By Rabbi Ilana Zietman
Parshat Balak (Numbers 22:2-25:9)
Although this week’s Torah reading is named after Balak, the Moabite king and son of Zippor, much of the reading focuses on another man, Balaam, whom Balak enlists to help him defeat the Israelites. Balak believes Balaam to be a seer for hire who has the power to bless or curse anyone he wishes.
The opening verse in Parshat Balak tells us that Balak saw Israel defeat the Amorites and capture their land. Afraid at how numerous the Israelites seem to be and imagining a similar fate to his neighbor, Balak asks Balaam to come to Moab and help him, “For I know that he whom you bless is blessed and he whom you curse is cursed” (Num. 22:6). And for the next three chapters, we turn away from the story of the Israelites wandering in the desert and instead focus on the efforts of these two men to curse the people of Israel.
Jewish commentators have long argued about the exact nature of Balaam’s work. He appears suddenly and is not introduced with a title or position, though he seems to be known among the non-Israelite nations in the region. The Torah tells us that he is the son of Beor, from the region of Pethor, estimated to be hundreds of miles away from Moab (JPS Torah Commentary: Numbers, 186).
While Balaam is not an Israelite, nor someone who has spent time with the Israelite people, he claims an affiliation with YHWH, the particular name of God that was revealed to Moses at the burning bush, which has been associated with Israel ever since. But he doesn’t seem to have a relationship with YHWH’s people or seem invested in their fate. Indeed, the rabbis in the Talmud say that his name means “belo am,” “ without a people” (Sanhedrin 105a). Balaam is a man who remains emotionally distanced from anyone he might bless or curse.
As we get into the parsha, Balaam’s personal motivations remain a mystery. Upon hearing Balak’s summons, Balaam tells the messengers to wait and see how God might instruct him. God then tells Balaam, “You must not curse that people for they are blessed” (Num 22:12), and so Balaam tells the messengers that God will not let him go to Moab, though he does not explain why.
Balak tries again. He sends another delegation to Balaam, this time promising him riches. Balaam replies, “Even if Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not do anything, big or little, contrary to the Lord my God.” He asks the delegation to again wait to see how God will instruct him further (22:18). This time, God does allow Balaam to go to Moab, but requires him to follow God’s direction throughout his journey.
At this point, it remains hard to understand exactly who Balaam is and what he stands for. Indeed, upon reaching Moab, he says to its king, “And now that I have come to you, have I the power to speak freely? I can utter only the word that God puts into my mouth” (22:38).
Balak then takes Balaam to several lookout points around the hills of Moab, so Balaam can see and curse Israel. Balaam obeys, even though God had already told him that he wouldn’t be able to curse the people. He seems to genuinely try, offering sacrifices and then wandering off on his own, saying to Balak, “Perhaps God will grant me a manifestation and whatever God reveals to me, I will tell you” (23:3). But despite his efforts, Balaam can only repeat the words that God “put into his mouth” (23:5 and 23:16). Instead of cursing the people, Balaam blesses them twice with words of praise.
Furious, Balak takes Balaam to a third lookout point so he can try to curse Israel yet again. This time, things change. We read, “Now Balaam, seeing that it pleased God to bless Israel, did not, as on previous occasions, go in search of omens, but turned his face toward the wilderness” (24:1). For the first time, Balaam reveals an intuitive understanding of God’s desire and, instead of looking for direct instruction from God by means of a sign, he acts on the knowledge he has gained through experience.
Without an omen to rely on, Balaam looks out at the wilderness and sees the real people behind the controversy. And once Balaam “saw Israel encamped tribe by tribe, the spirit of God came upon him” (24:2). This Divine spirit or ruach Elohim is akin to that experienced by Israel’s own prophets. The Torah’s highlight of this particular phenomenon reveals the start of a relationship between Balaam, God and the Israelite people.
Whereas cursing another or wishing them ill is much easier with a narrow view of who they are or what they’ve done, the act of offering a meaningful blessing is usually quite the opposite. This may be why Balak initially took Balaam to places where he couldn’t see the people in their entirety. The text says that in the first location, Balaam could only view “k’tzeh ha’am,” the edge of the people (22:41). On the second try, Balak says to Balaam, “Come with me to another place from which you can see them—you will see only a portion of them; you will not see all of them—and damn them for me from there” (23:13). Balak understood that when we limit our experience of another to their edges, we are susceptible to believing the negative things that others tell us about them or that we may all too conveniently accept on our own.
When Balaam take the more panoramic view, he sees the entire people for who they are. He learns something unexpected, and his blessing naturally flows from there. Of course, seeing broadly but from afar isn’t enough to really get to know the other, which is why the midrashic tradition infuses Balaam’s seeing with intimate knowledge of Israel’s way of life.
Rashi famously says that what Balaam really saw was “that the entrances to the Israelites’ tents faced away from each other, so that one could not peek into their neighbor’s tent.” He saw how the Israelites respected each other’s privacy as they traveled in a place where maintaining boundaries can be incredibly difficult. And Balaam, with “eyes unveiled,” gave them a blessing befitting their character and it has remained in our liturgy to this day: “Mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, mishk’notecha Yisrael,” “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel!” (24:5).
Bible scholar extraordinaire Dr. Aviva Zornberg notes this blessing stuck where Balaam’s prior two had not because it was rooted in Balaam’s intimate experience of the people. “For the first time,” she writes, “Balaam addresses Israel: he becomes an I addressing a you… How goodly are your tents, O Jacob… This moment… holds the one true speech act of Balaam’s many words of blessing” (Bewilderments, 261). Zornberg rightly highlights that the blessings that feel the most meaningful to us are the ones that reflect back to us who we are and what we aspire to. Only those who take care to see us as we genuinely are can unearth that
Balaam begins the story as an indifferent mouthpiece who wasn’t connected to the people behind his work, but found his most influential and holy moment when those people became real to him. And this is what we are asked to remember each morning by reciting the Mah Tovu. Recognizing the best of what an outsider saw in us, we are prompted to look past the edges of those we think we know or have yet to know, and with sincerity, reflect back mah tovu, how good you are.
Rabbi Ilana Zietman is the Community Rabbi at GatherDC. She is a 2019 graduate of the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College.