Parashat Balak / Blessings in Disguise

Balaam describes the Israelite camp 'as cedars beside the waters' – however, a cedar can be uprooted. Thus, what comfort can be found in the gentile prophet's words, praising Israel's dwelling?

Yakov Z. Meyer
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'An Angel Met Balaam with a Sword,' illustration from 'Bible Pictures and What They Teach Us,' by Charles Foster (1897).
'An Angel Met Balaam with a Sword,' illustration from 'Bible Pictures and What They Teach Us,' by Charles Foster (1897).
Yakov Z. Meyer

When the gentile prophet Balaam sees that it pleases “the Lord to bless Israel” (Numbers 24:1), he describes Israel’s dwellings in the desert, in this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Balak (Numbers 22:2-25:9): “How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob, thy dwellings, O Israel! As valleys stretched out, as gardens by the river-side; as aloes planted of the Lord, as cedars beside the waters” (Num. 24:5-6).

The sages made strenuous efforts to turn the ambivalent, complex Balaam into the epitome of evil. However, they had a problem: What could they do after the lavish words of praise uttered by Balaam regarding the Israelite settlement in the midst of the desert? In an effort to cast aspersions on the prophet, the sages compare his remarks with those of a Jewish prophet, Ahijah, who prophesies a grim future for Jeroboam, the first king of post-Solomonic Israel, and his family.

“[Ahijah declares:] ‘For the Lord will smite Israel, as a reed is shaken in the water’ [1 Kings 14:15]. This is a blessing, as Rabbi Samuel, son of Nahmani, and Rabbi Jonathan have said, ‘Faithful are the wounds of a friend; but the kisses of an enemy are importunate’ [Proverbs 27:6]. Thus, Ahijah’s statement is not as bad as the evil Balaam’s blessing of Israel. Ahijah curses Israel, comparing the kingdom to a reed, but this is actually a blessing, because a reed is surrounded by water; it constantly renews itself and has numerous roots. Even the strongest wind cannot uproot the reed, which simply bends in the winds; when they stop it is still standing.”

The sages continue: “The evil Balaam blesses Israel, comparing the nation to a cedar, as it is written, ‘as cedars beside the waters.’ But this is actually a curse. A cedar is not surrounded by water, it does not renew itself, has few roots and a strong wind from the south can uproot it’” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Taanit, page 20a).

The above midrash sets up a literary comparison between the figures of Balaam and Ahijah. Whereas Ahijah ostensibly curses Israel, declaring that its kingdom’s fate will be like that of a reed in the wind – Balaam ostensibly blesses Israel, comparing it to a mighty cedar standing on a river bank. In this midrash, the two comparisons are analyzed in terms of a verse from Proverbs, which is interpreted as meaning that the “wounds” (or, curses) inflicted by a loved one are preferable (that is, they are, in fact, blessings) to the “blessings” offered by an enemy (which are actually). The reed is flexible and can withstand strong winds, whereas the cedar can be toppled by them. Thus, the sages turn Balaam’s blessing into a curse.

The sages’ parable of the reed and the cedar is simple and logical, and became popular among homilists. Its context indicates, however, that it has a specific intention: It is the fourth and last segment in a series of midrashim delivered by Rav Judah, which include the following parts:

“(1) It is written, ‘Jerusalem is among them as one unclean [like a wife whose menstrual blood renders her impure]’ [Lamentations 1:17]. Rav Judah said: This is actually a blessing. Jerusalem is like a menstruating wife: Just as she is, after a certain time, again permitted to her husband for the purpose of relations, similarly Jerusalem will once again be permitted – that is, it will be rebuilt and reinhabited by Israel.”

“(2) It is written: ‘How is she [Jerusalem after its destruction] become as a widow’ [Lam. 1:1]. Rav Judah said: This is actually a blessing. The text reads ‘as a widow.’ In other words, Jerusalem is not a widow in the strictest sense of the term, but is simply like a woman whose husband has traveled to distant lands and intends to return to her.

“(3) It is written: ‘Therefore have I also made you contemptible and base before all the people’ [Malachi 2:9]. Rav Judah said: This is actually a blessing. Since you will be contemptible and base, no one will draft you to serve as tax collectors or as soldiers.’” In each of the four midrashim, Rav Judah cites the biblical text that has a meaning that runs counter to its literal reading. In the first verse from Lamentations, where the destroyed Jerusalem is compared to a wife experiencing menses, Rav Judah sees clear proof that Jerusalem will arise from the ashes and be rebuilt, just as the wife who is menstruating and is therefore ritually unclean will not be in this state permanently but will, after the required number of days, again be permitted to lie with her husband.

In the second verse from Lamentations, Rav Judah focuses on the phrasing “as a widow,” concluding that Jerusalem is in essence only a woman with the same status as a widow. Jerusalem’s “husband,” God, is not dead but has simply traveled abroad. He is like a husband who is in temporary exile but who has every intention of returning.

From Malachi’s prophecy, according to which Israel will be “contemptible and base” in the eyes of the world’s nations, Rav Judah draws a large measure of comfort. Since the Jews will be looked upon with contempt by the gentile world, they will at least not be recruited as tax collectors or soldiers.

In the first three instances, Rav Judah finds fragments of hope with regard to the eventual fate of the now-exiled Jewish nation. This exile is only a temporary situation: God will one day redeem Israel, and his children are at least not to be forced to assume powerful positions in the regime of the Roman occupier.

In light of the first three midrashim described here, we can now understand the essence of the fourth concerning the reed and the cedar. Rav Judah’s intention is not to teach his readers to be flexible, along the lines of the saying, “One should always strive to be a flexible reed rather than a mighty cedar” (Tractate Taanit, page 20b) – which is the interpretation that Rabbi Elazar, citing Rabbi Simeon, offers concerning the images of the reed and the cedar, a few lines later in the Taanit.

Rather, Rabbi Judah finds solace in the ostensible curse of Ahijah: Although Israel after the destruction of its kingdom – Rabbi Judah is referring, of course, to the destruction that has only recently taken place in his generation, meaning the destruction of the Second Temple – is in pain and in anguish, the Jewish nation is like a reed whose flexibility allows it to survive even the strongest winds.

The four midrashim presented by Rabbi Judah thus constitute a coherent, comprehensive theological response to the destruction of the Second Temple. According to Rabbi Judah, the destruction of this holy site represents a “softer” interpretation of the prophecies of doom addressed to Israel in the Bible. He is able to draw hope from these prophecies, despite their dire tone.

We can now understand Rabbi Judah’s anger at the ostensible words of blessing uttered by Balaam in this week’s Torah portion. Balaam describes the Israelite camp “as cedars beside the waters” – however, a cedar can be uprooted. Thus, what comfort can be found in the gentile prophet’s words, praising Israel’s dwellings, “How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob, thy dwellings, O Israel!”? Such words are sadly ironic in view of the fact that the dwellings now lie in ruins.

The Temple’s destruction changes the very essence of Balaam’s words. Whereas his blessing is actually a curse, Ahijah’s curse is actually a blessing: Israel is as a reed whose flexibility enables it to survive those who seek to destroy it. We must focus on the cracks in Balaam’s ostensible blessings and the rays of hope in Ahijah’s ostensible curse if we want to understand the underdog-oriented literary structure that Rabbi Judah erects.