Close
Log In using Email

Stargazer staring at Israel

Stargazer staring at Israel

Thoughts on parashat Balak

Menachem Mirski 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. Shabbat shalom!

Menachem Mirski- student rabinacki w Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, American Jewish University, Los Angeles, USA.
Menachem Mirski is a Polish born philosopher, musician, scholar and international speaker. He earned his Ph.D. in Philosophy and is currently studying to become a Rabbi at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. His current area of interests focus on freedom of expression and thought as well as the laws of logic as it pertains to the discourse of ideology and social and political issues. Dr. Mirski has been a leader in Polish klezmer music scene for well over a decade and his LA based band is called Waking Jericho.

Thoughts on Parashat Vayera
Technology and Upbringing
Ki Tavo
Ki Teitzei
Shoftim
Barry Cohen’s Opening the Drawer: The Hidden Identities of Polish Jews – webinar
Ekev
Matot-Massei
Parashat Pinchas
Stargazer staring at Israel
The Roving Eye and the Wandering Heart
To Share the Sparks of Divine Wisdom
On “moral superiority”
Bemidbar
Behar-Bechukotai
Kedoshim tihiyu – You shall be holy!
To connect people with different visions of life
Parashat Beshalach
Ritual memory – the beauty of Judaism
Truth vs Peace
Miketz
VAYESHEV
Vayetze
Toldot
Chayei Sarah
Vayera
Fulfillment of God’s Promise is Accompanied by… Laughter
What to Do to Live Happily Ever After
SIMCHAT TORAH 5781
Transience as a Blessing
Nitzavim-Vayelech
Menachem Mirski 10 przykazań – część 3 wykład wideo
W bramach miesiąca ELUL wykład wideo
10 przykazań cz1 – wykład wideo
TRZY KSIĘGI OTWIERA SIĘ W ROSZ HA-SZANA – wykład wideo
EKEV
TU BE-AW -OD ŻAŁOBY DO MIŁOŚCI
Devarim
SMAK TORY
Pinchas
LUD TWÓJ LUD MÓJ A BÓG TWÓJ – BÓG MÓJ
Balak
KOBIETY W MYKWIE
Pride Month Sermon
OD TEMPLU DO BEITU -wykład wideo
BLISKI …WSZYSTKIM, KTÓRZY GO WZYWAJĄ
For Shavuot
Rozważania o święcie Szawuot
Bamidbar
Introduction to Jewish Law Rabin Alan Iser [ENG]
SŁOŃCE WSCHODZI I SŁOŃCE ZACHODZI – Kalendarz żydowski
EMOR
Acharei Mot
YOM HAZIKARON AND YOM HA’ATZMA’UT
TAJEMNICE KADISZU
Shemini
CO ŁĄCZY PIEŚŃ NAD PIEŚNIAMI ZE ŚWIĘTEM PESACH?
SHABBAT CHOL HAMO’ED
PUBLICZNA MODLITWA W TRUDNYM CZASIE
Vayikra
Terumah
Yitro
BESHALLACH
VAYECHI
Vayigash
CHANUKAH
Vayeshev
VAYESHEV
Vayera.
NOACH
Too Big, It Must Fail
CHOL HAMOED SUKOT
Haazinu
Ki Tetzei
Chazon
Matot-Massei
Pinchas
Pinchas
KORACH
Force of habit, passivity, fear and their consequences
The King and his Son. Thoughts on Parashat Naso
On Jewish Unity and Diversity. Thoughts on Parasha Bamidbar
Whom Can We Trust?
Has the Time Come For a Jubilee Year?
EMOR
Once Again About the Needy
PESSACH  2019
Ideological wars and social unrest: what can we do about them?
The World Between Order and Chaos
TZAV
Democracy and Responsibility. Thoughts on Parasha Vajikra.
What’s the Role of Religion?
TETZAVEH
What does the Tabernacle symbolize?
A Good Example Shows the Way
Chaos and hate – our outer and inner enemy
Freedom Once Gained Must Never Be Given Up
Parashat Vayera
One Person Can Change the History of the Entire World
Divine Actions Viewed as the Sum of Human Actions
Turning point. Thoughts on the parashat Miketz
Enslaved in Parental Lack of Attention and Brotherly Jealousy
Wrestling in the night
To lie or not to lie? Thoughts on Parashat Vayetze
Infertility – A Shared Problem
External and Internal Beauty.
Local Government vs Sodom
LECH LECHA
The meaning of life. Thoughts on parashat Lech Lecha.
Trying Our Best – Just Like Noah Did
Killing Anger. Thoughts on Parashat Bereshit.
An Ephemeral Booth or a Lasting Legacy? How Should We View Our Lives?
SUKKOT
Is Progress Actually Always Progress? Thoughts on Parashat Haazinu.
YOM KIPPUR 2018 JONAH
KOL NIDRE
Nabożeństwo Jom Kipur | Yom Kippur Prayer 2018
Standing Before the Heavenly Court
ROSH HASHANAH MORNING
EREV ROSH HASHANAH
To love is to see potential. Thoughts on Parashat Nitzavim
Time to be grateful [Ki Tavo]
Elul – the Month of Judgment
Good fortune and justice. Thoughts on Parashat Ree.
SHABBAT EKEV
Who will hear my Shma?
The role of women in traditional Judaism. Reflection on parashat Pinchas.
Thoughts on Parashat Bamidbar
What Kind of Society is “Without Blemish”?
Pesach: Matzah, Spring and Freedom
Vayakhel and Pekudei – Candles, Blessing, Shabbat!
Cindy Paley Poland Tour 2017
Concert Neal Brostoff&Marcin Król – Hebrew Melodies