Decades ago, I was home in my flat when I heard Holly the upstairs neighbours’ dog yelping pitifully, piercingly. There being no human sounds, I let myself in and found Holly not without food or water, neither injured nor ill. Unable to fathom her distress or my neighbours’ time of return, I brought her home. She lay listless, whimpering, beyond any comfort, and her grief touched my heart.
Then my neighbours returned, red-eyed and ashen-faced: the husband’s mother had been rushed to hospital and had died – 50 miles away. When exactly? The precise moment that Holly began to howl.
Parshat Balak also features an intuitive, even spiritually sensitive, animal: the donkey that Bil’am rides to carry out, albeit reluctantly, the mission of Moabite King Balak to curse the Israelites. She senses what Bil’am does not: that God’s angel is blocking the path, subverting the operation. By human standards, she has paranormal powers. When she refuses to budge, Bil’am beats her and she responds poignantly, plaintively in the sense of, ‘What have I done to deserve this? Haven’t I been a faithful donkey to you?’ She thwarts the whole misguided endeavour and empowers Bil’am with the courage of his conviction. He – and we – owe her a lot and should plant trees for her in Israel.
Parshat Balak is fascinatingly unusual in many ways:
Only one other Torah animal speaks: the snake in the Garden of Eden.
This far along, the Torah doesn’t feature individuals in direct communication with God: that’s the stuff of Bereshit and early Shemot before Sinai. After revelation, it’s mostly messages to Moses for the whole people or a group. In Balak, God is relatively chatty.
The appearance of the angel as additional communicator and the belief in the power of blessings and curses make Balak one of the most supernatural portions.
It reads like a thriller, with vicissitudes of fortune and mounting tension.
Balak himself has mixed or changing motives for wanting the Israelites cursed and at one point is willing to rescind the mission.
Complex and enigmatic Bil’am also has mixed or changing motives.
God’s behaviour seems inconsistent and God, too, sends out mixed messages.
The title of the portion is named after a person; he is not an Israelite; what’s more, he’s the ‘baddy’.
An inverted, counter-intuitive hierarchy is presented: the donkey is morally superior, followed by the ‘servant’ Bil’am and then the villainous but ostensibly powerful King Balak.
It’s ironic that Bil’am is avowedly monotheistic because the Israelites are eventually revealed in one of their lapses into idolatry.
The parashah not only goes from the sublime to the ridiculous but also from the comic to the tragic.
It’s jam-packed with contradictions, non-sequiturs, anomalies, paradoxes and ironies.
Despite the fairy-tale quality of Parshat Balak, it’s striking in its contemporary relevance. Rhetoric about Jewish control of the media, finance and government – and other global conspiracies – echo Balak’s speech: ‘Will they lick up all that is round about us? … they cover the face of the Earth’ (22:4,5).
The Prophet Bil’am offers potent insights into the Jewish condition, describing the Israelites as ‘am levadad yishkon‘ – ‘the people that will dwell alone’ (23:9). Was he merely describing what he saw? Or predicting what would happen, that Jews would find themselves disconnected from other peoples, living apart? If so, would separation be foisted on them or be self-imposed or both? This parashah challenges us today, as always, to reflect on the quality of our community, our relationship with wider society and the nature of the boundaries.
Parshat Balak can also inspire us with pride and enliven us with hope. The curses become blessings and – echoing God’s promise to Avraham – Bil’am declares: ‘Blessed be every one that blesses you and cursed be every one that curses you!’ (24:9) This outsider looks in on us and likes what he sees. Little wonder that we include his exclamation in our services: ‘Ma tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, mishk’notecha Yisrael‘ – ‘How good are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!’
Angela Gluck is a member of New London Synagogue