“He spoke up and said, ”Is it not so that whatever God puts in my mouth,
I must take heed to speak?” (Numbers 23:12)
Parashat Balak is a good example of distinguishing between the Torah’s message and the Torah’s method. The parasha (portion) tells the story of the Moabite king Balak’s fear of the Israelites. Balak hires Bilam, a known prophet, to curse the Israelites. Bilam blesses the Israelites instead, thwarting Balak’s plan and leaving us with some beautiful Biblical poetry that is included in the daily liturgy as the Ma Tovu prayer. The story highlights God’s supremacy and does so in a most artful way.
A central element in the story is the exchange between Bilam and his donkey, as he attempts to ride to Moab to meet with Balak. Jacob Milgrom (1923–2010; a prominent American rabbi and Biblical scholar)
notes that Bilam, who is a seer, is blind to the angel positioned in the road. Bilam, who is supposed to use his words to curse the Israelites, can’t even control his donkey with a stick. Bilam, who claims God puts words into his mouth, can’t get the better of his donkey in a debate. Bilam, who claims “his knowledge is from the most high” (Num.22:38) is forced to admit he didn’t know (Num. 22:34). Bilam, who is supposedly the wisest of the wise, loses a debate to a donkey, the dumbest of animals.
This episode, however, is central only with regard to literary technique, because it is independent of the larger plot (cursing/blessing the Israelites). It uses irony to humiliate Bilam and to show how powerless he is to influence history: only God can do that. The message of God’s power is consistent throughout the Torah. What changes is how the Torah delivers that message.
Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom