Parshat Balak 2018
There’s always some jokester around who calls attention to the fact that the emperor is naked. In our parsha it is the donkey. The she-ass. What we don’t ask is what happens to the whistle-blower after the spell is broken and everyone becomes aware of what he should have seen before but didn’t. We don’t know what happened to the child who said “The emperor is not wearing any clothes” nor do we know what happened to the she-ass after Bilaam suddenly became aware of the angel standing before him, sword in hand, blocking his way to perform evil and become even richer.
As Rabbi Lisa Grushcow points out, the classic commentators did consider the question – and the range of answers they offered runs the gamut. At the one end, Rashi held that: “the animal had to die so as to save Bilaam’s dignity. How could Bilaam be taken seriously if people could say, there’s the ass that left Bilaam speechless.” At the other end was Abarbanel: “The animal was morphed into a human being.” She had done such a good job that she was elevated to the status of those who can speak their minds and voice their criticisms. All of this is, of course, groundless speculation about a fairly humorous fairy tale that does not add anything to the development of the story.
Except that we do learn some things from the story. For example, Bilaam never apologizes for his ill-treatment of his beast of burden. The angel tells him, “Listen if it were up to me, I’d kill you now and let the animal live!” To which Bilaam says, “I’m so sorry. I didn’t know you were there. If you want me to return home I will.” But to the animal that saved his life by keeping him away from the avenging angel – not a word.
And note the tactful way in which the she-ass reprimands Bilaam. She says, “Why are you hitting me? Haven’t I been faithful to you all the years?” (which could be the anthem of abused women around the world). Not, “You idiot prophet – can’t you see the angel with the sword in hand ahead of us?” And Bilaam admits that she has been faithful. Nevertheless, an apology is not forthcoming. Only when Bilaam admits that the she-ass spoke the truth about the past does the angel becomes visible to him. As if this offhand, backhand nod to the truth is more than enough to expect from someone of such high rank.
That’s a common tendency, as is the tendency to punish the bearer of bad news. “Don’t shoot the messenger” is a familiar refrain. Until very recently, whistle blowers about harassment of various sorts were usually given more flak than those who were accused. #MeToo and other similar break-out movements have begun to change the tide a bit and more credibility is being given to the messenger, who is often the victim, at the expense of the allegedly guilty party.
Getting back to our parsha, Bilaam doesn’t give the impression of being a prophet in the Biblical mode. He seems to be in it because he has the knack, and it makes him money. Our biblical prophets, from Moshe to Samuel through Malachi, are all personally, passionately involved in what they do, and many of them serve as prophets despite the great discomfort this calling imposes on them.
Of course, our Biblical prophets usually speak only to the Israelites, their own people, about a future that involves the prophets themselves, as members of the Israelite community. For another, they do not cast spells and curses on people or nations, certainly not for payment. Their role is often to serve as a mouthpiece for God to warn the people so that they will NOT perform some behavior that will lead to punishment. Even Jonah, who is sent by God to warn the Ninevites, knows (and is upset) that his warnings may actually help to prevent punishment.
As a reflection of this difference in tasks and approaches, the rabbis cite an oddity in the textual appearance of the parsha of Balak in the Torah scroll. The whole story, from King Balak’s first approach to Bilaam through Bilaam’s three blessings of the Israelites and then a scattering of prophesies about other nations – all of this appears as one unbroken paragraph in the Torah scroll. No spaces, no new paragraphs. One explanation given is that God gave the Israelite prophets a chance to reflect on and recuperate from their visions and prophesies (after all, being a prophet was exhausting work). Bilaam, however, was inundated by this never-ending stream of God’s words and prophesies, often because he was not really involved. He did not have to internalize his prophecies in a personal level. He just wanted to make the most of his money-making ability. And this, the rabbis say, is reflected in the dense, no-stop-in-the-middle appearance of the parsha.
Bilaam’s end seems to have been foreseen in our parsha. We read later that Pinchas goes out and puts such and such kings – and Bilaam – to the sword. Thus the man of words eventually suffers the fate proposed by the angel in our story. I wonder if he saw it coming.