Thursday, July 14, 2005

Parashat Balak - Walk Like an Egyptian...


Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch says that Bila'am, the "hero" of this Parasha, is one of four non-Jews who recognize the truth of G-d, yet fail to grasp the truth of Torah. The other three are: Job, Yitro and Malkizedek.

The Gemara brings the story of three of these - Bila'am, Job and Yitro - who were advisors to Pharaoh. The story is told that, when Moshe was born and fished from the Nile, he was brought before Pharaoh. Pharaoh asked his advisors what should be done with this newborn, clearly a Hebrew boy. Bila'am recommended killing him on the spot. Job did not speak either for or against letting Moshe live. Yitro fled, rather than be drawn into so vile a discussion.

Who is this Bila'am - after whom the Parasha is not named, and who plays so vital a role in this little anecdote, a story which, in itself, seems to have no bearing on the overall story the Torah is telling at this point. Or does it...?

Arching over last week's Parasha is the complex literary construct that clearly binds the figure of Moshe to that of Abraham. It underscores the notion that we have come Full Circle, and the impending entry into the Land is the re-enactment of Abraham's first entry - this is a theme which we shall see again, and which is by no means incidental to the narrative at this point.

Similarly, this Parasha contains a striking reference to the Abraham narrative, coupled with a sly evocation of Moshe. At 22:21, after having received G-d's instruction to accompany Balak's men, Bila'am wakes in the morning and saddles his donkey. Rashi immediately jumps on this image: "'Wicked One!' says G-d. 'Their father Abraham beat you to it!'" The words are slightly different. Bila'am "arises" [va-yakom], but does not "arise early" [va-yashkem]. Bila'am saddles an ass [aton] and not a donkey [chamor]. Bila'am goes ['im sarei moav] "with the princes of Moab. But the word for princes - sarei - if unvocalized can also be read Sarai. The sentence becomes: "Bila'am went with Sarai to Moab." Or perhaps: "Bila'am went with the Sarai of Moab."

In the very next verse - just to remind us that the Torah at this point equates Moshe with Abraham; that the long cyclical narrative started with Abraham is now drawing to a close and bringing us back to our point of entry (exactly, as we shall see in a later Parasha - Watch This Space!) - The Torah states that G-d was furious because he was going. This inverts the episode where someone, presumed to be G-d, tried to kill Moshe who hesitated on the road to Mizraim. But here, again, things are not quite in the same balance they were in the original text. Indeed, all of Bila'am's stumblings-about make him appear as some sort of Bizzarro Moshe: he speaks directly with G-d - but then, so does his donkey. He utters prophecy direct from the lips of G-d - but he doesn't believe them himself. He acknowledges that G-d has ultimate power over all - but he doesn't bother to worship G-d, nor does he seem to worship anything. He is not so much an idol-worshiper as an apparent practicing atheist who just happens to have a direct line to G-d.

Gevalt! What's going on here?

Why does the Parasha, which is about Bila'am, bear the title Balak? Balak sets the tone; Balak is the clue. But the working-out of the story is much more subtle.

Balak wishes to curse Israel because, like the Pharaoh Who Knew Not Joseph, he fears Israel. 22:5 shows Balak worrying over these people who have swarmed up from Mizraim and now are sitting in his face. Notice a few interesting points: first, Balak uses the same word first used by Pharaoh - 'AM. It was Pharaoh who first called us 'am Israel. Now Balak repeats the formula. Also notice that, thirty-eight years after the Exodus, we are still known as "the People Who Came Out of Egypt." Another way of looking at this is: we came out of Egypt, yes; but somehow Egypt surrounds us still. Egypt, her desire to remove Torah from the world, to revert to the easy world of appetites. Egypt, whose whole ethical philosophy can be summed up in a phrase made famous in the 1970's: If it feels good, do it! Egypt, whose mode of life is wholly appetite driven.

Indeed, when we whine for Egypt during our years in the Midbar, we don't say: "I wish I were still in Egypt where we had flush toilets and air conditioning!" We don't say: "I wish we were back in Egypt where we had multiplex cinemas and baseball (by the way, does anyone know how the Memphis No-Sox are doing?)" No, it is always tied to food. How much more blatant would your like your metaphors to be?

Egypt, then, stands for the world without Torah. What is especially insidious about Bila'am is that, unlike Egypt, which tries to deny the existence, or at least the power of G-d, Bila'am acknowledges G-d, but separates G-d and Torah.

Bila'am appears to be quite used to miracles. When his donkey complains, his response is, "If I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you!" He doesn't appear phazed in the slightest by the fact that his donkey is having a conversation with him. And we know, by the way, that this is not a common occurrence, because the text goes out of its way to state that G-d opens the donkey's mouth. This may be the key to Bila'am: nothing seems particularly important to him. G-d speaks to him - OK, so it's a special talent he has, no big deal. His donkey speaks to him - OK, if G-d speaks to me, then why not my donkey? And when the Angel of G-d finally materializes before his eyes, the text does not tell us that he is afraid, but merely that he gets off the donkey and prostrates himself (22:31). The King of Moab sends for him and bids him use his powers to curse Israel. When the project fails miserably, Bila'am's sole response to Balak is (24:12-13) "I told you so." And the end of the episode is that Bila'am merely goes his way.

Or perhaps it is not that Bila'am is so at home with the miraculous. Maybe he is notthe man we take him to be.

He does nothing more than go through the motions. His direct channel to G-d is a fluke. Bila'am is a prophetic Rain Man, an idiot prophete who has no affect, no connection to anyone, and no clue of what is going on around him. Yet, the outcome for us is far more dire than we may recognize.

For Balak does attain his objective, and despite Bila'am, the People are cursed. Or are we so simplistic that we believe the mere content of the words, the words placed in Bila'am's mouth are themselves sufficient to protect us against national tragedy?

It's like saying: you have a problem? Did you check your mezuzah? Yes, it is important to check your mezuzas. But it is not enough.

Are we so dull that we believe that G-d's words, placed in the mouth of an unwitting idiot, are proof against the world that surrounds us? Bila'am's effect was to separate G-d from Torah. The mighty coda of Bila'am's prophecy - the successive recitations of the future victories of Israel over its enemies that brings chapter 24 crashing to a symphonic close - this is sufficient to blind us to the fact that, for all our thirty-eight years of preparation, we are still not ready. What Balak could not achieve by force and stealth, we brought upon ourselves by nothing more than giving free rein to our own appetites.

Chapter 25 opens with three brief verses: We fornicated with the Moabites; we ate the sacrifices of the Moabites and bowed down to their gods; we joined ourselves to the god Ba'al Pe'or - a deity whose worship consists, so says the Gemara in Sanhedrin, in defecating before its altar.

Thus did Balak win after all. And he did not even know it. The lesson Balak never learned - and which Bila'am told him explicitly - is that all victories are temporary. All nations rise, only to fall. Our own history seems to bear out the notion that we are unlike these others: that we continue to exist. That through the cycles of history, when we fall, it is to lie low perhaps, but ultimately to rise again.

Textually, it is striking that the entire Balak / Bila'am episode unfolds without a word from or about Moshe or Israel. From our perspective, we do not even know this is going on. Our own narrative skips from 22:1 - the last verse of Parashat Chukat - to 25:1, where we find ourselves living in the Plains of Moab after having defeated Og and Sichon. We literally moved right in - right into their homeland, right into their tents. Right into their daughters and their temples.

Does this Parasha read like a twisted version of Torah? Has so much changed since we left Mizraim?

Jews who argue that Halacha is "not really Torah" are deluding themselves. Because Halacha is not an arbitrary set of strictures imposed, Taliban-like, to make our lives miserable. It is the ongoing legacy of tens of thousands of the most dedicated, intelligent, spiritual, humble people in human history who collectively have spent over three thousand years struggling to come to terms with the immensity of Torah. And Torah as a text is internally contradictory, it is vague, it is misleading. How are we to live by this Book and pretend that the entire body of Rabbinic scholarship does not matter? Halacha is a process, not a monolith. To put it more precisely: Halacha is an ongoing system for trying to come to terms with the fact that humans are... well... human. Halacha is not a god. But G-d without Torah is also not G-d.

Isn't it amazing how the whole world stands in awe of a person like Bila'am? Pharaoh considered him his closest adviser. Balak calls upon him to protect his nation. And what is Bila'am, but an empty shell. At least an Egyptian has appetites. Bila'am seems to have nothing at all.

Let us not fall into the trap of Taking The Easy Way Out. What did Moab have that was so enticing to us? Sex and food. And then, to cap it off, defecating on the altar. It sounds like a bad joke about guys during Super Bowl week. Is this what we really want out of life?

Don't walk like a Moabite. Don't walk like an Egyptian.

Walk like a Jew.


Yours for a better world.


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