By Joy Scott, Congregant

A ‘prophet for hire’, a talking donkey, and flying angels: This is not a child’s fairy tale; but, rather the essence of this week’s Torah Parsha (BALAK).

The Parsha begins with the Israelites continuing their journey to Canaan. They have already defeated their enemies in the land of the Amorites, and have set their encampment on the border of Moab. Balak, the King of Moab was terrified, and said to his princes: “Now this assembly will eat up everything around us, as the ox eats up the greens of the fields” (1).

A decision was made to find Balaam, a renowned ‘prophet’ in the region. His skills were clearly impressive. He was a religious virtuoso, a sought-after shaman, spell-binder, and miracle worker. Balaam agreed to meet with Balak, who said to him: “I know that whoever you bless is blessed, and whoever you curse is cursed” (2). If the Israelites had a curse imposed upon them, they would lose their Divine relationship with God.

Balaam, expecting a huge  bounty for suppressing this reputed numerous and strong enemy of Moab, saddled his donkey and started towards the place where the Israelites were dwelling. God’s wrath flared, and an angel of the Lord flew down, and stationed himself on the road, to thwart Balaam. The donkey saw the angel and turned aside from the road into a field. Balaam beat the donkey. Two more times, the donkey swerved, and was again beaten.

Finally, the donkey rebelled, and said to Balaam: “Am I not your donkey on which you have always ridden? Why are you striking me, when I am trying to protect you?” (3). Balaam sees the angel of the Lord, conjured a curse in his mind; but, instead, uttered a blessing.

Three more times, from three different vantage points, Balaam attempted to pronounce curses; but, his words were reversed into a blessing. The third time, Balaam went so far as to say: “How grand are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel” (4). When Balak heard this news, he was overwhelmed with anger: “I called you to curse my enemies, but you blessed them repeatedly” (5).

Balaam protested against this outburst, and told BalaK that even for a house full of gold,  he was incapable of cursing the people, who have been blessed by their God. However, the prophet claimed that he could predict the future: “The people of Moab will be annihilated; Edom shall become possessed; as will the land of Seir; and, Israel shall triumph over all of its enemies” (6).

In Chapter 25 of Parsha (BALAK), we read the ironic sequel to the episode of the curses/blessings. The Israelites suffered a self-inflicted tragedy, by allowing themselves to be enticed by the women of Moab. Later, it emerged that it was Balaam, who devised this strategy. Having failed to curse the Israelites, Balaam eventually succeeded in doing them great harm. Balaam is mentioned in the Mishna as an evil-doer, who would be denied a share in the world, to come (7).

FOOTNOTES:

(1) Numbers (22:4)

(2) Numbers (22:6)

(3) NUMBERS (22:30)

(4) NUMBERS ((24:5)

(5) NUMBERS (24:10)

(6) NUMBERS (24:17-18)

(7) MISHNAH SANHEDRIN (10:2)