This week’s Torah portion, Balak, is in turn comic, serious and instructive.
The powerful magician Bil’am is hired by Balak, the King of Moab, to curse the Israelites while we are travelling towards the land of Canaan. The Almighty tells him he cannot go, but on being pressed by Balak’s second set of messengers he is allowed. Rav Nachman (Sanhedrin 105a) tells us that chutzpah sometimes yields results. He then blesses Israel three times, the third being the famous words mah tovu, which we use today when entering the synagogue.
Peculiar to Bil’am is the way he seeks prophecy. Other prophets in the Bible try to resist the call from God. Bil’am courts it as a method of self-aggrandisement. He boasts of his communications, and mentions himself when speaking the words God puts in his mouth. This is in stark contrast to the manner of Moses’ prophecy – Moses removes his ego from the proceedings and speaks clearly, citing God without mentioning himself. The great modern commentator Nehama Leibowitz cites many prophets who repeatedly conclude their prophecy with “says the Lord”, whereas Bil’am repeatedly says: “The saying of Balaam the son of Beor, and the saying of the man whose eye is opened.”
The humour of the whole story indicates that stuffy, pompous Bil’am is no different from a donkey – God makes him speak much as the donkey speaks. As a mouthpiece he is no better than the donkey; indeed the donkey appears in a better light, being honest about her self-interest in her speech, whereas Bil’am hides his own interest in his pomposity. He clearly loves being at the centre of this power and is reluctant to let go, even when his pomposity is punctured by the talking donkey. He just can’t take a hint.
The three attempts at a curse, changed by God into a blessing, anger the King, but Bil’am explains that he cannot alter the prophecy. A prophet has the job of speaking truth to powerful people. This is an example of a prophet speaking (most unwillingly) straightforward and contrary words to a monarch. God turns his self-centred arrogance into a means of warning and rebuke, a warning of the ultimate disaster awaiting both prophet and king.
The ultimate failure and inversion of Bil’am’s mission lead to the desperation of the Midianites’ attempted seduction of the Jewish people, and the collapse of that endeavour.
In today’s world we see many people who seek power and self-aggrandisement like Bil’am. They are prepared to puff themselves up and, pumped-up on their own words, they push their own stories, however implausible. The lust for power leads most people to ignore the obvious, rather as Bil’am appears unphased when faced with the outrageous miracle of a talking donkey. This lack of self-awareness makes an ass of those who would be the donkey’s interlocutor. Those who are prepared to state hard facts are few in number, but perhaps their wisdom is worth more than the inflated blandishments and inward-looking unawareness of the many.
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