Parsha Balak: Role Reversal

During Rabbi Mark’s sabbatical this summer B’nai Emunah members are helping lead services and prepare drashot. This drash was delivered this past Shabbat by Rabbi David Lavine.

Today’s Parsha, Balak, is a bit different than those around it. It is named after a bad guy rather than a good guy. It is literary in its style. It is full of allegory, and full of irony. Most of it takes place not from the perspective of the Jews, but from that of the other people we encounter. One of our most well-known prayers we begin the day with, Mah Tovu, comes out of the mouth of someone sent to curse us. It comes in the run-up to finally approaching the promised land, yet even in the home stretch it takes a breath. It is, in short, a great parsha to give a drash on. And to say nothing of my son’s observation that this is the parsha with characters with many names beginning with B – so says my son Benjamin with delight.

There are two parts to parsha Balak: the curse ordered by an evil ruler that becomes a blessing once delivered, and the shame of our people in forgetting ourselves and our G-d- given rules when among the Moabite people, leading to plague and then to cure.

Part one. A local ruler, Balak, heard that the Jews were approaching, and had laid waste to everyone who had opposed them. Frightened, he dispatched a famed sorcerer, Baalam, to go to the Jewish people to curse them. Riding his donkey on the way there, an angel appears to the donkey, blocking the way. When the donkey stops, Baalam strikes the donkey, leading the donkey,who is granted a voice, to object to being beaten given the donkey’s many years of faithful service to Baalam, leading Baalam to threaten to kill the donkey if he only had a sword. Only then did the angel appear also to Baalam, so that Baalam could understand why the donkey stopped, and could process how his mission to curse the Jewish people was doomed to fail. Even though Baalam told Balak that he would be restricted in his spell over the Jewish people to the words given to him to speak by G-d, Balak nevertheless sent him, three times, to curse the Jewish people. Instead, three times Baalam took on the role of a prophet and blessed the Jewish people, with a beautiful foretelling of how good – Mah Tovu – things will be when we are all assembled together, in peace,in the presence of the Messiah.

Did you catch the role reversals? Take Baalam and the donkey. Baalam was the famed sorcerer.The donkey was, well, a donkey – characteristically slow, plodding, stubborn and not usually the smartest. Yet it is the donkey who turns out to be thoughtful, even eloquent when given a voice,and right. Baalam, the famed sorcerer, the seer, could not even see the angel before his donkey did, and not only could not curse the Jewish people – he did the opposite and blessed them. He no tonly blessed them — he gave them a view of their wondrous future as people chosen by G-d.

For his part, Balak thought he was going to stop the Jews in their tracks. Instead, by opposing the Jews, he ultimately empowered us. Indeed, he did not know it at the time, but Balak’s family line was destined to produce the Moabite Ruth, among the most righteous people who supported her Jewish family and took on our faith, and then, generations later, to produce King David. The same family line of Balak, Ruth and David is supposed to ultimately lead to the Messiah. Like Baalam, Balak thus had the very opposite effect on the Jewish people from what he intended – rather than weakening or destroying us, he strengthened us.

Part two. Once the Jews moved into the Moabite lands, they made themselves too comfortable,forgot the commandments, and sinned. G-d punished the Jews for their reckless behavior bysending a plague, which was cured only when Pinchas, the grandson of Aaron, took it upon himselfto kill one of the prior perpetrators and the local woman he had taken to his tent.

See any role reversal here? The Jews had averted destruction time and time again over the long journey from Egypt, and claimed victories under G-d’s guidance – only after all their struggles to then revert to bad behavior and to turn their collective back on G-d and Torah. We got through the hard part, only to fail when life became easier. It took a plague to set us right again, just as it took the plagues in Egypt against our captors to free us.

A word about the haftarah, from the prophet Micah, which offers another connection to my son Benjamin, who took Micah for his middle name. Micah is known as a minor prophet, likely a contemporary of fellow prophets Hosea and Amos, and likely a disciple of Isaiah based on the similarity of their both calling for destruction and exile if the Jews are not observant. But as Isaiah was a product of Jerusalem, and preached in the urban settings there, Micah came from outside of Jerusalem, and with his fellows worked the land. He was the prophet of farmers and shepherds,and of others of little means. He is best known for his teaching of doing justice, loving kindness and mercy, and walking humbly with G-d.Today’s haftarah picks up on the Balak tale. Micah encourages us to live among other nations but not to wholly lose ourselves in them – to mingle and share, yet to retain our independence, so that we can honor our responsibility to serve as emissaries toward a better world. Unfortunately, it takes the effects of a plague inflicted on those who forgot their way in Moab to remind the Jews of their proper role.

A wise donkey, a sorcerer whose spell backfires, an evil ruler who is to become our progenitor, a plague not against our enemies but against ourselves to set us straight – it is a rich parsha indeed.Rich with lessons as we approach the promised land – and still rich with lessons for us today as we remember how our enemies can empower us, how the lowliest creatures among us can be a wise voice and catalyst in that empowerment, and how, in challenging times as much as in easier ones,we are duty-bound to remember all that G-d has done for us, and to follow the Torah’s guidance in our daily lives.

Shabbat shalom.


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