This week we come to perhaps my favorite Torah portion. It’s called Balak, who was the king of the Moabite people. This Torah portion has a little bit of everything - dreams, offers of great wealth, and of all things, a talking donkey. A lot happens in this portion, but what is central to me is the process a character other than Balak undergoes as he figures out how to be in this world.
So, first, what happens in the story. Well, this king named Balak is very concerned that the Israelites, who have recently appeared on the scene, will overwhelm his own lands and people. Being a resourceful king, it occurs to him to enlist the aid of a well-known mystic, shaman-type fellow named Balaam who could come to Moab and curse these Israelite interlopers. Balaam lives quite a distance from Moab, so Balak, that king, sends his minions to make the ask. They appear before Balaam and request that he travel to Moab and do the cursing. Now Balaam, like any good mystic, tells them to stay the night because he plans to sleep on the decision, which is to say, he plans to dream about the situation and see what comes. The next morning, with clarity he says, “No go.” He had received a clear message that this is not what he was supposed to do. The minions return to Balak and tell him it’s not going to happen. Balak is not happy and decides to up the ante, so he sends his top people to Balaam, who again request he come to do Balak’s bidding. This time though they make Balaam an offer he seemingly can’t refuse. If he agrees to come and do the cursing, Balak will make him rich beyond measure. What does Balaam do? He tells these nobles to spend the night because he has to dream on it. Interestingly, this time Balaam gets a different message. It’s OK for him to go as long as he listens to God’s words (his muse as it were) and does what he is told to do.
Let’s stop the narrative at this juncture, at least for the moment. Now, let’s think about what’s going on here. We’ve got this mystic named Balaam who is asked to do something; he checks in with himself in the way he is accustomed, i.e. he dreams on it, and he gets a clear message that he should not go do any cursing. But then he dreams another dream and gets a different answer. What’s the difference? MONEY. He knew from the get-go what he was supposed to do to be true to himself, which was say No. But the material world got in the way.
Back to the story - So, Balaam has to travel to Balak’s kingdom, and to do so, he calls upon his trusted she-ass to give him a lift. He mounts his steed and off they go. Problem: God is mad at Balaam for making the choice he has made (can we possible translate this as Balaam knowing he’s doing the wrong thing, but is proceeding anyway?), so God sends an angel to block his way. Further problem: while the ass sees the angel very clearly, Balaam is blind to its existence. The ass, seeing the angel, takes it upon herself to veer off the road to Moab and into a field. Balaam is angry to no end, gets down and beats the animal. He then re-mounts, goes back to the road and starts once more towards Moab. Problem: the angel has not gone away; the ass still sees the angel, even if Balaam is blind to it, so this time the ass moves over to the side of the road and pins Balaam’s leg to a wall. Oh, this is beyond maddening to Balaam, so he gets off the ass, beats her and remounts. Off they go again. This time the angel blocks the road entirely, so the ass just lies down in the road. One has to admit this scene is pretty comical.
Then the strangest thing happens, and really nothing like it occurs elsewhere in the Torah (OK… Maybe the snake in the Garden of Eden has some similarities). The ass turns to Balaam and asks him, “What have I done that you have struck me these three times?” Balaam responds, “You have humiliated me. If I had a sword in my hand, I’d kill you right now.” To which the ass replies, “Am I not the she-donkey on whom you’ve always ridden? Have I ever done this to you before?” Balaam had to reply, “No,” and it is at this point that he sees the angel for the first time and FINALLY understands what’s going on here.
Let’s pause with the narrative once more. This is a critically important moment for Balaam and all of us. He has undertaken a “journey” that is not consistent with what he knows at some deep level to be true and right. Not surprisingly the cause of his missteps was seeking material wealth and not following his heart. Then he gets sign after sign that he is going the wrong way, but instead of heeding the signs, he gets angry at the messenger, and reveals that he is more concerned with not being humiliated than in finding his way back to his path. The angel even tells Balaam after his eyes are finally opened to the truth of what’s going on that while he had said he would have slain the donkey if he had had a sword, it was in fact Balaam that was on the verge of dying.
What can we make of all this? I think the Torah is telling us that even as we head down the wrong path, forces “out there” are trying very hard to right us, but if we don’t pay attention to the signs, the stakes will get higher and higher, and when we blame the messenger, rather than heeding the signs, we most assuredly do this at our own peril. The world actually wants us to do the right thing. For us to know what that is, we are told, we must tune into our spiritual selves (dream, get quiet, whatever we need to do), listen to the answers that come and whatever we do, don’t get thrown off by the pursuit of material wealth or servicing our own egos (a donkey can only shame us if we let it, and besides, that experience of shame is just blinding us to the truth).
Balaam went on to Moab, as it happens, but having had his true pathway revealed to him, he actually blessed the Israelites, rather than cursing them, and in so doing, he uttered words that we keep very close to us to this day.
Ma tovu, ohalecha, Ya’akov, mishkanotecha, Yisrael. How good are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel