Parashat Balak

June 30, 2023Blair C. Marks

This week we encounter the strange tale of Balak (king of Moab,) Balaam (a non-Israelite prophet,) and Balaam’s she-donkey, who, like most of the females in the Torah, has no name. Let’s call her Jennie, which, after all, is the term for a she-donkey. 

Forty years of wandering in the wilderness are coming to an end. The Israelites are working their way North; they will ultimately cross the Jordan River from the plains of Moab. Along the way, they request free passage through the land of the Amorites, promising not to stray into the fields or vineyards, nor drink water from the wells. But Amorite King Sihon attacks them instead, and the Israelites then conquer the Amorites. Perhaps a little hospitality from King Sihon would have been a better option.

King Balak sees the Israelites heading his way, and he is afraid the same thing will happen to his kingdom as to his Amorite southern neighbors. He turns to supernatural intervention, sending messengers to ask Balaam, a leading prophet of the day, to curse the Israelites. But when G-d warns Balaam: “You must not curse that people, for they are blessed,” Balaam refuses Balak’s request.

King Balak tries again, this time sending his “A-list” dignitaries and offering Balaam rich rewards if he will come and curse the Israelites. Balaam eventually goes, even while protesting that he cannot do anything contrary to what G-d tells him. 

But something unusual happens on the road back to King Balak…..

Remember Jennie, the she-donkey? Jennie spots an angel holding a sword blocking their way, and she swerves off the path. Balaam, who does not see the angel, gets angry and beats Jennie to get her back on the road. The angel appears again and Jennie veers to one side, squeezing Balaam’s foot between two vineyard walls. Balaam beats her again. The third time the angel appears, the path is so narrow that Jennie just lays down in place. Balaam beats her yet again.

Jennie has now had enough, and she’s not going to take it. She asks Balaam, “What have I done to you that you have beaten me three times?” She reminds him that he has been riding her for a very long time (in other words, he knows her), and she asks if she has been in the habit of doing this sort of thing to him. When Balaam (apparently unsurprised that Jennie can talk) answers, “no,” G-d lets Balaam see the angel, who chastises Balaam for his behavior and says that if Jennie had not shied away, Balak would have been killed.  

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner explains that this story is “about being (1) rerouted (swerving off the path), (2) squeezed, and finally, (3) stopped until you get your eyes opened and see what’s really going on.”1 We need to pay attention!

Ultimately, Balaam does meet King Balak, having been warned and reminded by the angel that he is only to say what G-d tells him to. 

At three different locations overlooking the Israelite encampments, King Balak repeatedly demands that Balaam curse the Israelites…but Balaam instead offers poetic blessings. At their third stop, Mt. Peor, he is inspired by G-d to invoke the words: “How fair are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel……” the words of Mah Tovu with which we begin morning prayers every day, thousands of years later. Rabbi Lisa Greene explains that these words “remind us to look out, to open our eyes, to view and see the broader scene, even as we focus on our personal expressions of prayer. Even as Balaam did, we can see the expanse of our great community with awe!”

So, what might we learn from this story of King Balak, Balaam the prophet, and Jennie the she-donkey?

  1. A little hospitality might go a long way. If Amorite King Sihon had allowed the Israelites to pass, who knows whether the outcome might have been different? Can we be more welcoming to strangers? Can we find ways to say yes instead of saying no?
     
  2. Wisdom can come from unexpected places. Balaam never considered that Jennie, his she-donkey, might have a good reason for what she was doing. How often do we ourselves jump to conclusions without all the relevant information? If someone suddenly starts behaving strangely, maybe we should ask why…they may know something we should know too! As Rabbi Kushner said, look around and see what’s REALLY going on!
     
  3. Stand up for what’s right…and having an angel on your side doesn’t hurt! Jennie told Balaam she was not going to accept his abuse, and the angel doubled down on her behalf. Like the angel, we can all be upstanders.
     
  4. Look at the big picture….and look for blessings, not curses. Rabbi (Philip) Flip Rice says, “Overcoming challenges can shape you into a stronger, more loving, more compassionate person. Those who focus only on the negative, tend to only see the curses in their lives. Focusing on the positive helps you learn from what is plaguing...Sometimes you have to strain to see even a slightly positive aspect in your situation, but when you find it, grab on to it! Focus on it repeatedly, throughout the day, day after day, and in time, you may come to know the blessings hidden beneath it.”3

May we strive to be more open-minded and welcoming, seek to understand the big picture and what’s really going on, stand up for what’s right, and recognize the blessings in our lives.

References

1 Balaam’s Talking Ass, D’var Torah by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, https://reformjudaism.org/learning/torah-study/torah-commentary/balaams-talking-ass

2 Daver Archer by Rabbi Lisa S. Greene, https://reformjudaism.org/learning/torah-study/torah-commentary/balaams-talking-ass

3 A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Curse the Children of Israel, D’var Torah by Rabbi Philip Rice,  https://reformjudaism.org/learning/torah-study/torah-commentary/funny-thing-happened-way-curse-children-israel

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