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  • Writer's pictureSamuel Lebens

Balak: Seeing the people we could be

Updated: Jul 3, 2020

A few weeks ago (in parshat Shelach), the men of the generation of Israelites who left Egypt were sentenced to die in the wilderness over the course of forty years. Some died natural deaths, some died in the unsanctioned attempt to conquer the land of Israel on their own, some in Korach's rebellion, and some in the plague of fiery snakes (in parshat Chukat). This week's reading contains the final calamity to face that generation.

What is the last calamity? The leaders of Moab and Midian, despite their history of enmity, conspire together against the Children of Israel. First, they appoint the non-Jewish prophet, Balaam, to curse the Jews.

Famously, Balaam's donkey proves to be more insightful than her rider. She sees an angel of God obstructing the way and tries to avoid him. Balaam is oblivious to the angel in the way and strikes his donkey three times for her seeming obstinance, at which point the donkey opens her mouth and speaks; rebuking Balaam.

Finally, upon receiving permission from the angel to proceed, Balaam, at the insistence of Balak the king of Moab, looks upon the Israelite camp from three different vantage points, as if trying to find a perspective from which they would appear worthy of cursing.

From the first two vantage points, Balaam tries to curse the Jews, but just as with the donkey, God opens Balaam's mouth and puts new words on his tongue. Instead of cursing, he blessed them. From the final vantage point, Balaam didn't even try to curse them. On that occasion, he blessed them of his own accord.

Having failed in this attempt to undermine the Children of Israel, the Moabites and Midinites, on the advice of Balaam, try a different route. They would incite Jewish men to marry Midinite women, and to worship the idols of Baal Peor. If the Israelites would abandon their God and assimilate into the Midinite people, then the Jews would no longer be an independent nation for them to fear. This is perhaps the first recorded attempt to force a people to assimilate; to strive for peace by imposing conformity upon minorities.

The many men who were lured into this sexual and theological trap caused a final plague to fall upon the Israelites; a plague which only ended with the vigilante action of Pinchas against a prince of the tribe of Shimon, who slept with a Midinite woman, in a very public act of defiance against Moses. It was in this plague that the final men of the first generation passed away.

In next week's reading there will be a census, to indicate that those who survived this final purge are the very same number of people who are destined, finally, to enter the land. The forty years are over.

The Midrash I want to focus on, this week, centers around one verse of Balaam's prophetic blessing. Remember that he's going from one vantage point to the next, in the hope of seeing something that would warrant a curse. And yet, he says, "No harm is in sight for Jacob; no woe is in view for Israel." How can this be? We know what's about to happen. Large numbers of Jews are soon to be tempted after Midinite women and the heresy of Baal Peor, and many will die in God's resultant plague. No harm in sight for Jacob? No woe in view? Is Balaam really looking?

On the surface, this isn't the question that our Midrash asks, but we'll see that it lurks in the background. The primary question of our Midrash is, why does Balaam single out Jacob (whose other name was Israel)? They ask the same question about Psalms 81, which was written by Asaph, the grandson of Samuel. He writes: "Sing joyously to God, our strength; raise a shout [or a shofar blast] for the God of Jacob.” With these two Jacob-centric verses in mind, the Midrash asks:

What did Balaam see to remember Jacob and not Abraham and not Isaac? He saw that unworthy offspring came forth from Abraham [namely]: Ismael and all of the children [he had] with Ketura. He saw that Esau and his [Edomite] Chiefs came forth from Isaac. But [the descendants] of Jacob were all holy, as it is said (Genesis 49:28): “All these were the tribes of Israel, twelve in number.” So is it written (Song of Songs 4:6): “Every part of you is fair, my darling, There is no blemish in you.” Therefore Jacob alone was mentioned, and it was [said] “No harm is in sight for Jacob; [No woe in view for Israel].” Asaph [the author of Psalm 81] said, "since all of the [other] forefathers had within them something unworthy, [manifest in their unworthy offspring,] and since Jacob had nothing unworthy within him, I will only recall Jacob [in my psalm]"; [Thus:] “raise a shout [or a shofar blast] for the God of Jacob.”

I feel the force of the question, why was Jacob singled out? But the answer seems deeply unsatisfactory. First of all, Ismael is described as a wild young man, but the Rabbinic consensus is that, at some point in time, he straightened out. We see that he attends the funeral of his father and seems to respect Isaac's special status, allowing him precedence in the funeral procession. After Sarah died, Abraham married keturah and had children with her, but we have no Biblical evidence that there was anything unworthy about these children. Why are Abraham's children getting a bad wrap?

Perhaps the issue is not with the offspring of Abraham but with Abraham's own failure, so to speak, to raise all of his children with a shared identity, as Hebrews like him. You might find a sympathetic reading of Esau and of the chieftains who descended from him, less plausible than a sympathetic reading of Ismael -- indeed, many Jews were named after Ismael in recognition of his reputed character improvement; but you won't find Jews named after Esau. Even so, the issue here might be that Isaac and Rebecca failed to raise both of their children with a shared identity.

This is the sense in which Jacob was whole. His children had horrendous disputes, leading one of them to be sold into slavery, but by the end of Jacob's life, all of his children were united; they were all children of Israel. They were all Jews. That really is some achievement. But the Midrash itself isn't satisfied with this answer.

Though it can be read as a comment about the three forefathers as parents, its more simple reading is about the offspring of the three fathers. And even if you take a negative view of Ismael, the children of Ketura, Esau, and his chieftains, it's going to be a hard sell to say that the offspring of Israel are without blemish. If the Song of Songs is describing the Jewish people as uniformaly beautiful, what are we to say about the bad Jews; and we know that there are bad Jews. Balaam knows that there are bad Jews. His advice to seduce the Israelites banks on the fact that some Jews are less that wholly upright.

Abraham has Ismael. Isaac has Esau. But Jacob can't deny Zimri, the prince of the tribe of Shimon who defied Moses, took a Midinite wife, and followed Baal Peor. Jacob can't deny Korach. Jacob can't deny the Jews who worshiped the golden calf. Perhaps Jacob had more success as a parent in the end, but we shouldn't forget the aborted plot to murder Joseph, and his eventual sale into slavery; nor should we forget the paternal favoritism that fostered that brotherly hatred in the first place.

The first answer of the Midrash comes too close to saying that Jacob's offspring are without blemish; and they're not. Consequently, the Midrash offers an alternative response:

Another response: why was Jacob mentioned of all the forefathers? Our teachers taught that a person is measured by the measure with which he measures others... [This can be illustrated through] a parable of a king who had three beloved [courtiers]. He wanted to make a palace. He called to his beloved [courtiers]. He brought the first one and said to him, “See that place in which I want to build a palace?” His beloved [courtier] said, “I remember that there used to be a mountain here first.” He left him and went to the second [courtier], and said to him, “I want to build a palace for myself in this place.” He said to him, “I remember that there was a field here first.” He also left him and came to the third [courtier] and said to him, “I want to build a place in this place.” He said to him, “I remember that this was a palace from the start.” He said to him, “By your life, I will name it after you.” So too: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were the beloved of the holy One, blessed be He. Abraham called [the site of the future temple] a mountain, as it is said (Genesis 22:14) “on the mountain called Adonai Yireh.” Isaac called it a field, as it is said (Ibid. 27:27) “…the fragrance of my son is like the fragrance of a field….” Jacob called it a palace, as it is said (Ibid 28:17) “this is nothing other than the house of God.” The holy One, blessed be He said to him, “By your life, you called it a house before it was built; I will name it after you”; as it is said (Isaiah 2:3) “Let us ascend the mountain of God, to the house of the God of Jacob.” And similarly, Jeremiah says (Jeremiah 30:18): “So said the Lord: Behold I am returning the captivity of the tents of Jacob” So too Asaph decorated his words and only recalled Jacob, regarding the raising of a shout [or the bast of a shofar] as it is said “…raise a shout [or blast a shofar] for the God of Jacob” (Pslams 81:2).

During the binding of Isaac, Abraham discovered what would later become the Temple Mount. He called it a mountain.

The Synagogue of the Leicester Hebrew Congregation

When Isaac is first seen, after that event, he is described as walking in the "field" and talking to God. He related to the meeting point of man and God as a field; the scent of which he would smell, years later, on his son. But when Jacob awakes from his dream with the ladder, he doesn't call the place in which he stands a mountain or a field. He calls it the house of God. He berates himself for not having realised sooner. Sure, it looks to the eye of the present like a mountain or a field, but in his dream he caught a glimpse of what that place would become, and when he woke up, he experienced the world through the prism of that vision: "Surely the LORD is present in this place, and I did not know it! ... How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God, and that is the gateway to heaven." These words are meaningful to me since they are painted above the ark in the synagogue in which I grew up.

The question is why do Balaam and Asaph single out Jacob? The first answer could be that Jacob had better results as a parent, since he succeeded, eventually, in bringing all of his children together under the umbrella of a single identity. But this answer comes too close to the erroneous suggestion that Jacob's descendants are all equally upright; all without blemish; and that simply isn't true. Indeed, the falsehood to which the first answer comes too close simply raises the question we asked before we even met the Midrash, namely: how can Balaam say that there is no harm in view, given what's about to unfold?

The second answer addresses both issues: it tells us why Jacob was singled out and it explains how Balaam could have missed the obvious. When Balaam looks at the children of Israel, and it doesn't matter how many times he looks, and how many vantage points he adopts, he only sees good. God hasn't just taken over his mouth; God has also taken over his eyes. And why does he see only good? Because one day the children of Israel will all be upright. That day hasn't come, but it will. Balaam is seeing the future even though his words are in the present tense.

Some Biblical scholars call this the prophetic future tense: when the vision of the future is so vivid for the prophet that he describes it as present. And this happens in the merit of Jacob. When Jacob awoke from his dream, he found himself in a scraggly rock-strewn mountain top; but he saw the palace of God that would one day be there.

Together with my friend and colleague, Tyron Goldschmidt, I have sought to develop a philosophy of time, rooted in Jewish sources, that can make sense of the following claim: one day there will have been no evil. Indeed, we can take quite literally the words of God, as reported by Isaiah:

It is I, I who wipes away your transgressions for my own sake. And your sins I will remember no more.

On our reading, history isn't yet finished; neither the future, nor the past. When we merit to bring about the coming of the Messiah, through our repentance, and our good deeds, God will not remember our sins because he will have wiped them away; he will have cut them out of history. If you go back in time to see them, they won't be there. Goldschmidt and I even explain why a perfect God would want to allow history to unfold on its own before cutting out the bad bits.

And so it will one day be the case that neither Abraham, Isaac, nor Jacob had unworthy descendants. But we don't live in a timeline that has been redeemed. Our time line is sullied with sin, and suffering. What was special about Jacob was that he could look at all the horrors in this world and see what they would become once God had redeemed them. The philosopher John Hick told us not to judge the world in terms of how pleasurable it is to live here. He told us to judge it in terms of how well suited it is to spiritual growth. Jacob seems to have had a different philosophy: he didn't judge the world in terms of what it was, but in terms of what it could be, and what it would be, once it had been redeemed. Because of that, when Balaam came to evaluate the Children of Jacob, God didn't let him see what they were, but what they could be, and what they will be, once they've been redeemed.

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