Balak - on borrowing, on braying, and on building schools

Parshat Balak gives clues as to how the Jewish people and our texts evolved. Balak, hires a prophet/seer Balaam to curse Israel as they are making their way to the land. Balaam, an enemy of Israel, nevertheless has powers typically associated with a deity. This hints at early beliefs in a pantheon of gods (the book of Job gets at the same point). This story appears to share elements with other Mesopotamian texts, implying the kind of cultural mixing and sharing of stories that is natural in a multi-ethnic/cultural environment. What this suggests is that incorporated into the literature of the Hebrew bible are stories from other cultures, and this in turn tells the story of our people and its genealogical development.

Unfortunately, despite borrowing from other cultures, this parshah asserts Jewish chosenness/superiority. God warns Balaam not to curse the Israelites, for they are “blessed” (22.12). Lines such as these have motivated Jewish culture to adopt a sense of their own chosenness and worth above others. Indeed, we have sympathy for the plight and fate of the Jewish people, but we hope for all peoples to have lives of dignity and worth. We do not delight in Jewish identity because it is superior to others, but only because in a world where all people have claim(s) to roots and traditions, these are our own. The idea of chosenness is something that Jewish reformers, including Humanistic Jews, have found to be in conflict with others of our Jewish values.

The narrative here turns downright strange, as Balaam’s ass sees one of God’s angels (again, implying some sort of multi-layered divinity) and tries to dodge it. This occurs three times, and three times Balaam whips the ass, which finally causes the ass to speak. The ass asks, essentially, why he is being beaten and notes that Balaam, having ridden him his whole life, should know that his strange behaviour is a warning sign, and he should take it seriously. It is rare, even in the literature of the bible which can ask us to suspend disbelief about certain characters and events that seem unlikely (to say the least), for the natural order of things to be so shaken. Even in a world in which bushes burn and staffs turn to snakes, animals rarely actually speak. What does it mean? For one thing, it is a clue as to how the original writers of this story understood the natural world and its gods differently to the early Hebrew writers, but that the text made it in anyway. It is a multicultural layering of meaning. Figuratively, we could ascribe the meaning of an ass pleading to be understood through his behaviour and, only after exasperation, through language. Animals/the natural world cannot speak, but give us signs as to how we are doing in their stewardship. We need to listen.

These are poetic insertions into the narrative, again making this parshah particularly interesting from a genre point of view. Part of what Balaam speaks through his oracle is “how fair (sometime translated as “lovely”) are your tents, O Jacob” – something that has become part of Jewish liturgical services. While most rabbis have thought that Balaam says this at the sight of the temple, Targum Jonathan suggests that it was instead at the sight of the schools the people created. I love this idea! Balaam is convinced of the worth of the Israelite people because they have built schools! Although we reject the idea of chosenness, we can be proud of certain aspects of our heritage. A respect and love for education is not a singularly Jewish value, but it is a Jewish value we can locate in our textual sources. Parshat Balak is one of the strangest in the Torah cycle. Its value is in its clues as to Jewish evolution, in terms of our borrowing from other cultures, our relationship to the idea of "chosenness," and a sense of wonder at the natural world that does, in its way, speak. How could we learn about all this if not through Jewish text and, as the text itself indicates, Jewish education?