Out of Left Field: The Portion of Balak
By Rabbi Bob Freedman
Just at a point in the narrative of Numbers when the Israelites have begun to fight for the land that God has promised them comes the story of Bil’am. It seems to say, “Dear reader, maybe at this point in our story you fear that Israel is not doing well. Yes, they can fight, but at spiritual constancy or keeping purity of purpose, their record is truly dismal. Yet don’t despair; take a step back to see the bigger picture. Even now on the far heights of Mt. Pisgah God is readying the seer Bil’am, against his will, to bring blessing on Israel.”
This Bil’am story is odd. It is by far the longest of the very few narratives in the Torah that are not about events directly experienced by the generation of the Exodus or about their history. The Israelites camped in the plains of Moav know nothing about Bil’am‘s blessings and Balak’s designs against them that went astray. To use a timely summer metaphor, the story comes out of left field.
And it is, to use a non-technical term, messy. On the one hand (Num 22:2-20 and 22:36-24:25), Bil’am is a powerful sorcerer whose blessings and curses are always effective. Though he is a master of divination, an art that God tells the Jews is forbidden, God speaks directly to him. In other words, this version of the story makes him out to be a gifted and talented prophet. On the other hand (Num 22:21-35), he is an irascible fool who beats an innocent animal, an incompetent “seer” who cannot see even what his talking donkey sees, and God reprimands him for doing what God just told him to do!
When Bil’am arrives to where Balak is waiting, God puts rose-colored glasses before his eyes, and he describes Israel in glowing terms. They are like lions and trees planted by flowing water, he says. They know God directly and not through divination. A man of power himself, he sees their magical ability to turn blessings back on those who bless them and curses back upon their revilers. He even wishes, “May I die the death of the upright; may my fate be like theirs!” (Num 23:10).
We, the readers, are stunned, having just read about this idolatrous kvetching and rebellious people that constantly needs Moses to intercede for them lest God kill them outright in the desert. On reflection, though, we realize that unlike us, who are reading about the shortcomings of Israel close up and in detail, Bil’am is seeing the Israelites from a long way off. He can see their goodly tent walls, but not what goes on inside. He senses their bravery, but not their cowardice in the face of thirst, bland diet, and scorpions. His vision is of a nation, not of individuals scarred by generations of slavery.
Perhaps, through this literary device of inserting the story of Bil’am the seer, the Torah is teaching us how to reset our vision. Be like Bil’am, the Torah suggests; take the long perspective. As readers, overlook the contradictions in the story. In thinking about our lives, be like the story itself that comes out of nowhere and carries us far away from the previous portion. If, like the Israelites in the desert, we are dragged toward despair by transient annoyances like hunger, thirst, complaints, conflict, contradictions, and frustration, Torah directs us to see through Bil’am‘s open eyes that God’s beneficence is constantly pouring into our lives, and that God’s ultimate plan is for us to be well and to prosper.
Bob Freedman is ordained as a rabbi (AJR 2000) and as a cantor (HUC-JIR ’85), and has served congregations as both. He is presently the cantor at Society Hill Synagogue in Philadelphia.