Balaam: Carried away and lost by his own words

 My teacher Jonathan Magonet used to ask – “If you were a donkey, how would you read the bible?” The answer of course is that you would notice the stories about donkeys. They are not hard to find, Abraham, Moses and Samuel had famous donkeys, though it might be disappointing to a donkey reader to find the donkeys always described in relation to their human companion. And of course there is Balaam’s amazing donkey we read about today, which was clearly more perceptive than the prophet who rode her.

The point he was making is that when we read a text we bring to it an enormous number of presuppositions related to our experience, knowledge, personal situation, tradition etc. We are none of us objective readers of the text; we are all shaped by our life experience. We bring ourselves to the texts; we read into it as well as read out from it, we notice what we notice and not what has no meaning to us or resonance in our own minds.

The same is true of prophecy in the Hebrew bible. Biblical prophecy is as shaped by the prophet’s own understanding as it is formed by the will of God. And it is affected by those who hear it and act. Jews read biblical text as part of a dialogue and dialectic seeking truth through debate and discussion; We bring ourselves into relationship with the words of Torah. To simply read the p’shat, the literal and surface meaning of the text, is to miss out on the richness that is brought to it through human understanding. We have to reflect on and process what we read, examine it and turn it again and again, for the word of God is renewed through our engagement with it.

Curiously, the story of Balaam, this professional prophet of God, whose donkey is also sensitive to the divine in the world, seems to lack this capacity. And the tradition seems to try to tell us something in the way the story is written – not only the text but the physical appearance of the words.

If you look in a Torah scroll, you will see that while the columns are carefully designed to begin and end at the end of each line (what we might call ‘line justified’ in today’s parlance, there are also breaks in the text, some at the end of a line (p’tuhah) and some in the middle of a line (s’tumah). There is a long tradition preserving these spaces, and scribes follow this tradition carefully. But Balaam’s prophecy contains no such spaces.

The Chafetz Chayim (Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan, 1838-1933) asks why there are no breaks in this parashah as it is written in the Torah scroll. From Balak’s initial alarm and commissioning of Balaam to curse Israel to the very end of Balaam’s prophecy (Numbers 22:2-24:25), there is only solid text. True, Balaam was a prophet, and his prophecy was inspired from above: “I can utter only the word that God puts into my mouth.” (Numbers 22:38) But why should this section look so different from others in the Torah?

The Chafetz Chayim answers his own question, based on several midrashic sources, in the following way: The various breaks in Moses’ prophecy (i.e., the rest of the Torah) are indications that God gives Moses (and other Israelite prophets) breathing room to process what they are receiving. They are not to act simply as mouthpieces, as empty vessels through which divine speech flows. Rather, the prophet must understand the prophecy and be changed by it.

Moses and the other prophets of Israel participate in prophecy: Their words of God are refracted through their human thought and experience. Moses at times even argues with God, following the precedent set by Abraham and establishing a pattern that will be followed by the later prophets and by others. We can view breaks in the text as opportunities for reflection-both theirs and ours. But Balaam is allowed no breaks for reflection, nor is he changed by his words. He is only the conduit through which the text is passed, no different than a book or a tape or a digital recording. His prophecy is shallow and limited, his personality not engaged in the activity at all, his lack of understanding and commitment to participation means he fails as a prophet.

Yet Balaam’s words are remembered and, in the case of the phrase ‘Mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, mishkenotecha Yisrael” they are used prominently in Jewish liturgy.

So while Balaam neither reflected on his words nor sought a deeper meaning, we still are able to take these words and refract them into something both challenging of our world and supporting of what we see. This liturgical twist is an elegant example of the interaction of people and text, when we take the words that were intended for curse and transform them into words that acknowledge and reframe our reality to turn it into blessing.

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