Rabbi Michael Barclay
Balak: Selling Curses and Buying Blessings
“It’s not selling out, it’s called making lots of money”---Mick Jagger
This week’s Torah portion of Balak (Num. 22:2-25:9) is in some ways one of the most fun and outrageous readings in the Torah, and at the same time holds one of the most important lessons about ethics that we can learn as Jews.
The reading details the journey of Balak and Balaam. Balak was the king of Moab, and Balaam a famous prophet who had regular conversations with God. (As Balaam was not a Hebrew, this portion also reminds us that prophecy and holiness are not exclusive to the Jewish people.) Balak was concerned about the Hebrew who were about to come through his land, and sent messengers to Balaam to hire him to curse the Hebrews. Balaam asks God what he should do, and is told that he is forbidden from cursing the Hebrews as they are blessed. But Balak offers more money, and eventually Balaam succumbs and goes to curse the Hebrews at their camp.
Now is when the story really gets fun. As Balaam is traveling on his donkey, the donkey sees an angel of the Lord with a sword in hand, preparing to kill Balaam. The donkey swerves out of the way, and Balaam hits the donkey for not going where Balaam wants him to. Three times the donkey prevents Balaam from getting close to the sword-carrying angel, and three times Balaam beats the donkey with a stick for disobedience. Finally, the donkey looks up at Balaam, and starts to speak! He asks Balaam why he’s beating the poor donkey when the donkey has always been good. At that, Balaam is able to see the angel, recognize his danger, and tells the angel that he will say whatever God tells him to.
Ultimately, when Balaam comes to the Hebrews, he is unable to curse them and instead repeatedly blesses them; eventually saying the great blessing of Ma Tovu, “How goodly are thy tents O Jacob, they dwelling places of Israel” (Num. 24:5) that we recite in our liturgy.
There are three great lessons that we always need to remember, especially in these times of growing anti-Semitism nationally and around the world. The first is to always be true to our ethical values, and to act righteously as opposed to selling out to do what we know is wrong. Balaam knew he should not attempt to curse the Hebrews, but the gold offered to him by Balak was too tempting and led him down a path that almost destroyed him. In selling his values out, he almost died. Even when the world condemns our Jewish practices and values, we need to be true to them. They have served us for over 3000 years, and our ethical practices are what has kept the Jewish people strong, connected, and supported by God. Our observance of Jewish practices and ethical behavior has kept us safe and protected. As Ahad Ha’Am eloquently said, “More than the Jewish people have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews”.
This is the second great lesson found in this week’s reading. God will always take care of us. The Torah is clear that when we observe the commandments, God helps us prosper; and conversely, when we lose sight of our Jewish values and practices, God reminds us through putting challenges in our way. The entire biblical Book of Judges demonstrates this pattern. Things are going well for the Jews, then they do something that is evil in the sight of God, they become conquered, they cry out for redemption, a Judge comes to unify the people and bring them back to Jewish practices, they regain their freedom, and then the cycle repeats itself years later. In this week’s reading we see how committed God is to blessing us; preventing even a true prophet from delivering a curse and transforming it into one of the great blessings in Jewish history.
It is an important reminder that God is always with us, even when it seems as if we are being cursed. This is especially important to remember in these times of anti-Semitism, where it has become accepted for people nationwide to condemn Jews, Israel, and embrace anti-Semitic trope and vicious actions of violence against Jews. Even when it seems as if the curses of others against us are inevitable, God will ultimately transform those curses into blessings for Israel and the Jewish people.
The third great lesson found in this reading is much more subtle, but an important lesson about the challenges that come from fanaticism of any sort and the blindness that causes. The story of Balaam leaving with two servants and his donkey to head out to curse the Hebrews is a story of a man doing what he knew in his heart was wrong, but was willing to do anyway. His fanaticism and focus on the gold he was being paid made him oblivious to the dangers around him. Because of his single-minded attention on what he was being paid, rather than focusing on what he knew was proper ethical behavior, he almost died as he was blinded to seeing the angel. It is a story of surrendering an ethical behavioral system and refusing to be honest with one’s self…and the challenges that arise as a result.
But this isn’t the first time we’ve seen that lesson in the Torah, and we read about it every Rosh HaShanah in the story of the Akeidah, the Binding of Isaac. There, Avraham is asked by Sarah to eject his son Ishmael and Ishmael’s mother Hagar from the household. The very next scene is God “testing” Avraham by telling him that he is to take out his son Isaac and sacrifice the boy. Avraham knows that this is wrong on every level, but doesn’t argue with God. Avraham, a man who has always argued for ethical behavior, even debating with God to save the lives of the citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah whom he did not know, is quiet when God asks him to sacrifice his beloved son, Isaac. As we read every year, Avraham then sneaks out early in the morning with his two servants and donkey to go do the horrific deed of child sacrifice that he knows is wrong. The language of Avraham leaving to do something he knows is not ethical (Gen. 22:3) and the language found in Balaam’s leaving to curse the Hebrews (Num. 22:21-23), which he also knows is wrong is almost identical! The similarity in the language is a reminder to all of us to not get lost in fanaticism and lose focus on what is really important in life. And don’t we all need to remember that lesson on a regular basis? How often do people get lost in the single-mindedness of making money; paying bills; or acquiring profit, power, or prestige and forget our real values of family, love, and God? How often do so many people forget about their real values as they focus on doing something that they know is not in harmony with their inner essence? This powerful lesson found in the text (twice) is a reminder of keeping true to our values, and not losing ourselves in a quest for something that we know deep inside is not true to our soul.
These are all great lessons that we need to remember throughout our lives, and this portion of the “talking donkey” is a beautiful reminder to stay true to Jewish values, to avoid fanaticism of any sort, to never sell ourselves out, and to always, always remember that God loves us and always is protecting us…changing curses to blessings and pain into joy.
May we all remember these powerful lessons and stay true to our soul’s purpose, true to Jewish values and ethics, and have faith that God is always present…ultimately changing any curses against us into blessings of good health, joy, prosperity, love, and peace.
Rabbi Michael Barclay
June 24th, 2021
14th of Tamuz, 5781