Parashat Balak / A Book for All Peoples

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“Balaam and His Ass,” by Rembrandt (1626).

In Pirkei Avot, Rabbi Akiva makes three interesting statements. The first is of a universal nature: “Man is beloved; thus he was created in God’s image.” Rabbi Akiva then focuses on Israel’s uniqueness, as compared with other nations: “Israel is beloved; thus, that nation is called God’s children.” He goes on to explain: “Israel is beloved; thus, God gave them a splendid, much beloved instrument. Israel is especially beloved; thus, God gave them a splendid, much beloved instrument with which the world was created, as it is written: ‘For I give you good doctrine; forsake ye not my teaching’ [Proverbs 4:2]” (Pirke Avot 3:14).

Thus, Israel’s advantage over the rest of the world’s nations lies in the fact that God gave Israel the Torah, the unique instrument that he used to create the world and which he gave his nation for safekeeping.

However, as Menachem Hirschman points out in his book (in Hebrew) “Torah for the Entire World: A Universalist School of Rabbinic Thought,” Rabbi Akiva’s view is in marked contrast with that of Rabbi Ishmael, whose position is articulated, for example, in Mechilta de-Rabbi Ishmael: “Why did God grant Israel the Torah in the desert, of all places?” it asks, before immediately answering: “It is written: ‘they encamped in the wilderness’ [Exodus 19:2]. The Torah was given freely and publicly.

“Had it been given in the Land of Israel, the rest of the world’s nations would have been told by Israel: ‘None of you has any right to the Torah.’ For that reason, God granted Israel the Torah freely and publicly in a place that belongs to no one. Thus, any person who wants to accept the Torah can come and receive the Torah” (Mechilta Devachodesh 1).

God grants the Torah in the wilderness to counter the kind of arguments Rabbi Akiva presents above. Since the Torah is a universal gift to the entire world, God presents it in the most public place of all – a place that belongs to no one. Had he granted it in the Land of Israel, states Mechilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, the other nations would have been told by Israel: “None of you has any right to the Torah.” Israel would have claimed exclusive rights to it.

Rabbi Ishmael’s midrash continues: “Could the Torah have been granted at night? No, because it is written: ‘And it came to pass on the third day, when it was morning’ [Exod. 19:16]. Could the Torah have been granted in silence? The Torah states, ‘there were thunders and lightnings’ [19:16]. Is it possible that they could not hear the thunder? No, it is written in the Torah, ‘And all the people perceived the thunderings’ [20:14]. Furthermore, it is written in the Bible: ‘the voice of the Lord is full of majesty’ [Psalms 29:4]. The evil Balaam told his followers: ‘The Lord will give strength unto His people’ [Ps. 29:11]; they shouted, “the Lord will bless his people with peace.’”

God planned the granting of the Torah so as to prevent any human being from declaring that he had no knowledge of that act: in the daytime rather than at night, in a loud voice rather than in silence. Furthermore, the Torah even points out that the entire world could see the thunder.

These midrashic passages emphasize that the Torah belongs to everyone and serve as counter-arguments refuting the hypothetical claim: “Why did God grant the Torah just to Israel and not to us?” The purpose of the homilies in Michilta de-Rabbi Ishmael is to prove that God did allow all of humanity to partake of the Torah – and yet the world’s nations apparently did not want it to be part of their lives.

The above homily goes beyond just stating that the world refused to accept the Torah, and links a series of legends to this week’s Torah portion (Parashat Balak, Numbers 22:2 – 25:9). The evil Balaam is a genuine prophet and, according to legend, enjoys as high a status as Moses – if not a higher one. He is presented in the Michilta as sitting together with his adherents and citing the Book of Psalms.

Psalms 29 describes God’s mighty power: His voice thunders over vast quantities of water, he smashes the Cedars of Lebanon and has them dance as if they were a calf: He “shaketh the wilderness of Kadesh,” and “maketh the hinds to calve and strippeth the forests bare” (Ps. 29:8-9).

However, as if to create an antithesis to God’s description as a deity that rules all of nature and controls all its energies – the conclusion of this psalm is that the divine power seems to be transferred to the Children of Israel: “The Lord will give strength unto his people; the Lord will bless his people with peace.”

In this midrash, Balaam is seated among his followers and, in response to God’s desire to grant the Torah to all human beings, he cites the verse that sums up Psalms 29. It is as if Balaam is saying to God, “Thank you very much, but please grant your strength to your nation, not to me and my followers.” Those followers bolster his declaration by reciting the second half of the verse: “the Lord will bless his people with peace” – that is, his people and not Balaam’s followers.

This unusual myth constitutes an important aspect of the sages’ effort to grapple with the anti-Jewish hatred they personally experience. What is the meaning of the basic difference that the sages, who are persecuted by the Romans for merely being Jewish, sense as existing between themselves and the rest of the world? Rabbi Akiva argues that God chose Israel over all other nations, bestowing the Torah his people so as to distinguish and separate them from their surroundings.

However, the gap the sages sense with respect to the reality of their lives is apparently the result of God’s plan. The Mechilta’s reply is the complete reverse: The difference was created not by God but rather by the world’s nations – through Balaam and his followers. It is those peoples that have isolated Israel. God seeks to grant the Torah to anyone who wishes to receive it. However, the rest of the world refuses to accept it and Israel remains, living in solitude.

When Balaam seeks to curse Israel, he finds himself blessing them instead; he therefore declares: “How shall I curse, whom God hath not cursed? And how shall I execrate, whom the Lord hath not execrated? For from the top of the rocks I see him, and from the hills I behold him: lo, it is a people that shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations. Who hath counted the dust of Jacob, or numbered the stock of Israel? Let me die the death of the righteous, and let mine end be like his!” (Numbers 23:8-10).

For the first time since Israel left Egypt in the Exodus, the reader is given the privilege of seeing how the Israelite camp might look to an outsider who views it from the top of rocks and hilltops. Israel dwells on its own and its presence is negligible in the eyes of the gentiles. For his part, Balaam exalts the Israelites as a large nation, offering the prayer that his fate will be like Israel’s.

There is no reason why there should not be a gap between the sages’ image of Balaam as a gentile prophet, and his image as it emerges from a generally straightforward reading of Parashat Balak. However, if we assume that the Mechilta’s author took into account Balaam’s parable in this week’s portion, Balaam’s image as reflected in the Mechilta might provide another dimension to his prayer.

Although he himself single-handedly created Israel’s isolation at the time God granted Israel the Torah at Mount Sinai, when refusing to accept the Torah and requesting that God “give strength unto His people” – Balaam finds himself in this week’s reading looking at Israel’s isolated camp from above, and declares that he envies Israel’s fate.