Stargazer staring at Israel
Thoughts on parashat Balak
No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man, said ancient Greek philosopher, Heraklitus. This great metaphor says that change is at the essence of everything, both in the world of nature and the human world. Although there are constant elements in the universe (like laws of physics) and there are constant patterns of human behavior, at the end of the day the change, particularly in the human world, can nullify everything, including these constant patterns.
On the other hand, this constant element, pattern in human behavior, can also bring change, as well as nullify or destroy everything, including human life. This week’s Torah portion tells us the story that contains both elements of change and constant patterns. The (non-Jewish) prophet Balaam gets hired by a Moabite king, Balak, to curse Israel in order to further defeat them. Balaam tries to curse Israelites three times and each time he tries, he blesses them. However, contrary to the common opinion, he ultimately completes his task and manages to curse Israel: he becomes an inciter, who advises Moabite and Midianite women to seduce Israelites to perform idol worship with them and this brings the Divine wrath upon them. Ultimately, Balaam dies at Israel’s hand, for they conquer Midian and slay him (Num 31).
Who was Balaam? Opinions of the rabbis are very different on this subject. Some believed he was among seven great prophets who prophesied in the non-Jewish world (Talmud Bava Batra 15b). Midrash Bereshit Rabba 65:20 calls him the greatest philosopher in the world whereas Bamidbar Rabbah 14 portrays him as a prophet like Moshe, even exceeding Moshe’s greatness in certain ways. He was able to know the state of God’s feelings and predict the moment of the Divine wrath (Talmud Berachot 7).
Ibn Ezra, however, calls him only a stargazer and astrologer, and credits him with no ability to curse or bless. Similarly, many other commentators call him a sorcerer or even charlatan. Zohar portrays him as a man with an Open, but Evil eye: wherever he gazed, he sent forth evil spirits to do the damage and that is what he aimed towards Israel. According to Abravanel Balaam actually wished to harm Israel even more than his ‘employer’, Balak, did yet his evil powers disappeared when he came to deal with Israel.
Opinions on Balaam differ because the situation described in our Torah portion is dynamic and it develops. Our parasha tells a story of a fallen prophet, of a man endowed once with the Divine wisdom that was turned into our enemy and God’s enemy. Our Sages say in Midrash that Balaam was infused with a prophetic spirit (ruach hakodesh), but when he joined up with Balak, it left him and he became a mere magician. In this light the miracle of his donkey speaking to him would have the following meaning: it would symbolize a decline of his prophetic abilities and thus the fall and failure of a once illustrious, enlightened man, who has become dogged and blinded in his intentions and actions and thus lost his outstanding, supernatural abilities. Indeed, it was the donkey who made him aware of the inconsistency of his intentions with the will of God. What could be more emphatic, what could be more ‘screaming’ to a prophet than this?
However, for Balaam it only worked partially and temporarily. After he hit the donkey three times and made it speak to him, the Holy One opened his eyes:
Then the LORD uncovered Balaam’s eyes, and he saw the angel of the LORD standing in the way, his drawn sword in his hand; thereupon he bowed right down to the ground. (Numbers 22:31)
But Balaam continues his journey with the intent of cursing Israel, which, according to the angel’s behavior, seems to be legitimized by God Himself. God changes his heart temporarily and makes his mouths bless Israel instead of cursing them. But it seems that the situation becomes more and more difficult. When he tries to curse Israel for the third time God intensifies His presence in the world and the Divine spirit itself (ruach Elohim) descends upon Balaam:
As Balaam looked up and saw Israel encamped tribe by tribe, the spirit of God [ruach Elohim] came upon him. (Num 24:2)
Which is a rare occurrence that happens in the Torah only three times besides our parasha: before the Creation of the world [Gen 1:2], when Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dreams [Gen 41:38] and when God bestows it on Bezalel to design and construct the Mishkan [Ex 31:3 and 35:31]. But it doesn’t help. We don’t hear about Balaam until Numbers 31 when he gets killed by the Israelites and when his last plot against them is being revealed (Num 31:8-16)
What may be the significance of this story for us today? I believe that several conclusions can be drawn from what I said above. Firstly, even smart and enlightened people can become our enemies, even vicious enemies. Thus, intelligence and education is not a completely reliable vaccine against antisemitism and hate. World history proves this point: there have been great luminaries who were antisemites or who sided with antisemites (like Voltaire, Dostoyevsky, Martin Heidegger or Romanian scholar of religion Mircea Eliade). Secondly, we should be careful when dealing with people who put their interests ahead of their values: in this case everything can turn on a dime, and our ‘friends’ can be turned into our enemies instantly. For this reason we should rather look for friends among people who share similar values to ours, or at least we need to know their table of values and that they really cherish them. And thirdly, although we should patiently work on our relationships with other peoples and their leaders, we should be aware of the winds of history and should be aware of the relative fragility of all relationships between people of different nations, cultures and faiths. Even God gave up on Balaam, all the more so our power is limited in this matter. That is also why we need to support our state – Israel. It is our home where we don’t have to rely on anyone else than us, no matter what happens in the rest of the world and no matter what the world thinks about Israel.