Parshat Balak: Prophecy or Sorcery?

During Rabbi Mark’s sabbatical this summer B’nai Emunah members are helping lead services and prepare drashiot. This drash was delivered July 8, 2017 by Frank Kurtz.


How fortunate is the congregant assigned to comment on Parshat Balak. There is so much material for discussion, ranging from the words of a talking donkey, to the perfidious collusion of Balak and Balaam to curse B’nai Yisrael, to the sexual profligacy of Israelite men with Moabite women, ending in the homicidal zealotry of Pinhas and a nasty plague as G-d’s retribution.

Much consternation can be expended over commentary by those who take divine literality over the words of the donkey and the extrajudicial actions of Pinhas. My choice is always to let the literalists go their way and cast my gaze elsewhere. The principal character of this story is Balaam, a complex and contradictory personality whom Jewish tradition teaches us to despise while at the same time whose words we should revere. When we enter the synagogue, our first words are:

מַה-טֹּבוּ אֹהָלֶיךָ, יַעֲקֹב; מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶיךָ, יִשְׂרָאֵל – How good are your tents, O Jacob and your dwelling places, O Israel.

And another nugget: מְבָרְכֶיךָ בָרוּךְ, וְאֹרְרֶיךָ אָרוּר – Blessed are those who bless you and cursed are those who curse you. Other excerpts of Balaam’s words have found their way into our liturgy.

According to the story, Balaam needs extra persuasion to leave his home in Pethor, some 20 days journey away from the scene of the action, to be the visiting dignitary in the nefarious deeds that Balak king of the Moabites was planning. Balak is sparing no expense to find a major celebrity to accomplish his objective: to inflict the most potent curse on his enemy. So who was this celebrity formulator of curses? Obviously not a local guy; they had to schlep from Moab to the Euphrates to reach him; not one to be summoned at the request of ordinary messengers (מאלכים), but rather requiring intercession of more distinguished emissaries (שרים רבים ונכבדים). Balaam claims that he is unable to act without approval from HaShem, who comes to him in dreams and lets the divine will be known. How does this person who is not an Israelite come into such direct contact with the Israelite deity that he can claim authenticity by invoking that G-d by name? For all intents and purposes, he comes across as a נבאי, a prophet, who claims to speak and act in the name of YHVH.

Then the narrative undercuts his authenticity in two ways. First, he agrees to travel to Balak after supposedly receiving divine permission matched by promises of open access to the Moabite treasury. Then, as he sets out on his way, the angel of YHVH blocks his path three times with an upraised sword, but these appearances are seen only by the famous talking donkey, who does her best to swerve out of the way, and gets a thrashing for her trouble. Only after the donkey collapses and explains her evasive action to Balaam with the miraculous gift of speech, does he see the angel as well and ultimately gets a pass onto the road to Moab with the instruction that he would pronounce only what G-d would approve. So Balaam was prepared to do his blessing and cursing for a handsome fee, but he was less perceptive of G-d’s presence than his poor donkey. Maybe not a נבאי after all.

Rabbinic commentary about Balaam disparages him because of his use of sorcery, which is hugely forbidden in the Torah. This is based on Parshat Mattot two weeks from now, in which Balaam is slain as part of the campaign against Midian (led my our zealous friend Pinhas), after which Balaam is identified as the cause of the Israelite men taking up with the Moabite women, followed by the plague (הֵן הֵנָּה הָיוּ לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, בִּדְבַר בִּלְעָם, לִמְסָר-מַעַל בַּיהוָה, עַל-דְּבַר-פְּעוֹר – Yet they (the Moabite women) are the very ones who, at the bidding of Balaam induced the Israelites to trespass against YHVH in the matter of Peor.) His demise is also noted in the book of Joshua, chapter 13, verse 22 with the words: וְאֶת-בִּלְעָם בֶּן-בְּעוֹר, הַקּוֹסֵם–הָרְגוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל בַּחֶרֶב, אֶל-חַלְלֵיהֶם – and B’nai Yisrael killed the sorcerer Balaam son of B’or by sword among the slain. So we finish him off with a brief and highly negative epithet, seemingly to discount any significance of his pronouncements in Moab.

Which leads me to two underlying issues: first, what kind of relationship can a rather unsavory person like Balaam have with HaShem?; and, second, what is the difference between prophecy – implying the high moral tone we associate with the Hebrew prophets – and sorcery, which is forbidden by the Torah?

Balaam is certainly blatant in invoking the name of the Israelite deity when describing his powers. Why would he choose this path rather some local pagan god or goddess? Perhaps he has gained some understanding that YHVH is a source of connection to the divine not available elsewhere; after all, this G-d is invisible and a certified success in the liberation of the Israelites from bondage in Egypt. Balaam  certainly is not an advocate of observing G-d’s mitzvot in pursuit of justice and holiness. And yet there is some kind of connection. He claims to be able to know G-d’s will through dreams and visions, and the story inserts YHVH at several points – in addition to sending the angel, it is YHVH who puts words in Balaam’s mouth to turn his attempts at cursing into blessings. So perhaps Balaam is an unlikely and unwilling vehicle for G-d to reveal G-d’s self in the drama of the moment. I wonder if Balaam is an example of G-d’s back channel available to us through sources that we might not otherwise expect. Paul Simon wrote that “the words of the prophet are written on the subway walls and tenement halls.” Our world is inhabited with many people and ideas that claim to be divinely inspired that are way outside what we view as Jewish tradition. Balaam is an example of acquiring G-d’s message from a highly unqualified source and making it our own. The rabbis go to great lengths to acknowledge Balaam’s skills (often comparing him to Moshe) while strongly condemning his moral character. This could very well mean that listening to the words of “the other” could be a source of blessing for us in a Jewish context without having to compromise our values and identity to that of another tradition. One might draw some comparison to the relationship between Jewish religious values to those of modern science, which in our culture is a non-theistic tradition. By studying and understanding the principles of biology, physics, and chemistry, we have the potential to use them for good or evil; the science itself has no moral component. By combining the scientific knowledge with Jewish tradition and values, we are enhanced as knowledgeable human beings with increased power to act in a moral and potentially holy way. We could even surmise that G-d’s back channel is speaking to us in a manner that we can put through a set of Jewish filters for a blessing.

On the question of prophecy versus sorcery, Torah is clear that Balaam was very much in the latter category. His connection with YHVH is tied to his singular and esoteric powers. Until the last of his four proclamations, he must isolate himself to gain the divine communication he needs. The story also tells us that Balaam is in opposition to G-d through his deeds and intentions. That someone can hook up to a divine “network” to perform nefarious deeds is the essence of sorcery that the Torah forbids. To be a prophet, the Rambam (Maimonides) sets up criteria as follows:

Prophecy is bestowed only upon a very wise sage of a strong character, who is never overcome by his natural inclinations in any regard. Instead, with his mind, he overcomes his natural inclinations at all times. He must [also] possess a broad and correct perspective. A person who is full of all these qualities and is physically sound [is fit for prophecy].

The extent to which Balaam does not fulfill these requirements was elucidated by Ismar Schorsh, former Chancellor of JTS in his commentary on this parsha:

Within the monotheistic framework of the Torah, Balaam can utter only what G-d imparts to him. Hence, he ends up in rapturous praise of Israel, to the consternation of Balak. In an imaginative midrash, the Rabbis expatiate on what brought Balak to seize on this particular tactic. Awestruck by Moses, he inquired of the Midianites, among whom Moses had once found refuge when fleeing Pharaoh’s wrath, as to the man’s strength. They responded that Moses’ strength resided in his mouth; that is, his prayers were able to move G-d to act in his behalf. To neutralize that weapon, Balak turns to sorcery. Balaam’s strength also resides in his mouth. His curse will trump Moses’ prayers. Without divine assistance, Israel is eminently beatable (Rashi on 22:4).

As so often, the midrashic genre yields rich insight. Words are weapons when they carry conviction. As long as the prayers of Israel embody deep faith, a sense of chosenness, and real dialogue, they have the capacity to keep chaos at bay. With the information at hand, Balak intuited that the ultimate source of Israel’s dominance was spiritual and not military.

At issue in these conflicting world views is clearly how we live. For the Rabbis, Balaam personified a lifestyle that turns on the self. The other is always secondary. In contrast, Abraham’s virtues combine to contract the ego. Compassion, humility, and self-restraint not only privilege the other but also devalue material possessions. Judaism strives for self-control. Nobility of character requires a touch of asceticism.

In his commentary to this passage, Judah Goldin posits that such virtue is not a function of biological descent, but persistent effort. Jewishness is defined by wat we do with our lives. Like Abraham, we can choose to follow G-d’s voice as refracted in the sacred texts of Judaism.

Incomparably, that same value scale is enunciated by the eighth-century prophet Micha, whose words constitute our haftarah for this week’s parashah. The superficial link is his glancing reference to Balak and Balaam. In a deeper vein, he espouses the primacy of ethics over ritual. The goal of genuine religion is not to mollify G-d with escalating numbers of sacrifices, culminating in the offering of one’s own firstborn child. On the contrary, what G-d has long demanded is “only to do justice and to love goodness and to walk modestly with your G-d” (6:8). Again, the thrust runs diametrically counter to our penchant for self-absorption. The best way to infuse the world with holiness is by harnessing the self. As long as ritual is tethered to that aspiration, it can provide us with the discipline to move beyond ourselves.

So let us conclude with the theme that outside influences can evolve into essential Jewish characteristics. I offer four examples, two of which are ancient and two more contemporary.

First, we are currently in the Hebrew month of Tammuz. Where did that name come from? If you look it up you will find the name of a Mesopotamian god whose festival took place around the summer solstice. In fact, the names of the months in the Hebrew calendar are derived from the Babylonian pantheon. Does that mean that we are somehow revering pagan gods? We could say that it is the equivalent to using the terms Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday does not revere the Norse gods after whom they are named. And yet, even though no one worships Tammuz any more, it has become religiously incumbent on Jews to preserve the name as a piece of a calendrical system that is the absolute foundation of Judaism.

Second, the High Holy Days were originally a Babylonian import. Rosh Hashana, which we consider the New Year, occurs in the seventh month – Tishrei – a name with an Akkadian root meaning beginning. The themes of spiritual renewal, inscription in the Book of Life, and purification from sin mirror a similar festival called Akitu, a 12-day event dedicated to the god Marduk, that the Jews experienced from their time in Babylonian exile. Pre-exilic texts do not mention Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, but we can surmise that the references in Torah to these days were inserted with the restoration of the second Temple in the time of Ezra and the Masoretic scribes as these rituals were being created.

Third, we have the American concept of voluntarism. American Jews have largely defined themselves through the organizations we have created over the past century and a half. These organizations include cultural, educational, social service and religious orientations. What they all have in common is that their constituents volunteer time, talents and money to allow them to function. Their efficacy is delimited primarily by their ability to gain and retain volunteer support in both quantity and duration. If they lose a critical mass of volunteers, they cannot survive.

Fourth, our Jewish life is infused with the value of democracy. We would be unhappy to be subject to the edicts of a Chief Rabbi or rabbinic court to impose rulings on us without any say on our part. Yes, we hire rabbis to express their knowledge and authority, but ultimately we want individual choice to mediate such opinions through our own understandings. When it comes to making decisions in the structures and expressions of Jewish communal life, we expect to exercise our franchise directly or through representatives whom we elect. We expect to voice our opinions in a debate and have them taken seriously. This is not the Judaism of the Torah or the Talmud, but we cannot conceive of being Jewish without it.

So thank you, Balaam, for saying what you said. You were a very shady character whom we were taught to detest, but as Jews we have taken great inspiration from your words.

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