Balak is one of the more famous portions in that it features a talking donkey, a non Jewish prophet, Bilaam, who blesses Israel instead of cursing them and in that blessing speaks words that have remained part of the Jewish liturgy for centuries. Bilaam blesses the Israelites and includes in one of his blessings the famous (24:5) “How fair/good are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel” (mah tovu ohelecha). In his Torah commentary, Plaut (p.1187) cites a traditional commentator, the Malbim, who noted that Bilaam uses the word for good in his blessing meaning that he”saw moral, not esthetic beauty”. How interesting is this comment in light of today? How do we judge people when we “see” them? Often superficially. Equally true is that with the gift of our own aging, we come to realize that what we “see” on the outside is just that, the outside, but we learn to judge people by what they do, how they act.
Part of that, obviously, is what people say. For centuries, commentators have interpreted Balak’s call to Bilaam to curse and Bilaam’s reality to bless. He defied the king, Balak’s order. He turned down the possibility of rewards and honor to see the good. Sometimes it takes courage to “speak truth to power”. History is riddled with such people. History is also filled with those who chose to bless, rather than curse. A theme of many of these portions of Torah has been the power of words. We see another example here. We know that words can divide. Balak’s call to Bilaam was a call motivated by the king’s fear for he saw a people, the Israelites, as a threat coming from outside his land. The parochialism of fear motivates so much of what we see today, just as it did in so many cases of our history. Torah is teaching us that words of blessing respond to what is good and moral in society. Reaching out, not turning inward, can be seen as a moral lesson from this portion.
In his book “The Bedside Torah”, Rabbi Bradley Artson picks up this theme in his comments on this Torah text. He notes the reality that we need to remain involved with Jewish issues “But it is only part of who we are. If we turn out back on social and humanitarian involvements with the larger world, we betray what was distinctive about our prophets of old, and what was beautiful about an earlier vision of what Judaism should be.” (p.263). We Jews live with challenging tensions. One of which is seen here, we work to preserve our own faith and work to bring the moral and ethical values of that faith into the world. And yes, at times, this tension produces conflict, yet, me are aclled to remember that words of blessing may bring about our goal while words that curse only serve to divide.
Rabbi Richard F Address
Rabbi Richard F. Address, D.Min, is the Founder and Director of www.jewishsacredaging.com. Rabbi Address served for over three decades on staff of the Union for Reform Judaism; first as a Regional Director and then, beginning in 1997, as Founder and Director of the URJ’s Department of Jewish Family Concerns and served as a specialist and consultant for the North American Reform Movement in the areas of family related programming. Rabbi Address was ordained from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1972 and began his rabbinic career in Los Angeles congregations. He also served as a part time rabbi for Beth Hillel in Carmel, NJ while regional director and, after his URJ tenure, served as senior rabbi of Congregation M’kor Shalom in Cherry Hill, NJ from 2011-2014.