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Parasha Balak Bamidbar (Num) 22:2-25:9

Shalom Brothers and Sisters,

The interaction of God and Balaam makes for very interesting and confusing reading. The story is familiar. Balak, king of Moav, is worried about Israel taking his land so he sends for Balaam so this prophet can come and pronounce a curse on Israel for him. Balaam comes and blesses Israel instead of cursing them, making Balak very upset. Within the story there is the well known incident of the donkey talking to Balaam, an event that doesn’t seem to surprise him one bit, he may as well have been talking to his servant instead of an animal. It is the interaction of God and Balaam that we are going to focus on however.

The story seems to make God out to be schizophrenic, or at least have a multiple personality disorder. When the men come from Balak with their gifts the first time God tells Balaam not to go with them...period, end of discussion. And they leave without him. Balak, not to be easily deterred from his perceived last hope, sends greater gifts through greater men. This time when Balaam asks God about it, God says sure, go ahead. Now that’s ok, everyone is entitled to change his mind but then God sends an angel to try to kill Balaam along the way, he is saved only by his donkey who can see the danger Balaam can’t. Now this doesn’t seem right, after all God told him to go and now he’s going to kill him for obeying?! The same thing happened to Moshe on the way to liberate Israel. When Balaam sees the angel he offers to go back but God now tells him to go again! This makes very little sense. What about the God who is the same yesterday, today and forever, the God who unlike a man does not change his mind, a God we can count on for direction and guidance? Balaam was following God’s direction and God nearly killed him for it! Is God mentally disturbed? Perhaps there are two of them and each one is giving conflicting messages!? Perhaps the story, the way we are reading it and our understanding of the characters in it are not accurate and they lead to such a misunderstanding. A rigid understanding of a personal God, someone like us with will and personality, someone who acts and chooses, it is this that complicates the story, and many of the stories in the Bible. It is not that they did not happen, it is just that our literal understanding of them with a fixed perception of God will leave us confused.

There is another way of understanding the story. It is not God who is schizophrenic, however, it is Balaam and he is struggling to make right choices and maintain his integrity in the face of temptation, as we all do. Balaam knows of Israel and as someone of his spiritual perception, he knows Balak doesn’t stand a chance. Israel has great power and nothing he does can affect it. As such, in the face of the initial offer he refuses. How can he accept gifts for a mission he knows will fail? It is the right thing to do. He listens to his ‘ma’, his gut, refusing to defile himself with the gifts. The second time, his mind overrides his ‘ma’ and with his eyes focused on the glitter of gold he justifies his action. “I’ll only speak what the ‘ma’ tells me and I can pocket some dough as well.” Rationalization is a wonderful thing, isn’t it. The ‘ma’ started crying out for attention, however, as the journey progressed. To the Israelite telling the story, it would seem as though his donkey had more sense than he did. The wrestling of his ‘ma’ and his mind seemed like it was going to be the death of him. The ‘ma’ won momentarily but then the ego, the ‘I’, looking at the gold and not wanting to look like a fool for turning back when he had come this far decided to progress. Once there he listened to his ‘ma’ and would not curse Israel and ended up without reward.

This is Balaam’s ‘torah’, his journey, and it is much like ours. We struggle with what our gut tells us and the justification for our ego’s contrary behavior all the time. It is not God who changes his mind, it is us. It is we who have the split personality. We have our mind/heart-that deceitful thing that rationalizes and justifies our lusts, lusts that bind us inhibiting our freedom, and the ‘ma’/gut that is attuned to the natural order of things and will lead us in the right path if we let it.