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DVAR TORAH – Parshat Balak

19/07/2022 12:20:14 PM


DVAR TORAH Parshat Balak

A talking donkey – a rent-a-prophet – curses turned into blessings – idolatry and the death of 24,000 Israelites in a plague after committing idolatry, the story of Pinchas and his spear - and what stayed with me from all of this in Parshat Balak, was the hauntingly beautiful and familiar verse – Mah Tovu, Ohalecha Yaakov, Mishkenotecha Yisrael – How goodly are your tents, Yaakov, Your dwellings Israel.

So let’s take a step into the parsha. Balak, who is the king of Mo’ab, is afraid of the sheer numbers of the Israelites, who are so numerous that they “hide the earth from view”. So Balak invites Bil’am, who is a well- known wizard – or perhaps a prophet - to come to Mo’ab and to curse the Israelites.

The emissaries from Balak arrive at Bil’am’s place. Bil’am tells them that he needs to sleep on their request. God comes to Bil’am in the night, and tells Bil’am not to curse the Israelites “for they are blessed.”         Bil’am then sends Balak’s emissaries home, empty handed.

Balak is undeterred, and he sends an even bigger contingent of even more distinguished emissaries to Bil’am. And Balak ups the ante - he promises Bil’am riches galore to curse the Israelites. This time, God appears to Bil’am again, and tells him that he may go to Balak, BUT Bil’am has to do whatever God commands him to do when he gets there, to bless – not curse - the Israelites.

Bil’am saddles up his donkey early in the morning, and he heads to Mo’ab with his servants and the Mo’abite dignitaries. The Torah states that God is angry about this, but does not tell us why. Nahmanides (RAMBAN) explains that God was angry, because Bil’am simply saddled up, and went with the dignitaries, without first telling them that he would only go on condition that he would follow God’s direction, and not curse the Israelites, but rather bless them. He was too excited to go with them, to have an opportunity to gain more notoriety, riches and fame. Had he divulged his conditions, argues Nahmanides, the emissaries would have refused to take Bil’am with them back to Mo’ab. The commentators say that this shows that Bil’am, unlike true prophets, was running after prophecy. To me, this also


shows that Bil’am is human – like all of the characters in the Torah, he has his vulnerabilities and his flaws. Does everyone “have their price”?

When Bil’am is travelling with his servants, and with the Mo’abite dignitaries, God sends an angel to stand in the path of the donkey. But this great wizard/prophet Bil’am can’t see the angel – only the donkey sees the angel. The donkey first swerves to avoid the angel, then it bumps into a wall, and then eventually it lies down in the path, and goes no further.

Bil’am beats the donkey each of those 3 times.

Then God makes the donkey speak – the donkey asks Bil’am “ what did I do, that you have beaten me three times?” Bil’am replies “ You have made a mockery of me. If I had my sword, I would have killed you”. The donkey then says to Bil’am “I am the donkey you always ride, have I ever done this to you?” To which Bil’am replies, “No”. Please notice that Bil’am never apologizes to the donkey for abusing it.

… Then God makes the angel visible to Bil’am – and the angel has his sword drawn. Bil’am admits to the angel that he, Bil’am, had made a mistake, because he didn’t know that the angel was standing there, in the way.

What do we make of this?

Some of our commentators say, well, the donkey didn’t exactly speak – it was more of a braying…

Maimonides (the RAMBAM), explains that this scene occurred in Bil’am’s dream.

Another commentator says that the donkey spoke in Hebrew (of course), but Bil’am was confused because he didn’t speak Hebrew……

Another commentator says that the most foolish of animals confronted the seemingly wisest man – a sorcerer, a diviner. Yet, the moment that the animal spoke, this wise man was confounded and overcome.

What is the symbolism of the donkey? Perhaps the donkey is the manifestation of Bil’am’s conscience. The donkey, with the help of the angel, keeps trying to stop Bil’am from getting to his destination, because


Bil’am deceived the Mo’abites about his intentions – he never intended to curse the Israelites, but rather to bless them.

This story shows the lack of moral fibre in Bil’am. If someone else, perhaps our boss or our parent, is standing there, in front of us, do we behave differently than if we were just out there alone riding the donkey? Do we only listen to authority, and obey that authority, when they are present?

When Bil’am arrives, and Balak meets him in Mo’ab, Balak takes Bil’am, three times, up to viewing spots, where Bil’am can observe some of the Israelites. After some welcoming animal sacrifices, God appears to Bil’am, and makes Bil’am say poetic words of praise, and blessing about the Israelites.

On the third time, Bil’am sees the Israelites camped tribe by tribe – and he praises their camps, including the now well-known phrase that we say at the beginning of our prayers “Mah Tovu Ohalecha Ya’akov, mishkenotecha Yisrael.” How goodly are your tents, Yaakov, your dwellings, Israel –

What is Bilaam actually seeing that makes him say this? What does he mean?

The reference to “tents” may be in connection with the Israelites’ wanderings, and the “dwellings” may be referring to settling down, to built homes.

Or, the reference to “tents” refers to the individual families – as we see with the use of the singular Yaakov – and the “dwellings”, in the plural, refers to our communal places of gathering, of worship, where God or holiness dwells, if you will – the mishkan, and then the Temples, now the synagogues of Yisra’el.

That they are both in the same verse – the tents and the dwellings – tells me that both our homes and our places of worship are holy, important, and full of “goodness”. And both the singular family and the community have an important place in our goodly (or godly, almost the same word…) Jewish existence. Sometimes we feel closer to our individual family, our smaller circle. Other times, we feel closer to the broader community, other times to God.


What did Bil’am see that made him state this famous phrase?

One interpretation is that Bil’am saw that the doors of the Israelites’ tents were not directly facing each other – this implies that “goodly” is referring to preservation of privacy of families. The Talmud says that Bil’am was moved to praise the tents of Jacob, because the arrangement of their entrances made it impossible for a family to see inside the tents of others, showing respect for their privacy. Imagine traveling, even with your closest friends and family, for 40 years, all together.

Privacy matters, especially when it is so hard to come by, sleeping in tents so close to each other, for so many years. In our present time, we live in homes, where sound may not travel as easily as it would between tents; we have boundaries, even if they are in hallways of apartment buildings. And we cherish our privacy. This is a big deal now, and I can only imagine that it was a big deal in the desert.

But we need to balance our need for well-placed entrances to our tents, with our need to be part of a community, for those times when we emerge from our tents. We invite our community into our tents from time to time.

And, we join together in the community dwellings to learn, to share experiences, to worship, and to go down paths together, in the hope of making our community and our world a better place.

For much of the past 2+ years, many of us did not emerge from our tents for extended periods of time. And, through the wonders of technology, many of us invited the community into our tents with Zoom. For many months, when our sanctuary was closed, we created a new mishkan over Zoom, with a gallery of “chocolate boxes” sharing our experience under one virtual tent of worship. The boundaries have been blurred.

Now, some members have returned to the sanctuary, and have been termed by some as the “Roomers”. Those of us who are still participating in the services from our homes may be called the “Zoomers”. Those Zoomers who are comfortable doing so, are now showing our faces, as part of the Gallery that is viewable on the screen by the Roomers. For some, it has been easier to show our faces and the rooms of our private homes, to the community over Zoom. For others, it is a challenge.


We have tried different ways to maintain our community connection during these unprecedented times, and we keep trying. It is my hope that the spirit of our Darchei Noam community is stronger than any obstacles in our way, and our community “dwelling”, in whatever forms it takes, will remain, as our mishkan, strong and godly, and “goodly”, retaining our cherished values and connections.

Ma Tovu. Shabbat Shalom. Judy Katz Howard

Sun, 29 January 2023 7 Sh'vat 5783