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Coming Closer Through Protest / Graceful Masculinity – Balak

Part of a periodic Torah series on graceful masculinity and Jewish values.

וַיִּשָּׂ֥א מְשָׁל֖וֹ וַיֹּאמַ֑ר נְאֻ֤ם בִּלְעָם֙ בְּנ֣וֹ בְעֹ֔ר וּנְאֻ֥ם הַגֶּ֖בֶר שְׁתֻ֥ם הָעָֽיִן׃

He declaimed his parable and said: ”The words of Bilaam son of Beor, the words of the man who is shetum ha-ayin .” (Numbers 24:3)

 

Bilaam, the famous Midianite prophet, is described as shetum ha-ayin, understood by some commentaries as sharp-sighted, and by others as half-blind. Indeed, what Bilaam sees and does not see is critical to his appraisal of the people of Israel. 

At first, never having laid eyes on Israel, he agrees to try and curse them. Later, having caught a glimpse of Israel, he is moved to bless them. Then gazing on them fully, he blesses them so powerfully that his words become the start of our daily prayers – mah tovu ohalecha Yaakov, how goodly are your tents, Jacob.

This trajectory is what we always hope for – that when we know each other better, we will be less prejudiced and more loving. The Torah is filled with examples of how it is easier to hate from afar. Joseph’s brothers see him from a distance and it is then that they plot to get rid of him. Esav wants to kill Jacob when he is not with him, but then when he actually confronts him he embraces and kisses him. 

Yet Bilaam is not understood by our tradition as an example of successful bridge-building. His prophecies, though gorgeous, are understood to lead to Israel’s subsequent sin at Shittim. As the midrash in Devarim Rabbah 1:2 explains:

One who protests/reproves a person will afterward find more grace than one who speaks with a smooth tongue (Proverbs 28:23)

One who protests/reproves – this is Moses . . .

Find more graceas it is said, You have found grace in My eyes (Exodus 33:12)

Than one who speaks with a smooth tonguethis is Bilaam who flattered Israel with his prophecies and their hearts filled with hubris and they sinned in Shittim.

Although Bilaam sees Israel and speaks beautifully about them, the Midrash complains that he does not authentically engage with them. His words are seen as superficial flattery that inflates Israel’s sense of self and leads them to a gruesome fall. By contrast, Moses has a trustworthy relationship with Israel, filled with love, expectations, and accountability.

Honest engagement is often uncomfortable. We hear and speak unpleasant truths. Yet the midrash says that one who protests/reproves finds more chen than who elides the discomfort. According to the midrash, these real, if awkward, conversations are the essence of chen. True grace requires an investment in growth.

Bilaam’s name is parsed by the Talmud as B’li Am, free from people. As a quintessential outsider, Bilaam had a unique perspective on the people of Israel. Had he been willing to do the emotional labor of having the difficult conversations with them, he would have helped them be better aware of themselves and advanced a more just coexistence.

Mishnah Avot 5:19 teaches that Bilaam is emblematic of the evil eye. He didn’t view himself as part of the collective, nor did he feel responsible for anyone else. The Torah teaches that the proper perspective is to see people as worthy of effort and investment as part of humanity’s development and evolution to a more perfect society. In doing so, we are partnering with G-d in the ongoing process of naese adom, “Let us make a person”. Humanity is more idyllically formed when we work together to elevate each other towards communal perfection. 

The midrash in Bemidbar Rabbah 2:12 observes the attitudinal difference that Moses and Bilaam have towards people. Biliam compares us to dust (Numbers 23:10), whereas Moses describes us as the stars in the sky (Deuteronomy 1:10). While both dust and stars are too numerous to count, Moses’s blessing reflects the aspirational reality that the closer we get to people, like stars, the greater they appear. 

At a time when many people are becoming mobilized to protest racial violence, police brutality, and LGBTQ inequality, we must be careful not to fall into Bilaam’s trap. We must expand beyond smooth slogans and superficial alliances and instead form deep coalitions based on relationship building and respectful dialogue. We must commit to working together with a deeper understanding of each other; listening tirelessly and consistently while devoutly showing up with a unifying love. Together, we can see one another more completely and stand up for each other more authentically, so that we may all be part of a more just world.

 

Discussion questions:

What are some ways to expand our relationships with communities that are different from our own?

Are there books or other sources of personal stories that have moved you to get more involved?

How would you advise someone who asks you why antisemitism exists and how to best respond to it?

What are some ways of framing rebuke in a loving way?

 

By Rabbis Wendy Amsellem and Mike Moskowitz.

From Tents to Dwellings

 

Part of a yearlong Torah series on spiritual building and builders in Jewish life.

 

Parashat Balak introduces us to two non-Jewish figures: the titular Balak, a Moabite king, and the prophet Balaam. Balak, seeing the children of Israel encamped in his territory, becomes fearful that these strangers will overrun his country. (Echoes of Pharaoh, who said the same thing.) So he asks Balaam to curse them. Intriguingly, Balaam says he can do only what God tells him to. And he clearly has a working relationship with the Holy One; “God comes to him” (Numbers 22:9) and speaks to him. That’s the first building lesson I find here: Torah transcends its own triumphalism to remind us that we’re not the only ones in relationship with the Holy. 

Balak pesters Balaam until finally he heads to Moab. When an angel bars his way, he doesn’t see the angel — but his donkey does, and the donkey balks. In a comedic moment, when Balaam beats the donkey, God opens the donkey’s mouth (Numbers 22:28) to talk back! And then God opens Balaam’s eyes to the angel who’s been placed in his path to be an adversary for him, and the angel reminds him that he can only prophesy as God instructs. Second building lesson: when others stand in opposition, we can use that to help us refocus on our own core principles, in this case Balaam’s commitment to speak only the words God gives him to say.

Balaam ascends to a mountaintop and offers not curses, but blessings. Balak is predictably angry, but tells him to try cursing again. Three times, in three locations, he opens his mouth — and every time, he speaks blessings, not curses. The third time, he sees the children of Israel encamped tribe by tribe (Numbers 24:2). Rashi, writing on this verse, cites Talmud’s interpretation that what Balaam saw was the placement of their tents, set up such that people couldn’t look into one another’s dwellings. (Bava Batra 60a). In other words: each household was guaranteed privacy. The community was set up in a way that ensured healthy boundaries. 

This time, Balaam declaims: “ מַה־טֹּ֥בוּ אֹהָלֶ֖יךָ יַעֲקֹ֑ב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶ֖יךָ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל / How good are your tents, O Jacob; your dwelling-places, O Israel!  (Numbers 24:5) (He says a few other things too, but that’s the familiar verse arising out of this week’s portion.)

For those of us who know this verse from liturgy, this may feel like the dramatic moment toward which this whole story has been building. As Rashi teaches on this verse, our communities become “good” when we ensure that each person has our own space, our own place, with safety both physical and emotional / spiritual. As we’ve written here before, any Jewish future worth building must prioritize healthy boundaries and ethical behavior. Our “tents” need to be set up such that each of us is safe from prying eyes — and from wandering hands, unwanted touch, and malicious speech. Those transgressions are inimical to healthy community.

Reading Rashi’s teaching more broadly, we can extrapolate that our communities also become “good’ when each person has their own vantage from which to engage with tradition. We build healthy community when we can hold differences of interpretation, custom, and practice. And that links back to the teaching I find in the very fact of Balaam’s prophetic relationship with God: it’s a mistake to presume that anyone has a monopoly on holiness. The Jewish future needs a  variety of “tents,” each oriented in its own way and also part of a greater whole. (That’s why we intentionally founded Bayit with a denominationally and spiritually diverse group of builders.)

Look back at “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob; your dwelling-places, O Israel,” (Numbers 24:5) and try this on: when Jacob was “the Heel,” he was a regular guy who lived in a regular tent. But once he became Israel — “the Godwrestler” — his tent became a mishkan, a dwelling for the Holy. As for him, so too for us. When we grapple with God, when we build with ethical intention as our guide, when we open ourselves to the Voice that continues to sound (I Kings 19) — then our tents become dwelling-places for the divine. Then we access the flow that’s available wherever we go. Then we’ll build a Jewish future worthy of who we want to be.

 

By Rabbi Rachel Barenblat. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.