Early in Shakespeare’s glorious play, our protagonist Hamlet and his compatriots are confronted with an incredible sight: the ghost of Hamlet’s murdered father. When Horatio expresses skepticism, Hamlet utters the oft-quoted line, encouraging Horatio to expand his worldview: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy” (Hamlet 1.5.166-7). Horatio here stands in for the audience, manifesting our disbelief: ghosts don’t exist! Don’t make me believe!
I am reminded of this quote each year when we read the Torah portion of Balak (Num. 22:2-25:9), a fantastic tale of foreign prophets and talking asses, placed smack-dab in the middle of our Israelite narrative.
An abrupt scene change in Numbers 22 moves the reader from wandering with the Israelites in the desert to witnessing the dealings of the native tribes in whose midst the Israelites dwell. The narrative seems lifted from a local folktale: the vengeful King Balak, who contracts the reluctant prophet Balaam to curse his adversaries, the valiant talking animal seeing the angel in its midst, and the ultimate triumphant transformation of the curse into a blessing. Both in style and philosophy, this story seems miles removed from our narratives of Israelite sojourning and nation-building.
And at its heart lies the quixotic character of Balaam, the prophet who can control Israelite destiny. How can a gentile sorcerer change the course of Israelite history? How does this fit with the Bible’s monotheistic narrative of one supreme God? Like Horatio, I scratch my head in disbelief at this portion: We Jews do not believe in the likes of Balaam!
The renowned scholar Rabbi Jacob Milgrom uses Balaam as an example of the difference between sorcerers and diviners. While sorcerers, those who change reality with their words, are prohibited by the Torah’s code, diviners, those who intuit and declaim God’s plan for the world, are permitted within the Torah’s worldview.
Balak may hire Balaam as a sorcerer to curse the Israelites, but Balaam himself declares over and over that he has no power to do so. He is a diviner, a tool in God’s hand; he only speaks the words that the God of Israel puts in his mouth. According to this understanding, we see Balaam as working in the service of our God, bringing blessing to Israel.
We even say his words in our morning service, in the Mah Tovu prayer. In doing so, we channel this prophecy into the modern day.
While it is tempting to reclaim the character of Balaam as empowered by God to work for the Israelite cause, I remain a bit confused by his appearance in our Israelite-centered narrative. In the Torah, the recounting of our mythic history, there exists a non-Israelite prophet who has the power to hear God’s words and to channel these words into blessings and curses.
One might also connect this story to a deeper understanding of the Jewish Bible’s theology.
Beginning in medieval times, modern Jews have understood the Torah to be monotheistic, testifying that only one God exists. But it might be more accurate to say that the Torah is monolatrous — that multiple Gods exist, but we choose to worship only one of them. The story of Balaam plays with this idea. Could Balaam indeed have cursed the Israelites, or does he lack that power? Does our God have the power to change Balaam’s words?
The story of Balak and Balaam is a challenge to us. It challenges us to acknowledge that folkways, disdained superstitions, may indeed have power — that there are more forces working in this world than we might imagine. In a time when our only prophet is science, when the Bible is myth rather than history, this exhortation feels exceptionally difficult.
This Torah portion encourages us to open our minds, to see the traditions of others as possessing real power, and to acknowledge those traditions in our worldviews. We may not be seeing King Hamlet’s ghost in our midst, but perhaps, for just a week, we can let go of a little bit of our skepticism.
ON Scripture — The Torah is a weekly Jewish scriptural commentary, produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks and Hebrew College. Thought leaders from the United States and beyond offer their insights into the weekly Torah portion and contemporary social, political, and spiritual life.
Rabbi Sara N.S. Meirowitz is a recent graduate of the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College and a freelance writer, editor and teacher. A Wexner fellow, she will begin teaching rabbinic literature at Gann Academy in Waltham, Massachusetts, in the fall.