Parashat Balak: Testing Your Moral Mettle

[For Congregation Ner Shalom, July 3, 2009.]

Ah, to open your mouth and have words of blessing pour out!

Ah, to have angels bar your way when you are heading out to do something rotten.

Ah, to have your pets and beasts of burden pull you aside when seem up to no good.

These are the incredible gifts given to a soothsayer named Bil’am, who is the protagonist of this week’s parashah. His story is one of the most fanciful in Torah. It doesn’t further the storyline of the Israelites’ wandering in the desert. It doesn’t aid in the character development of Moses or Aaron or Miriam.

Instead it is its own self-contained fable, full of poetry -- perhaps very ancient poetry, talking donkeys and foiled plans of bloodthirsty kings. And it is plopped down in the Book of Numbers as if it belongs there.

As K. (tomorrow's Bar Mitzvah) pointed out to me some time ago, this portion could have started with, “Meanwhile in Moab,” and could have concluded with, “But back at the Israelite encampment...” The whole story is a time out. A digression. But a beautiful, curious and revealing one.

K. will be telling and discussing much of this story tomorrow. But as a refresher or preview for you, the king of Moab, fearful of the mass of Israelites encamped at his borders, afraid they will devour his subjects like an ox eats grass, calls upon a famous deliverer of curses named Bil’am. He tries to persuade and then bribe Bil’am to place a curse on the Israelites.

Bil’am, though not an Israelite, is in direct communication with YHWH – not just a deity, but our deity. This is one of those infrequent moments in Torah where God’s universality is attested, where God is not confined to being a celestial echo of the Israelites’ earthly identity and adventures. There are others in the world who know YHWH by name. And this is also an invitation for us to take a plunge and identify with Bil’am.

So God, early on in the story, communicates to Bil’am that he may not curse the Israelites, for they are worthy of blessing. Bil’am dutifully tells the King, “I can only do and say what YHWH permits. I cannot transgress against YHWH’s will in matters either great or small."

But Bil’am proves to be a puzzle. He finagles God’s buy-in for him to take the journey the King of Moab proposes. He sets out on his she-ass toward the Israelite encampment -- rather eagerly, the rabbis point out, as is evidenced by his saddling his own donkey and not waiting for a servant to do it.

Then, in an exciting action sequence, God sends an angel with an outstretched sword to block the path. Bil’am doesn’t see the angel but his donkey does, and swerves aside. Bil’am beats the donkey to get it back onto the path. God “opens the mouth” of the donkey and allows it to speak directly to Bil’am to tell him to knock it off. And only then does Bil’am see the angel. Bil’am falls to the ground and begs forgiveness, not for his errand, but for beating the donkey.

Then, oddly, Bil’am is allowed to continue. Bil’am meets up with the king, and eventually catches sight of the encampment of the Israelites. God then “opens his mouth” – the same language that had just been used for the she-ass – and out pour words of blessing.

מה טובו אהליך יעקב משכנתיך ישראל

Mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, mishkenoteycha Yisrael.

How fine are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings Israel. And the blessings continue to pour out.

K. will talk to us in depth tomorrow about those famous words, so I leave that to him.

I, instead, got curious this week about the crazy ups and backs in this story, this dance of refusal and permission that God and Bil’am engage in.

1. God says you may not curse them.

2. God says, okay, go on the journey.

3. God tries to stop him.

4. God lets him go anyway.

5. God opens Bil'am's mouth.

6. Bil'am utters words of blessing.

This is a theological mess. If God had wanted to stop him, couldn’t God have? And if God didn’t want to stop him, then why all the theatrics? Or, as my fellow householder S. said to me: "When God says, 'don’t go,' is He just talking out of His ass?"

I think one possible lesson here is about blessing and curse and the need to test your own mettle.

You see, cursing is easy. Dismissing or accusing or speaking ill of those who annoy or threaten or frighten you comes so naturally, so easily.

Bil’am could have simply refused the whole Israelite gig. In doing so, he would overcome the desire to curse, and would have succeeded in carrying out God’s will.

But in a certain way, that also would have been too easy. We have all been told to play nice, to be nice, not to speak ill of others. What’s more, we even know how to articulate words of compassion – at least formulaic words of compassion – about our enemies, or those we’ve been told are our enemies.

But doing such a thing from the heart. And doing it in the physical presence of the other, of the one who frightens you, or who you are told threatens to devour you, that isn’t easy.

In the play Angels in America, the character Louis is called upon to recite Kaddish for Roy Cohn, in the hospital room where Cohn had just died. Louis refuses, but Belize, friend and night-nurse at the hospital, says to him, about giving a foe the blessing of forgiveness: “It isn’t easy, it doesn’t count if it’s easy.”

Did Bil’am go with the intention of blessing? Or did he go with the intention of cursing? I think the answer is neither. He went with the intention of finding out what he would do.

Bil’am knew what God demanded of him. It came to him in visions and in dreams and in the words of angels and the actions of rogue donkeys. Or maybe these were all his inner voices, and they happened to all be saying the same thing. But still, Bil’am needed to know what he would do not in the safe, comfortable distance of his home, but on the spot and in the moment. He had to refuse the voices of “should” and “should not” and find out the strength of his own moral fiber.

Or, in the words of poet Theodore Roethke, as brought to my attention by A. (K.'s father):

I learn by going where I have to go.

I think this ends up being kind of a heroic tale. A lone prophet overcoming impediments. The irony, of course, is that we happen to agree with the impediments. And so might have Bil’am. And yet he shut his eyes and ears to them in order to find out what he was about.

Condemning others at a distance is easy. Blessing your enemy at a safe distance is easy too.

But being up close, and allowing your mouth to be opened and blessing to pour out. That takes some courage at least. A willingness to unlearn what you’ve assumed, and possibly to face consequences for it. Isn’t that heroism?

May we all be blessed with visions – may angels try to keep us from doing wrong, may kindly beasts try to keep us from evil paths. But when they fail to stop us, may each of us have the strength to turn our hard-hearted curses into outpourings of blessing.