Friday, July 11, 2008

What A Warlock Wants:
A Balaq ShulDrasha

אפילו כלפי שמיא
Chutzpah —
audacity —
is effective
even against Heaven.
So says רב נחמן
in מסכת סנהדרין
of the Babylonian Talmud.

He learns this from בלעם,
in our פרשה;
for בלעם was told by God
to ignore the summons
of בלק, king of מואב —
the summons
to come curse בני־ישראל —
but בלעם
through sheer stubbornness,
through chutzpah,
got permission from God to go anyway.

According to רמב"ם, Maimonides,
in דלאלהׂׄ אלחאיٔרין
his Guide for the Perplexed,
to be a prophet
one first needs to be perfect
in learning
in wisdom
and in ethical behavior.

This does not sound at all
like the foreign prophet בלעם
in this week's פרשה.
(who, for example, beat his donkey for turning away from the road)

our Sages tell us
that בלעם was not a prophet at all.
In fact,
even though בלעם receives messages from God,
at no point
does the תורה
call him a prophet, a נביא, either.
Instead, he's called a קוסם —
an enchanter, or warlock.

בלעם was not a prophet —
a prophet's job
is to represent God on Earth;
to bring messages
of hope or warning
from On High.

was not
what he was known for.
בלק sent messengers multiple times
to summon בלעם
from hundreds of miles away —
not to teach God's will
to human beings;
and not to ask God for help
on their behalf —
but to curse.

Because that's
what בלעם was known for —
the use
of supernatural powers
for destructive purposes.

The 19th-century Italian commentator שד"ל,
,ר' שמואל דוד לוצאטו
wrote at great length
to prove that בלעם was not a prophet.
Even though he spoke with God,
he did not speak for God —
and very likely
did not even fully understand
to Whom he was speaking.

Even though he spoke with God,
he did not speak on behalf of God.
בלעם treated the Creator of Worlds
like a magic trick;
like some kind of paranormal mechanism.

He thought
that he could manipulate God
as he manipulated בלק's messengers
into offering him silver and gold.

we are told in פרקי אבות,
was grudging and greedy.
He was full of himself.
He wanted power,
and he believed
that he had the power
to bless and to curse,
to separate God from God's people
through magical means.

He thought
that his many sacrifices
would draw God
away from the Israelites,
leaving them undefended
from natural or supernatural attack.

Until God showed him
who's really in charge.
God took בלעם
this קוסם, this warlock
whose words dropped curses
like bombs —
and turned him into
a true prophet
whose words wove visions
of divine destiny.

And בלעם learned
that while he could not control God,
God could most certainly
control him.

בלעם wanted power
and he wanted glory;
he wanted the nations
of מואב and מדין
to shower him with riches
for cursing בני־ישראל.

And instead, God gave him power —
the power of true prophecy.

And hundreds of years later,
we gave him honor,
by opening our prayers with בלעם's own praise —
מַה טֹּבֿוּ אֹהָלֶיךָֿ יַעֲקֹבֿ מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶֿיךָֿ יִשְׂרָאֵל
“How good are your tents, Jacob;
your dwellings, Israel.”

And whereas
we call this week's Torah portion, בלעם's story,
by the name of פרשת בלק — after the king —
the Talmud in בבא־בתרא calls it
פרשת בלעם, or ספר בלעם;
and describes it
as its own independent book of scripture —
a book that משה wrote
along with, but separate from,
the תורה.

welcomed בלק's messengers into his home
wishing for honor.

He traveled with them
wishing for wealth.

And he sacrificed on the mountaintops
wishing for power.

But then
changed —
even if just for a short time —
from a warlock and a charlatan
to a true prophet of God.
He abandoned his נחשים,
his magic tricks and incantations,
and opened himself up
to experience God
and bring God's message
down to Earth.

There are two lessons
we can learn from בלעם.

Number one is:
Be careful
what you wish for.
You just might get it.

בלעם wished for power,
and God gave him power — of a completely different kind.

And number two is:
When you do get it,
and it's not what you were expecting —
lift up your eyes, like בלעם did,
and look out upon the wilderness,
the place of revelation;
and accept God's challenge
on God's own terms.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice drashah. It reminds me of the idea (I forget where from) that a beggar who pretends to be blind will be punished by becoming blind, a beggar who pretends to be lame will be punished by becoming lame and a beggar who pretends to be a tzaddik will be punished by becoming a tzaddik. Maybe Bilaam spent so long pretending to be a mystic that he was punished with a genuine mystical experience.

the Talmud… describes it as its own independent book of scripture

I have argued on my own blog that the story of Bilaam shows that the Torah is a complex literary work which deliberately uses different narrative styles and genres for its own purposes, (as opposed to the source critical view that such differences are the product of multiple authorship), but I had no idea that my idea had Talmudic support!

7/13/2008 12:20 PM  
Anonymous sister kayin said...


7/13/2008 10:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Miamonoides? Same as Moses ben Memon al kurtubi?

If so, a prodigious writer. Has even been translated into urdu. Not that those people would have much use for a clear-thinking man.

---Grant Patel

7/15/2008 3:27 PM  

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