By Rav Reuven Tradburks
The march to the land of Israel continues. The people have successfully confronted Sichon and Og on the east side of the Jordan, moving closer to the land. But they have also lost suffered the death of Miriam and Aharon. The march to the land is a march of human beings who live and who die. Human beings who seek power and influence (like Korach), with human foibles of frustrations and lust for meat and variety. And with the loss of Miriam and Aharon, and the impending loss of Moshe, they are a people whose eyes are dimming, whose insights will get blurry. In a word; a people with developing cataracts. And that is the story of Balak and Bilaam. It is a story of the limits of human perception, where Bilaam seeks G-d’s guidance, gets it but misinterprets it. Where animals speak more wisely than man. Where the great prophet Bilaam cannot see the angel in front of him. Bilaam is a prophet with cataracts; blurry vision. This forms a powerful image for the Jewish people. We will no longer enjoy the “aspaklaria hameira”, the unfettered vision of Moshe. We will be a people seeking G-d’s direction; but a people who will sometimes err in perceiving it and even when perceiving G-d’s direction, will often err in understanding it.
1st aliya (Bamidbar 22:2-12) Balak, king of Moav, is afraid of the Jewish people; they are like an ox, licking clean all in its path. He sends messengers to Bilaam, requesting of him to curse the Jewish people. Bilaam said he would only do as G-d instructs. G-d told him not to go, for the Jewish people are blessed.
Balak figures that if the Jewish people can defeat the strongest of the strong, Sichon and Og, then defeating the Jewish people will require more than military prowess. He recognizes that the spirit of the Jewish people is its power. It is this spirit that must be disrupted.
This story is also a powerful lesson in self perception. The spies thought that the people of the land viewed them as grasshoppers. Here, Balak describes the Jewish people as oxen. The difference in the 2 is who is speaking; is it us imagining what people think of us or is it the people telling us what they actually think of us? The spies had no idea what the people of the land thought of the Jewish people; all they could do was project. What do I think that you think of me? That says far more about me than it does about you. As if to say; if I were you, I would think of me as a grasshopper. Because that is what I think of myself. Here, Balak tells us himself what he thinks of the Jewish people. Oxen. Powerful. Formidable.
2nd aliya (22:13-20) Bilaam told the messengers to return to Balak, as G-d instructed him not to join them. Balak tried again, with greater dignitaries as messengers. He promised Bilaam great honor. Bilaam replied that even the promise of a house full of silver and gold would not allow him to ignore G-d’s word. G-d said: if these men want you to join them, you may go but only say what I tell you.
This story introduces us to the complexity of our relationship with the non Jewish nations. Balak and Bilaam see a world of powers beyond the rational, physical world. They believe in the power to curse the people. And that this power is given to specific people. And we must assume that Bilaam had success in his powers, for Balak never questions Bilaam’s ability. In addition, Bilaam enjoys communication from G-d. The Jewish people will need to contend with the world of the unseen when they enter the land; people who believe in all sorts of powers that will vie with our G-d for our attention. There is fertile debate as to the veracity of Bilaam’s powers; however, the simple reading of the story seems to indicate that he is a prophet, one who G-d speaks with and who has used his powers successfully before.
3rd aliya (22:21-38) Bilaam awoke, saddled his donkey and joined the noblemen of Moav. G-d was angry. An angel with a sword appeared in front of the donkey, so it swerved to the side. It then stood in front of a narrow path; Bilaam’s leg was pushed against the side. It then blocked the way of a narrow path and the donkey stopped. Bilaam hit the donkey. The donkey spoke: why did you hit me. Have I not served you loyally. Bilaam then saw the angel with its sword. The angel spoke: you did not see what the donkey saw. Now go but only say as G-d instructs you to say. Bilaam continued with Balak’s messengers, while Balak came to greet him. Why, Bilaam did you not come? Bilaam responded that he will say only what G-d instructs.
The talking donkey is a great image. Not the first animal to speak; the serpent in the garden of Eden also spoke. King Solomon is described as knowing the language of the animals. The speaking donkey is as if to say; there is a world out there that you just don’t have a clue about. You human beings are so limited, have such impoverished perception that even the great Bilaam is embarrassingly myopic. This is one of the enduring lessons of this story: the limitations of our perception of the world.
4th aliya (22:39-23:12) Balak and Bilaam build 7 altars, offer offerings and peer out at the Jewish people. G-d speaks to Bilaam, placing His words in his mouth. Bilaam returns to Balak and pronounces the prophecy: How can I curse a people that is not cursed? Oh that my lot be theirs. Balak is not happy; Bilaam affirms that he says only what G-d places in his mouth.
Bilaam and Balak believe in the power of speech. They are hoping that G-d will be displeased with the Jewish people and curse them. But. If He is displeased, why is it necessary for Bilaam to articulate this? Why does G-d’s curse need a person to articulate it? There is a belief in the power of man; that what man says makes G-d’s curses happen. Bilaam and Balak believe in the power of man.
5th aliya (23:13-26) Balak and Bilaam try a different location where only part of the Jewish people are visible. After offering offerings on 7 altars, G-d places His words in Bilaam’s mouth. Bilaam returns to Balak and prophecies: G-d does not see iniquity in Israel. He is their benevolent King. They are not sorcerers; G-d acts for them. They are as lions. Balak is again unhappy; Bilaam affirms he says what G-d instructs him to say.
What are they hoping in choosing a different location? Perhaps Bilaam and Balak acknowledge that the Jewish people as a people are blessed. But not every single Jew. We have blemishes. When G-d looks at the whole, He sees that the good outweighs the weaknesses. If we can get Him to look at the blemishes, maybe He will overlook all the good. Oh, that we could learn from Bilaam and quit glaring at the blemishes but gaze at the Jewish people as a whole.
6th aliya (23:27-24:13) Balak and Bilaam try again from a different spot. Bilaam avoids his sorcery and gazes at the Jewish people. He prophecies: how wonderful are the Jewish people. They are as trees, watered gardens, powerful. G-d redeemed them; they are as crouched lions. Those that bless them are blessed. Balak is again angry; Bilaam affirms he says what G-d instructs.
Bilaam gazes at the Jewish people and sees its beauty. Balak who merely heard about the Jewish people saw them as an ox, licking clean all in its sight. Bilaam does not suffice with hearing, but looks at the people, sees them as trees, water, and gardens.
7th aliya (24:14-25:9) Bilaam prophecies regarding the other nations: all will fail to stop Israel, including Moav, Edom, Amalek, Keini. The Jewish people began to be seduced by the women of Moav, attaching to their gods. Pinchas arose and smote a Jewish man and Midianite woman before the people.
As Balak understood, the power of the Jewish people is in its relationship to G-d. Appealing to human weakness and causing the men to sin is a vulnerability the Jewish people will bear. Cursing may not work; reducing them to sin will.