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07/03/2018 11:16:00 AM


Maharat Ruth Balinsky Friedman

I Don't Really Care, Do You?
Balak, 5778

We are all familiar with the saying “If a tree falls in the forest and there’s nobody there to hear it, does it make a sound?” If I were to adapt it to this week’s parsha, I would ask “If a Moabite king hires a random prophet to go and curse the Israelites but blessings come out instead, and it has no ostensible impact on the Israelites, do we really need to devote an entire parsha to it?”

This is an important question to ask. In order to answer questions about a text, we look further into it. But when we look deeper into the Bilam story all we find are more questions. Who is this random prophet? Why does he get to talk to God? Why does he ask God a second time if he can go with Balak? Why does God change God’s mind and say it’s ok to go? And once he goes, why does God get angry? And what’s up with the talking donkey? The questions can go on and on.

Normally when we have questions we seek answers. I spent much of this week looking for an answer, which I will propose in a moment. But first I want to think about Bilam’s character.

Perhaps one of the oddest things in the story is how it portrays Bilam. The text doesn’t really guide us on how to think about him. A few chapters later, however, the Torah tells us something very bad about him - that he led the Israelites to sin with Baal Peor, which happens at the end of this parsha. His fate as a bad person is sealed pretty quickly for us, and most of the rabbinic texts, with a couple of exceptions, talk about him as a prime example of a rasha, or wicked person.

We see this most prominently in the ways that our rabbis frequently compare Bilam to Avraham. Some of us may be familiar with the parallels between Avraham and the akeidah, and Bilam in our story. They come from the same place. They are both sources of blessings, and curses, when God tells Avraham that he will be blessed and those who curse him will be cursed. God tells them each to do something and then in the morning they both wake up and saddle their donkeys and go with two servants. Some of us may be familiar with the midrash that teaches that the fact that Avraham saddled his own donkey is an example of ahava mekalkelet et ha shura - love confounds, or confuses, the mind. Avraham was filled with such love of God that he did it himself rather than have a servant do it. The gemara in Sanhedrin 105b contrasts Avraham with Bilam, who also wakes up the next morning and saddles his own donkey, even though he has servants who should be doing it instead. They argue that as wonderful and filled with love that Avraham is, Bilam is his opposite, who is filled with hatred for the God and the Israelites.

I appreciate the point this gemara is making, however, I think it is a bit misleading to characterize Bilam as hating. I think the key to Bilam is that in a story that is full of questions, Bilam never asks a single one. He doesn’t feel anything. He doesn’t care at all about anything. He does whatever God tells him. He never asks a question. He is like a hitman - a curser for hire. He does not ask, he does not challenge. He just does whatever he is told. He has no ability to think for himself. 

We see this most clearly in the incident with the donkey, which is a story within a story. Talya Levisohn made a great point about this at camp this week. When God opens the donkey’s mouth she doesn’t say hey you, there’s a man with a sword right in front of us! Instead she asks Bilam a question - haven’t I always been your loyal donkey, she asks? Don’t you think there’s a reason I’ve moved these three times? It’s the type of question that we would ask kids in school to teach them critical thinking. Something seems strange, she asks - why do you think that could be? She’s not trying to get Bilam to focus on the facts, she’s trying to get him to think, and to ask questions. Her efforts don’t work because he just responds to God if you want me to go home, I’ll go home. He still doesn’t take any responsibility for anything he’s doing. He still doesn’t ask a question.

To return to the question of - why do we have this incredibly long nonsensical story that doesn’t even have any direct impact on the Israelites? I believe that is because it teaches us a very important lesson about what it means to be a leader, and what it means to be a Jew. Traditionally we compare Bilam to Avraham at the akeidah. But I actually think that the comparison is more apt when we compare Bilam to Avraham when God tells him about the plan to destroy Sodom. Avraham fights back! He’s told that a people will be destroyed, and he argues! He negotiates! He doesn’t act like Bilam and just say “ok sure whatever you say.” He thinks!

We have archaeological evidence that Bilam was a known prophet for hundreds of years in the region surrounding Israel. It’s inevitable that we would question at some point how there could be a non-Jewish prophet who can talk to God. How could we ever live up to that? And why even follow Moshe and the Torah if there are other people talking with God as well? I believe that this story is in the Torah to teach us that even though Bilam spoke with God, he was majorly flawed. Because he was a blank slate, and he never asked any questions. He just did what he was told. And that is a waste of his gift, and deems him unworthy. 

Many of us are familiar with Elie Wiesel’s quote “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.” Bilam is the opposite of Avraham’s love not because he is full of hate, but because he is fundamentally indifferent. He doesn’t care, he doesn’t ask questions, he just does what he’s told. By including this immense story in the Torah, God is teaching us that this is not what God wants. The ability to talk with God, that connection, is worthless if you don’t use it to ask. To be a leader, and to be a Jew, is not to mindlessly submit to authority and do what we are told. We are always supposed to ask, to always challenge authority, even if that authority is God. 

Mon, July 13 2020 21 Tammuz 5780