Balak: the curse of being a people who dwell alone

Balaam, the seer and professional prophet from Aram who is commissioned by Balak the king of Moab to curse the Israelites travelling through the land, says to Balak :- “[you told me] ‘come, curse me Jacob and come, defy Israel’  How shall I curse whom God has not cursed? Or how shall I disturb whom the Eternal has not disturbed?”

And then he tells him this: “For from the top of the rocks I see them, and from the hills I observe them. Behold, a people who will live alone, and with the nations they will not be reckoned”

כִּֽי־מֵרֹ֤אשׁ צֻרִים֙ אֶרְאֶ֔נּוּ וּמִגְּבָע֖וֹת אֲשׁוּרֶ֑נּוּ הֶן־עָם֙ לְבָדָ֣ד יִשְׁכֹּ֔ן וּבַגּוֹיִ֖ם לֹ֥א יִתְחַשָּֽׁב

Balaam is a seer, he is a powerful soothsayer who has a real connection with God, but none whatsoever with the people of Israel. When he sees them all his plans to curse are in disarray, he cannot curse the people protected by God, and while he continues to try to fulfil the contract as best he can he is limited in this case and he knows it. Yet he tries to offer curses – or at least ambiguous spells, and this story culminates in the verse which we have appropriated for well over a thousand years to help us into the mood for prayer:          מַה־טֹּ֥בוּ אֹֽהָלֶ֖יךָ יַֽעֲקֹ֑ב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶ֖יךָ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל:

“How good are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel”

It is a comic tale despite the horror of a powerful person hoping to destroy the vulnerable people of Israel while they are going about their business quite unknowing of the hatred and bile directed towards them. The comedy is underlined by our liturgical use of the final declaration. But this year one of the earlier “blessings/curses” caught my eye.  “Behold a people who will live alone, who will not be reckoned with the nations”

Tradition tells us that this is transformed into a blessing, that alone of all the nations of history, the Jews continue, uniquely indestructible, forever distinct and separate from the peoples among whom we live. This thread of Jewish peoplehood, surviving without the structures that normally support identity, moving geographically across a huge diaspora, moving through time and evolving time and again to create and accept new ritual and liturgical structures, accommodating to different cultures and political environments, living alongside other religious traditions – it is indeed unique.  Empires came and went, those of Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome were powerful entities under which the Jews lived and often suffered, and still the Jews continue while the artefacts of the great Empires can be found in museums.

But this interpretation so beloved of the medieval commentators living under oppressive authorities and fearful of the crusading powers sweeping through Europe to the Holy Land, reads less comfortingly in modern times.

A people who will dwell alone, who will not be reckoned/counted/aligned with the other nations sounds scarily like a nationalism out of control, assuming an arrogance and an identity that does not relate to other peoples.  As I have been reading the remarks of some who voted for the UK to leave our relationship with Europe I see statements such as “I have my country back”, and “we can send the foreigners home” and “England for the English”. I see the demagoguery of UKIP, the racism that was unacceptable in British society suddenly surfacing as people feel permission to “dwell alone”. Words like ‘sovereignty’ and ‘independence’ dominate the discourse, turning the narrative into one of narrow chauvinism, bigotry and nationalism and xenophobia which appear to be segueing smoothly from the earlier arguments of more local agency and greater political autonomy.

I am chilled by the increased nationalism and jingoism I see not only in present day post referendum United Kingdom but also in other countries in Europe and in the USA. Patriotism has become a cloak for hatred of the other. Brown skinned people are being abused on public transport and told to “go home” – even though home is here, even though this island has always had many races and cultures – Angles and Saxons and Normans and Danes and Celts and  Germanic tribes and …..

I am chilled by the idea that being a people who are alone can possibly ever be a blessing, but in particular now when we live in an interconnected and interdependent world, when we can see the suffering of others at the touch of a computer or television, and we can help alleviate that suffering just as quickly and easily.  We learn from each other, we enrich each other both culturally and intellectually, we offer each other relationship while retaining the individuality we need for a real relationship to exist. As Martin Buber wrote a person (“I”) has meaning only in relation to others, what he called “I-Thou dialogue” – the same is true for peoples, for ethnicities and national identities. To separate oneself off and deny our interdependence, instead proclaiming the holy grail of absolute and total independence, is dangerous for every person, for every society, for every nation state.

The first time we have the phrase of being B.D.D. alone, comes in Genesis (2:18) Where God, having made the first human being says

וַיֹּ֨אמֶר֙ יְהוָֹ֣ה אֱלֹהִ֔ים לֹא־ט֛וֹב הֱי֥וֹת הָֽאָדָ֖ם לְבַדּ֑וֹ אֶֽעֱשֶׂה־לּ֥וֹ עֵ֖זֶר כְּנֶגְדּֽוֹ:

It is not good for the human to be alone, I will make for him a support who is equal and different to him.

We all need others, people who are different, who have equal strength of opinion and independence, who challenge us and support us and are in relationship with us.  The saddest phrase in bible is probably the one at the beginning of the book of Lamentations, read after the commemoration of the calamity of the destruction of Jerusalem:

אֵיכָ֣ה ׀ יָשְׁבָ֣ה בָדָ֗ד הָעִיר֙ רַבָּ֣תִי עָ֔ם הָיְתָ֖ה כְּאַלְמָנָ֑ה רַבָּ֣תִי בַגּוֹיִ֗ם שָׂרָ֨תִי֙ בַּמְּדִינ֔וֹת הָיְתָ֖ה לָמַֽס:

How does the city sit solitary, that was full of people. How is she become as a widow. She that was great among the nations, and princess among the provinces, how is she become tributary!

We are already in the month of Tammuz – this weekend will see the 9th Tammuz, the date when the walls of Jerusalem were breached by King Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BCE and the temple sacrifices were discontinued, and next week we will commemorate the 17th Tammuz, the date when the walls of Jerusalem were breached by the Roman army in 70CE leading to the removal of the Jewish people from their ancestral land. We may as a people have survived these historical catastrophes but the question is – have we learned from them? We need no longer fear being forcibly assimilated into a dominant power (or worse), the ‘blessing’ of being a people apart may now be less of a blessing if it blinkers us to the importance of our relationships with others.

As John Donne wrote in his meditation “

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were;  any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

We should listen out for the bell tolling out its warning and push for relationship and the recognition of the reality of our interdependence with others. Or Balak’s ‘blessing’ may yet prove to be our curse.

What we can learn from Balak : acceptance of the other is the best strategy for survival

Twice in Torah, we are privy to the thoughts of a powerful leader about the children of Israel. The first time, at the beginning of the book of Exodus, we see the rise of the melech hadash – the new king who did not know Joseph, and his view that “Hinei Am b’nei Yisrael rav v’atzum mimenu”, “Behold the people who are the children of Israel are more and mightier than we” (Exod. 1:9).  From this fearful perception came the enslavement of the Israelites, and eventually their liberation from Egypt to journey towards the Promised Land. And now here, Balak, the king of Moab, having seen what the journeying Israelites had done to the Amorites, and distressed at the power and size of the Israelites, calls to Balaam: “V’attah l’cha na ara li et ha’am hazeh, ki atzum hu mimeni”, “And now come pray, and curse for me this people, for it is too great for me” (Num. 22:6).

There are many parallels between the narratives in Egypt from enslavement to liberation and the narratives of Balaam’s attempted cursing for Balak, but it is the phrase describing the mightiness of the people Israel that draws attention.  For when the Pharaoh describes this group of descendants of Jacob as “Am”, “a people”, he ascribes to them for the first time coherence beyond family connectedness. He has changed them from a genealogical group into peoplehood. The category shift is vast. Whatever we may know about Abraham and Sarah making Jewish souls and converting the people they met into their way of being, here for the first time is textual evidence that Bnei Yisrael is more than a family or genetic inheritance; it is peoplehood, a community brought together by something other than ancestry. Posited against the Egyptian peoplehood (rav v’atzum mimenu, “more and mightier than we are”), they are perceived to be a threat to the Egyptian way of being and must, in the eyes of Pharaoh and his court, be constrained.

But for Balak, something different is happening, albeit in almost the same words. V’attah l’cha na ara li et ha’am hazeh, ki atzum hu mimeni, “And now come pray, and curse for me this people, for it is too great for me.” (Num. 22:6). This is personal, something to do with Balak king of Moab himself, and so we must look into his own history and his future to determine what it could be.

Balak is a Moabite, a member of a people said to be born from the drunken coupling of Lot and his older daughter in a cave after the destruction of Sodom, when they thought they were the only survivors of a destroyed world. Her son, Moab (the name meaning literally “from my father”) is the progenitor of this people, though we do not have any direct chain of genealogy back to Lot (Gen. 19:37). So Balak is of the family of Abraham through Lot, someone who represents “what might have been” had different choices been made. Unlike Pharaoh he has a connection with the children of Israel, albeit a tenuous one, and a connection to the covenant that Abraham made with God.

The Hebrew phrase “atzum hu mimeni”, besides being cast in the singular and personal frame, can also be translated as: “This people is mighty from me.”

Balak may have been asserting that had Lot not chosen to separate from Abraham and go to Sodom, the line of transmission would have been different, with Lot’s descendants claiming the covenant. But there is another way of viewing this phrase, one that may speak to us more in the struggles of today’s Jewish world. Rabbi Isaiah ben Avraham Halevi Horowitz (1565-1630) chose to understand this verse as referring not to what might have been in the past, but to what would certainly be in the future: that the anointed kingly and messianic line of David would descend from Balak.

Ruth, the great-grandmother of King David was herself a Moabite woman, descended from Eglon [the grandson of Balak], king of Moab (Nazir 23b).

And their direct connection is made plain at the end of her eponymous book. From King Balak would ultimately come King David – No wonder Balak felt that the strength of Israel was coming from himself! He was inadvertently contributing to the continuation and wellbeing of the people Israel.

In an added twist we have the story told as a moral tale twice in Talmud: “Rav Judah, citing Rav, said: A man should always occupy himself with the Torah and [its] precepts, even though it be for some ulterior motive, for the result will be that he will eventually do them without ulterior motive. For as reward for the forty-two sacrifices which the wicked Balak offered, he was privileged to be the progenitor of Ruth, for R. Jose son of R. Hanina has said that Ruth was descended from Eglon [the grandson of Balak], king of Moab (Nazir 23b and Horayot 10b).”

What Balak is recognising, albeit in his case with horror, is that the merging and mingling of other people into Judaism is of enormous benefit to the people of Israel. Like Pharaoh, he sees not a bloodline, but a covenant line, an “Am” a people whom one can join and in joining can benefit.

His horror is because he is an enemy of the Israelites. One can only wonder what the dismay of modern naysayers of conversion into Judaism can be based upon.

The recent trend in some parts of the Dati Jewish world towards the annulment of some conversions for perceived breaches of behaviour, and the disbelief of the sincerity of Jews by choice is the curse that Balak asked for Balaam to give come into fruition in our own time.  When Balak asks Balaam “V’attah l’cha na ara li”, we can read him as saying “come now and curse me,” understanding that in his spite he is asking to be cursed himself, rather than allow his descendants to enter into and to strengthen the Jewish people. Today we seem to have those willing to place a curse on the Jewish people rather than accept the benefit and goodwill of those who have chosen to join us.  They would rather rip apart the Jewish world in their quest to follow their own desire single-mindedly for some notional (and decidedly not traditional) purity, rather than work to include and welcome those who wish to join us. One might ask, “Where is the donkey of Balaam now when we need a clear sighted and generous spirit?”

Conversion procedure and law in Judaism is based on the texts surrounding Ruth, a Moabite woman, descendant of Balak, who would rather not have mixed his bloodline with ours. And about Ruth and her conversion there is nothing but praise: Rabbi Abahu said, “Come and see how precious are proselytes to the Holy One, blessed be He. Once she [Ruth] had set her heart on converting, Scripture placed her in the same rank as Naomi, as it is said: “And they both walked till they came to Bethlehem” (Ruth 1:19) (Yalkut Shimoni, Ruth, Chapter 1, 601).  There was no need for her to prove by her subsequent life choices that her conversion continued to be valid. The famous phrase “Al tifg’ivi l’ozveych lashuv may’acharayich”, “Do not entreat me to leave you, or to return from following after you, for where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge, your people will be my people and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16),  can be translated somewhat differently. The verb peh, gimmel, ayin means “to meet, encounter, reach” and can mean both to encounter with kindness or with hostility, to encounter with a request as in “entreat” or more frequently  “to fall upon and kill”  (1 Sam. 22:17-18 ; Judges 8:21. etc.)

So what if Ruth was saying, “Do not destroy me by making me leave you or not allowing me to be with you”? The verse would then have a whole extra dimension. Instead of asking Ruth to go away (the traditional three time refusal of a person wishing to convert that is derived selectively from these verses) and putting the onus on the convert to be brave enough to return to ask once more, and yet again, the problem becomes ours: we would bear responsibility for the sin of destroying another person by our cold shouldering of the prospective convert.

In Talmud Yevamot 24b we find the following :

MISHNAH. “If a man is suspected of [intercourse] with a slave who was later emancipated, or with a heathen who subsequently became a proselyte, lo, he must not marry her. If, however, he did marry her they need not be parted. If a man is suspected of intercourse with a married woman who, [in consequence,] was taken away from her husband, he must let her go even though he had married her.” GEMARA. “This implies that she may become a proper proselyte. But against this a contradiction is raised. Both a man who became a proselyte for the sake of a woman and a woman who became a proselyte for the sake of a man, and, similarly, a man who became a proselyte for the sake of a royal board, or for the sake of joining Solomon’s servants, are no proper proselytes. These are the words of R. Nehemiah, for R. Nehemiah used to say: Neither lion-proselytes, nor dream-proselytes nor the proselytes of Mordecai and Esther are proper proselytes unless they become converted at the present time (ie when there was no benefit to becoming a proselyte). How can it be said, ‘at the present time’?-Say ‘as at the present time’! -Surely concerning this it was stated that R. Isaac b. Samuel b. Martha said in the name of Rav: The Halachah is in accordance with the opinion of him who maintained that they were all proper proselytes. If so, this should have been permitted altogether! – On account of [the reason given by] R. Assi. For R. Assi said, ‘Put away from you a disobedient mouth, and perverse lips, etc.’”

In other words, there were always those who found a reason not to accept proselytes. There were those who worried that behind someone’s wish to join the Jewish world there would be some material benefit they could claim, so their request could not be said to be pure or acceptable. But the Halachah does not go that way, even if the discussion has to proceed in order to make clear that the point of view is recorded in order to be invalidated. And later commentary on the Mishnah records an overwhelming majority of halachists who agree with the opinion of Maimonides that conversion in order to marry a Jew (which may not be of noticeable benefit) also does not invalidate a conversion.

So back to Balak. Why was he so afraid that the Children of Israel would become stronger through him? Why would he rather have been cursed himself with no descendants than accept the existence and energy of the Israelites. Well we have no idea, just as we can have no sensible idea for the balagan that is conversion in Israel at the moment. Any logical analysis is both too depressing and too frightening to contemplate. Can we have removed ourselves so far from the golden rules – to be a holy people as God is holy, to care for others as we care for ourselves, to concern ourselves with the strangers and the vulnerable and the defenceless – that we have removed ourselves from the divine force that nourishes and sustains us? Only time will tell.

Balak himself failed in his curse, and his hatred and enmity was turned into acceptance of the other and the messianic promise. May the curse that stalks our people now go the same way so that once again we will be able to say, and to mean, Mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, mishk’notecha Yisrael, “How good are your tents O Jacob, and your dwelling places O Israel”

 (a version of a draft first written for Leo Baeck College Parashat HaShavuah 2008

Balak of Moab who did not know what he did not know

Israel faces a crisis – and yet does not seem to know it. Balak, King of Moab, is alarmed at the prospect of Israel crossing his land, has seen what they have done to others as they have journeyed towards his land. The Canaanites were entirely destroyed at Hormah (Num 21:3),  then it was the turn of Sichon the King of the Amorites (21;25-26)  who would not let them pass through his land and was defeated and destroyed, and finally Og the King of Bashan (21:35) who also went out to battle against them was utterly ruined. So Balak chose to get some supernatural help, and approached Balaam, a well known prophet the power of whose blessings and curses were legendary.

The sidra focuses entirely on the negotiations between Balaam and Balak, and the consequences of this discussion. What is happening in the Israelite camp is irrelevant – bible is telling us what is happening “offstage” so to speak, a side story that is however hugely important to the Jewish people even today.

Famously, to begin prayer, we take from this sidra the final words of Balaam, which he speaks almost without conscious intent. Balaam is hired to curse the people of Israel, though he knows that he cannot do this, for God has made clear that the Israelites are special and that the normal rules of blessing and cursing them will not apply. At the end of a long process of attempted curses in order to satisfy the wishes of his paymaster Balak, Balaam blurts out the phrase “Mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, Mishkenotecha Yisrael” – “how good are your tents Jacob, your dwelling places Israel” and this statement is taken by us as a blessing, and used as the phrase with which we begin our services – a tradition that was already established by the time the 9th century Babylonian Rav Amram compiled his first siddur and instructed us “”When entering a synagogue say: ‘Mah tovu ohalecha. . . V’ani, b’rov chas’d’cha; I, through your abundant love, enter your house; I bow down reverently at Your holy temple.”

Our liturgy begins deliberately by turning the curse of an enemy into a blessing for us to express our delight in entering a synagogue, confident that God will accept our prayer. The Talmud understands the tents and dwelling places as being the synagogues and houses of study of the Jewish people (Sanhedrin 105b). The Midrash on the other hand, quoted by Rashi (ad loc) (also Baba Batra 60a), sees the phrase as a paean of praise to modesty and privacy: “When Balaam saw that the tents of the Israelites were set up so that the entrance of one did not face the entrance of another, he praised them with the “Ma Tovu”.

Both traditions are teaching that it is the thoughtful behaviour of the Jews, either their respect for each other’s private space and personal modesty, or else the connection to God through prayer and study, that brings about the change in Balaam’s words, transforming attempted curse to fluent blessing. And that may indeed be a good lesson to draw from the story, but I think it is important to see respect for the other not as an end in itself, but as an important way of being.

To take this further: In this sidra the Israelites had no idea that Balak was so nervous of them. They were not intending to destroy Moab (Deut 2:8-9) who were distant relatives, being descended from Lot the nephew of Abraham. So while Balak was terrified of this horde of people who seemed to be destroying the peoples in their path – and was presumably ignorant of the requests for safe passage that were sent by the Israelites but that were not accepted and instead met with hostility and warriors – the people themselves knew nothing of their effect on the other peoples of the land. They see themselves only as innocents, wishing to travel through, to take nothing but what they would genuinely trade or buy from the inhabitants.

So the ignorance of Balak is matched – even dwarfed – by the ignorance of the Israelites, both of the effect they were having on others, and the reputation they were creating for themselves. Their ignorance extended to the machinations of the Moabite King and the professional prophet he hired, and also to the work that God put in to protect the Israelite people travelling through the desert. In the words of Donald Rumsfeld, they did not know what they did not know.

While Rumsfeld, then US defence secretary, was (unfairly) awarded the Plain English Campaign’s trophy for most obfuscating remark in December 2003 for the words: “Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know”. (Rumsfeld on February 12, 2002 at a press briefing at the White House on WMD)  The story of Balak is illuminated for me by his words. The Israelites knew the things they knew – though they did not always respond in the way that that knowledge would lead one to expect. They knew that God was looking out for them and providing for them, but they still rebelled; They also knew some things that they did not know – how to get into the land, when that would be, if they would succeed.  But they simply didn’t know how they were being perceived by the peoples whose land they needed to cross to get to Israel, they didn’t know how their reputation grew to be so fearsome that Balak was desperate for extra help, and they didn’t know that God was quietly active in the background in order to protect them.

What God is doing in this narrative remains, to the Israelites, an “unknown unknown”. Rabbi John Rayner would say that God does not intervene in the world, but that God is active in the world –meaning that God’s will is manifested in the actions of people: the choices by Balak and Balaam in this text, as well as the behaviour of the Israelites, being prime examples. Our daily actions, how we conduct ourselves and how that leads other people perceive us matters; indeed it is the one thing that can transform our world, that is able to transform curses to blessings. We cannot know the totality of the effects our choices have, but I would like to think that modern Jews and Israelites are more aware and perceptive than their ancient forbears about the effects on, and the analyses of, the peoples and lands around them of their actions. It cannot be enough to care for the wellbeing only of other Jews. It cannot be enough to spend our time in study and prayer. Such caring, such study must lead to good and ethical action, to being part of the action of God in the world.

The choices we make in our behaviour matters. How other people see us, even if we are currently unaware of them, or do not notice them, or find ways to sideline them – matters. If we see something as self defence but others see it as aggression – it matters. Even if their construction of events is something we would not recognise, their understanding must be understood and taken seriously and addressed. The bible is clear that God does not intervene in history – the story of the talking donkey shows how the bible views such intervention – but it is equally clear that the choices people make, whether they fully understand the situation or are in apparent ignorance of it, have real effects in the world. It is up to us, as it was to Balaam, to make the choices God would wish us to make, or we may find that the situation is taken out of our hands and we will lose the chance to make good choices and bring the will of God into our world. How then will curses be turned into blessings?

previously published on lbc.ac.uk