Reflections – Balak

Texts and beliefs By Marc Shoffren 05th Jul 2014

Reading Bamidbar is a little like watching a TV science fiction series (Doctor Who, Star Trek, or whatever you’d like to substitute); there are some good stories, some mediocre ones, and then every so often an episode comes along which knocks you sideways. So it is with Balak.

The character of King Balak is worryingly familiar: he appears to spring from the pages of a tabloid, speaking the language of rabble-rousers and using hyperbole to scare the Midianites, his neighbours, into action against the Israelites, by convincing them that they will ‘lick us up, as the ox licks up the grass.’ I can imagine him placing a mug of Moabite beer in front of the elders of Midian, grinning broadly and expanding on the worries of living next door to a house full of Israelites.

Like any savvy politician, Balak understands the importance of fear in uniting groups, so he evokes the death of Og and Sihon to illustrate the power of the Israelites and their potential to destroy those around them. Og, king of Bashan (famous for his iron bed), and Sihon, king of the Amorites, were giants who refused to allow the Israelites to pass through their lands. According to Balak, the Moabites and Midianites need to unite in the face of the apparent threat. Balak sees the need to change the rules – the political reality demands a new, more sophisticated response. Having seen the giants beaten, Balak knows it is time to up the ante, to use awe and wonder instead of pure muscle. By sending messengers to the wizard Balaam, Balak is hoping to utilise magical curses, one of the advanced ‘technologies’ of the day, but as the story unfolds, we learn that technology is unpredictable. Balaam’s message from God reminds us of an eternal truth: despite our technology, despite our cleverness, we are not in control. We need to retain some humility. Like Balaam riding his donkey, we are so convinced of our abilities that we often fail to see the obstacles that are in our path and ignore the things that are straight in front of us. The Malakh, the angel sent as a messenger from God, brings that message to Balaam: your skills, your technology, are limited and they must be used in the way that God wants.

In the Haftorah for Balak, the prophet Micah prompts the people to remember what Balak, king of Moab, tried to do. Micah is a prophet of the people, a humble man who has seen the terrible destruction of political might and understands the limitations of human technology. In invoking the tale of Balak and Balaam, he reminds us to recognise our limitations and then asks us to think about what God wants from us. Micah’s answer is clear: act with justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God. As our scientific and technological powers grow ever greater, it is a crucial message for us all.

Marc Shoffren is the headteacher of Alma Primary, an inclusive Jewish school in North Finchley, and a member of Kol Nefesh Masorti Synagogue. He is married to Shelley Marsh and father of two exceptional daughters.

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