Drash on Parashat Balak
Max Jared Einsohn
Rabbinic Intern and Director of Education and Engagement
Temple Beth Israel
St Kilda, Victoria
Imagine a seeing an image that is so full of detail, so saturated with images made from other images, that it required us to examine it like we do our holy texts. Like the above artwork, this week’s parashah Balak is full of multi-layered Jewish wisdom that invites us to delve deep into the text in search of meaning. Our people’s story continues with the Israelites winning battle after battle on their way to Canaan, and we enter this week’s parashah with Balak, the king of Moab, becoming fearful that his people will be devastated by b’nei Yisrael (Numbers 22:3). Our text says that Bilam, a local prophet, is tasked by the elders of Moab to “curse this people [the Israelites]...for whoever you bless is blessed and whoever you curse is cursed” (Numbers 22:6). God then intervenes by assuring Bilam in a dream that “you shall not curse the people [the Israelites], because they are blessed”, and later even causes a donkey to miraculously speak to Bilam, opening his eyes to the angel of God in front of him who reminds Bilam that he must only speak what God tells him (Numbers 22:31-35).
This fantastic piece of Torah emphasises the power of speech to impact the world around us. But where do the words we speak come from? One may conceive from Parashat Balak that our words may be guided by God, but the presence of hateful speech in our world today shows us that we have a part in shaping the character of the words we speak.
The Zohar (3:199b) notes that the name of this week’s parashah: “Balak,” can be derived from “ba lakuta” meaning “defeat comes.” Arthur Green writes in ‘Speaking Torah’ that Balak hoped to “defeat Israel” and that “Balak” refers to the evil urge that “begins its attack by entering the mind” (pg 49). Thus, we may infer that both Bilam’s potential curse and his potential blessing originate in the thought he has towards the Israelites. Or as my fiancée says: “what you think about, you bring about.” These words resonate deeply with me, especially as I am reminded of Ecclesiastes 5:5 that says, “Do not let your mouth cause your flesh to sin.” “Speaking Torah” continues to reinforce this idea suggesting, “once evil thought turns into speech, deeds will surely follow” (pg. 49). But if this is true, cannot pure thoughts of love turn into speech, with deeds of compassion to follow?
In this week’s parashah, Bilam has his eyes opened, and instead of using his words to curse the Israelites he says the words we pray each morning מַה-טֹּבוּ אֹהָלֶיךָ, יַעֲקֹב; מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶיךָ, יִשְׂרָאֵל
“How goodly are your tents O’Jacob, your dwelling places O’Israel” (Numbers 24:5). Our story reminds us that both love [of the other] and hatred [of the other] originate from what we think, and how we see those who are not like us. It is how we see others, which determines how we think, speak and act towards them.
Like the above art I do not believe Judaism can be viewed in one way. We may look at this artwork and see the man, or the donkey, or choose to focus on the story within the larger picture, and yet we all equally experience the beauty of the art. We must view Judaism in the same way. Because we are a people and not just a religion, our traditions comprise cultural, ritualistic and a myriad more diverse elements, meaning that a Jew who chooses to connect to culture over ritual, may be seeing the donkey rather than the man. But that Jew is still seeing the beauty and blessing of the artwork. Like the above art, I believe our Jewish tradition is beautiful, inviting us to examine our vast history of holiness and wisdom, no matter where we look to find meaning.
What could be if instead of thinking negatively about the differences in the way we interpret and live our Judaism, we instead opened our eyes to see the blessing we each offer? How many curses could we turn to blessings if we just thought about those different to us with love, instead of fear or hatred?
May we all look at each other, no matter our differences and exclaim “mah Tovu” how goodly are your dwelling places O’Israel. Shabbat Shalom.