even by God. It is a story of curses and blessings. But, it was the very premise of the story, it’s raison d’etre, that sparked my most visceral response.

First a fantasy……

So, when I saw all these people coming into my world, there were so many of them and they were so different, that I became afraid of them, fearful. But they kept on coming and it seemed as if they were going to take over my world, change it, these others. And as their numbers grew, I began to hate them and soon thought of ways to put them down and keep them down, so that they wouldn’t change my world. Some people like me really set to war against these others. But then one day, when like most old men, I was out playing pickleball, two men of those other people stopped by to chat. They really weren’t bad guys, actually nice guys, pleasant and easy to speak with, very knowledgeable, nothing like I’d anticipated. For the first time, I saw those other people quite differently.  I actually became at least friendly with some of these other people and we spoke of and learned of the differences in our lives. We got to know each other.

This fantasy came to me as I studied this week’s Torah portion. It is a story primarily based on the premise of fear of one people for another and the attempt to put down or destroy those other people. It is not the first time in Torah that we Israelites invoked such fear in non-Israelite people, simply because of who we were and how we grew in numbers in the worlds of these other people.

See Pharoah in the story of Pesach, or Amelek. Here we have Balak, king of Moab, seeing the Israelites as threatening in their numbers. He sent for the seer, Balaam to place a curse on them. This story of fearing and then trying to destroy a people because of perceived threat will recycle itself not only in Torah but throughout history until this present day.

And the fantasy came to me, because I struggle to understand the divisions and outright hatred in our country and world today. I try to understand people being against people.  Perhaps, place it in the context of having a growing and seemingly overwhelming number of different people, of others, coming into our midst and changing or threatening to change, at least in our perception, the world in which we have lived into something simply different. The world in which we live, in which we have always lived and want to always live, seems perceptively to be threatened with change. We cannot accept even the possibility that the others, these different people, might actually enrich our world, make it even a far better place for us and our progeny.

David-Yehuda Stern, a rabbinic student at Leo Baeck College expresses similar thoughts in his analysis of Parashat Balak, which he entitled “A Sword Between Our Eyes.” In trying to explain the tensions that exist in the Parasha, Stern asks why, for instance, God speaks to this non-Jew, Balaam, who was chosen to eventually bless the children of Israel and yet rabbinic commentators have chosen to besmirch Balaam’s very character. Why the Israelites, in this time of receiving a blessing, end up, at the end of the portion, turning away from God to idolatry and immorality. Why even in today’s world, we seem unable to accept and appreciate our own blessings. Stern says it is the delicate act of defining boundaries in a world of diversity. Isolation, which is at one extreme, is shown in Parashat Balak to have destructive and disastrous effects. King Balak fears the people he knows only by reputation and prepares to destroy them. Balaam, oblivious to the world around him, does not take personal responsibility, but follows both God and Balak blindly. The Israelites are so totally detached from the surrounding Moabite society that disaster occurs when they finally meet. David-Yehuda Stern writes that, tragically, versions of this Torah portion play out around us on a daily basis.

Between different countries, politics and religions. I would add race, economic status, gender identification and sexual orientation. Even, says Stern, within the diverse body of Jewish communities, we see people favoring isolation as opposed to communication and exchange. Some groups are afraid that contact and engagement will lead to the contamination of an ideology and a corruption of moral codes and conscience.

Stern concludes his commentary saying that as frightening though as this may be to some, we need the courage to encounter people who hold different things to be true. For the human endeavor to succeed, people of all different backgrounds and beliefs need to work together to flourish. I fear, writes Stern, that if we do not do more to bridge the gap between us and our fellow humans, we will be like Balaam, unable to see the angel of death until the sword is right before our eyes.

May all people, all of us, find the way to knowledge, to understanding, to being one true human family.

Ken Yehe Retzon

Ed Tolman