Who is not partial to his/her ownbar/bat mitzvah parsha? Mine was Balak, and after all these years, I still glean concepts and teachings. As many times as I have delved into it, I still need to lay a predicate. Balak was the King of Moab; however the real focus is on Balaam, a pagan prophet summoned to curse the people of Israel. Their names are so similar that you need to take a moment and make the dichotomy and keep it in mind. Balak fears that the Israelites will “lick clean” his land and fortune. Balaam, he hopes, will predict their destruction. Each time Balaam prepares to curse Israel, his words become blessings. His pronouncements rise with poetic rhythm and power to praise the very people Balak hired him to curse.[i] Some say Balaam’s declarations were God manipulating his tongue.
Modern biblical commentators differ on the time when Balaam’s poetry was composed. Some believe that the three poetic sections reflect a time different from that of the Torah narrative. They speculate the poetic descriptions date from the time of Saul and David and echo national aspirations meant to demonstrate Israel’s superiority over surrounding pagan peoples. Others disagree, arguing that the narrative and poetry of the story of Balaam form an organic unity. Still others point out that the narrative portion of the poetic portions may have been independent of each other at one point but were later fused by a single editorial hand, producing a new artistic creation.
This disagreement on time and authorship of Balaam’s poetry may never be settled. That, however, does not remove the challenge of interpreting the meaning of Balaam’s proclamations or poetry about the people of Israel.
One common thread unites Balaam’s three poems: anxiety about the future, with the fear of unknown dangers ahead. Balaam’s poems deal directly with the apprehensions of a people whose history has been uncertain and filled with anxiety. The first poem defines the Israelites as unique among the nations, protected when they fulfill their covenant with God. The second promises triumph over those plotting Israel’s destruction. The third poem transforms Israel into a people enjoying an ideal existence of safety and abundance in the Garden of Eden.
In our times, concern for security and dreams of prosperity continue as central themes for Jews and all human beings. Peace with justice remains elusive. Greed and hostility still endanger our human family. Politicians, fortunetellers, fanatics, and religious frauds promise more than they can deliver. Perhaps that explains why Balaam’s ancient poetic art retains its power and captures our imaginations every year.
Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham
[i] If I am guilty of anything, it is citing medieval commentators ad nauseam. Certainly the most noted reference to Balaam is the beginning of the prayer (Mah Tovu) we recite as we enter the synagogue. “How fair are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel! Rabbi Reuven Hammer is one of the preeminent commentators of our time and was recently here at CSI as part of our Visions Lecture Series alludes to it in his Or Hadash commentary on our Siddur Sim Shalom .
Rabbi Hammer notes that the words from Numbers 24:5 of Balaam “who had been hired to curse Israel; they have the distinction of being the only prayer in the siddur attributed to a non-Jew.” As is my penchant, I consider Rabbi Hammer a mentor and friend, but I am enthralled with the comment of the Ramban , R’ Moshe ben Maimon 1135-1204 who stirringly interprets this passage as a blessing, beginning with Israel’s sojourn in the Wilderness, when it dwelt in tents, and extending to the future in the Land, when it would be established in its built up dwelling places, and be supported by productive, well irrigated fields and vineyards, and would be victorious over all who sought to do it harm. As every participant in our recent pilgrimage will attest, he could not have been more accurate or prophetic.