Fallen down with eyes wide open
by Jhos Singer
Maggid’s Musing Balak Numbers 22:2 – 25:9 2018
Shabbat Shalom, Chaverim—
It is amazing to me that though we read the same, exact, words every year from the same, exact section of the Torah in the same, exact sequence, they never have the same, exact meaning. This week’s episode is Balak (Numbers 22:2 – 25:9). It begins with a tale about a group of migrants who, making their way across the desert after breaking free from oppression, slavery, and dehumanization in Egypt, pitch their tents in Moab. Though based on hearsay, rumor, and semi-facts, the Moabite king, Balak, is convinced that the Israelites are a horde of thugs and he uses his royal influence to create a national panic:
“And he stirred up a great fear in front of the Moabites because there were so many migrant people, and Moab was filled with a sickening loathing towards the Children of Israel.” (Numbers 22:3)
Balak doesn’t ask questions. He doesn’t investigate why they were fleeing, he shows no curiosity about their aspirations or intentions, demonstrates no willingness to allow safe passage to their destination. Rather he is consumed by raw fear, disgust, and a willingness to pull all the stops to turn them back.
His solution to this crisis is to hire a local “sorcerer,” Bilam, to damn the Israelites. Bilam, on advice from God, at first refuses to take the job, but Balak is persistent. Bilam is clear that he will only be able to deliver words that are approved by The Great Mystery, who tells Bilam:
“And The Powers came to Bilam at night, and said to him: ‘If the men come to call on you, rise up, go with them: but only generate the words which I speak into you.’” (Numbers 22:20)
And to make a long, amazing, well-worth-checking-out-story short—Bilam, rather than cursing, repeatedly blesses the migrants, much to Balak’s enraged disappointment.
Okay, so this is a thinly veiled reference to the current administration’s approach to the myriad immigration problems we face on a national and international level. The Torah is certainly noting that established governments don’t take too kindly to large groups of strangers, who either burgeon within their land or seek harbor from without. And as a result of their callousness, fear, and lack of creativity for dealing with the situation, they eventually fail. It’s a message that fits neatly into a 21st century progressive narrative. But then there is the pesky second half of the story.
The Israelites ride Bilam’s blessing wave into Shittim, maybe 15 miles north east of Moab—a bit of a hike, not a huge trek. And there they have an internal crisis—they discover amongst themselves treachery, weakness, and (you probably won’t be surprised) wanton cruelty. People lose their sense of purpose, they forget what catalyzed the journey, their focus and clarity gets blurred. Moses resorts to harsh and lethal force to quell errant behavior. All in all, the situation is tragic. The spiritual ecology of this chronicle is in flux. Leadership falters, community breaks down, paranoia and despondency rule the hearts of the people. Balak, the king, delegates his authority to a shaman. Moses, the prophet, resorts to using deadly force against his congregation. Toxicity hangs in the air, power runs amok. So where do we find inspiration, hope, or vision in this tale?
The traditional rabbinic eye sees Bilam as a villain forced by God to do the right thing, at best a reluctant hero. I’d like to suggest that Bilam represents power gone right. Bilam scorns convention—he’s not an Israelite, and yet he accepts the guidance of their God; he’s working for the King and yet he defies the king’s command; his vision comes through as blessing, not curse.
“And Bilam saw that it was good in God’s eyes to bless the God-Wrestlers, he didn’t resort to his time tested trickery, but he turned to face the wilderness. And Bilam lifted up his eyes, and he saw the God-Wrestlers dwelling tribe by tribe; and the spirit of The Powers came upon him.” (Numbers 24:1-2)
He opens his mind and sees, and he proclaims: “These are the words of a man fallen down with his eyes wide open.” (Numbers 24:3) And in that state of humility, integrity, and awe, he says:
“Mah-tovu, ohalecha Ya’akov, mishkenotecha Yisrael! How good are the tents of Jacob and the dwellings of God’s Wrestlers!!” (Numbers 24:5)
May we find words of blessing on our tongues, no matter how unlikely. May we accept and merit our blessings. And may we stay clear, strong, and honest as we make our way home.
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