Celebrating the Spiritual Levels of Torah

Torah is a teaching that continues to unfold, guiding us to appreciate the text more fully
as our awareness evolves.

Torah Portion for the Week of July 17 - 23, 2016: Balak

(Numbers 22:29 - 25:9)

The real problem with anger

As the Israelites approached his land, Balak, the king of Moab, feared for his people's safety. He asked Balaam, one whose power to bless and to curse was well known, to curse these people so they could be overcome by the Moabites.

Come now therefore, I pray you, curse this people for me; for they are too mighty for me; perhaps I shall prevail, that we may defeat them, and that I may drive them out of the land; for I know that he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed. (22:6)

The immediate question is rather clear: Why didn't Balak ask Balaam to bless his own people rather than curse the Israelites? Of course, that would have precluded this most remarkable story, but it certainly seems like it would have been more direct.

Commentators suggest that Balak was so caught up with his own anger that blessing was simply not in his consciousness. Perhaps that's the real problem with anger, and why the rabbinic tradition equates anger to idolatry.

Our anger captures our consciousness, and renders us unable to think clearly. Because anger always creates greater separation, it automatically takes us out of a more inclusive awareness. As we then lose sight of Oneness, we slide into the essential fragmentation that marks all idolatry.

Captivated by the thought of rewards to come

The story continues as Balak seeks the efficacious curse. When approached by emissaries from Balak, Balaam sought guidance through dream visions. Interestingly, he is invoking the God of the Israelites rather than the deities of his own territory.

And God said to Balaam, You shall not go with them; you shall not curse the people; for they are blessed. (22:12)

When his men returned empty handed, Balak decided that Balaam wanted a greater payment for his services, so he sent more important dignitaries with a far more substantial offer of reward. Once again, Balaam sought guidance.

And God came to Balaam at night, and said to him, If the men come to call you, rise up, and go with them; but only that word which I shall say to you, that shall you do. (22:20)

Apparently, God knew that Balaam was a little too anxious to accompany the men in order to claim the promised riches.

And God's anger was kindled because he went; and the angel of the Eternal stood in the way as an adversary against him. Now he was riding upon his donkey, and his two servants were with him. (22:22)

Balaam is unaware of the angel, so focused is he on hoping for reward. His donkey, however, has her eyes open.

And the donkey saw the angel of the Eternal standing in the way, and his sword drawn in his hand; and the donkey turned aside out of the way, and went into the field; and Balaam struck the donkey, to turn it to the way. (22:23)

Balaam is still not paying attention. How much of the time are we blind to the present moment because we are captivated by the thoughts of future events? The donkey tries again to get Balaam's attention.

And when the donkey saw the angel of the Eternal, she pushed herself against the wall, and crushed Balaam's foot against the wall; and Balaam struck her again. (22:25)

Finally, the donkey carries Balaam through a narrow vineyard with walls on either side, and there is nowhere to turn aside to avoid the angel that stands before them.

And when the donkey saw the angel of the Eternal, she fell down under Balaam; and Balaam's anger was kindled, and he struck the donkey with a staff. (22:27)

The strange case of the talking donkey

Now comes the juicy part: the donkey speaks. Rabbi Moshe Luzzatto, the early 18th century Italian kabbalist, suggested that the animal actually was only making animal sounds. The text represents what Balaam heard, rather than what the donkey actually said. Perhaps this is how we can understand God's speech to prophets, seers, and many on spiritual paths: what is heard mostly depends upon the state of consciousness of the receiver.

And the Eternal opened the mouth of the donkey, and she said to Balaam, What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times? (22:28)

The donkey reminds Balaam of the many years she has served him, which, in his blind anger, Balaam seems to have totally forgotten. Once again, anger has rendered a person unable to perceive the truth of the moment.

And the angel of the Eternal said to him, Why did you strike your donkey these three times? Behold, I went out to hinder you, because your way is perverse before me; (22:32)

The angel encourages Balaam to travel on to Balak, but to only speak truthfully what he hears from God.

Balak, of course, is delighted to receive Balaam, even though Balaam truthfully warns him that he can only convey the words and energies that he receives from God. After setting the stage with appropriate sacrifices, and receiving guidance in a dream, Balaam makes his first pronouncement.

How shall I curse, he whom God has not cursed? or how shall I defy, he whom the Eternal has not defied? (23:8)

Balak is not happy. A second time brings much the same result, and the third attempt by Balak to eke out energies of curse from Balaam brings words that must have been devastating for him. That final time, Balaam receives guidance while awake, a deeper form of the prophetic process. The consequence is that Balaam pronounces words that have made their way into the daily Jewish worship service.

How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, and your dwelling places, O Israel! (24:5)

How to deflect the energies of blessing

Perhaps excited by the blessing they have received, the Israelites relax their monotheistic vigilance. The men are enticed by the ritual sexuality of the Moabite women, and they forget themselves.

And Israel stayed in Shittim, and the people began to commit harlotry with the daughters of Moab. (25:1)

God's anger results in an immediate plague, and twenty-four thousand men died. Commentators note that only three thousand died following the idolatry of the Golden Calf, suggesting that idolatry through sexuality was an even greater sin than idolatry through fear.

Of course, even many traditional commentators do not take this wonderful talking donkey story literally, but understand it to be a dream sequence. Whatever its nature, it is a remarkable teaching story, and certainly one of the more entertaining episodes in the Book of Numbers.

Focus Phrases

I release any anger I am carrying.
I walk the path of blessing.
I live the Way of Oneness.

Writing Prompts

The anger I need to acknowledge includes. . .
What needs blessing in my world is. . .
When I awaken to Oneness, I realize. . .

Photo: Mark Reden