This week’s parsha contains within it one of Torah’s rare attempts at comedy. The Moabite king Balak hires Balaam, allegedly the world’s powerful sorcerer, to curse the people of Israel whose numbers intimidate Balak. Despite Balak offering him hefty payment for his work Balaam initially balks, for God comes to Balaam and tells him not to go with Balak and his people: “you must not curse that people, for they are blessed.” So Balak sends more powerful, persuasive dignitaries and offers more money. Again, Balak refuses, saying: “I could not do anything, big or little, contrary to the command of Adonai my God.” God once again comes to Balaam but says, “you may go with these men … but whatever I command you, that you shall do.” Soon we meet a talking donkey – one powerful enough in her own right to see an angel of God blocking her path. Through the donkey God speaks to Balaam, startling Balaam on his journey.
Eventually, this comedy of errors results in the people Israel being blessed three times instead of cursed. And among the blessings offered to the people Israel is the well-known prayer in our daily liturgy, Ma Tovu: “How fair are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings O Israel!” The parsha implies that Balaam did not have control over what came out of his own mouth; that it was God directing the show right from the start. Balaam’s blessings were therefore predetermined by God who stated to Balaam right from the start that this was a people who was already blessed.
While this parsha is a joy to read and re-read year after year, there is a poignant, often overlooked side to it that begs to be paid attention to. Right from the start, God is in control. God tells Balaam how everything will play out. God controls the donkey. In Balaam’s final monologue, he cries out: “who can survive except [when] God has willed it?” While this idea of an omnipotent, omnipresent deity is still en vogue in many communities today, many of us struggle with the idea of a God who knows, sees, and controls all. We question the idea of a God who has already laid out our futures, particularly when those futures take some unfortunate and tragic twists and turns.
And so – I believe parshat Balak is meant to push us: to question and wrestle, to think deeply about control and power, to examine and evaluate our own perceptions of God and God’s presence in our human lives and our visions of curses and blessings in the modern day.
And, yes – it’s meant to give us a few laughs, too.
Rabbi Jaclyn Cohen