Thursday, June 24, 2010

Balaam and Abraham / Parshat Balak

When visitors arrive at our house, the dog barks wildly in excitement, causing an irritating distraction. Imagine if he barked in English! Now that would cause a fascinating distraction. Similarly, the talking donkey of Balaam causes a huge distraction to those who enter this week’s narrative in parshat Balak. Too often we get stuck on the remarkable talking donkey and miss other aspects of the story.

If we set aside the donkey for a moment, we find resonances of Abraham, and particularly of the Akedah (the Binding of Isaac). The Akedah is a troubling tale, however we interpret it. That Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his child on an altar horrifies us. That God would require it – either as a test or as a genuine sacrifice – perhaps horrifies us more. How do we resolve the tension created by a man whose trust in God is so complete that he cannot locate the boundary between following God’s moral dictates, and committing an egregious act of murder?

Throughout, the story of Balaam, the prophet of Moab who is on the take, evokes that of Abraham, the first prophet of Israel who gives up family and homeland to follow God. The resonances between their stories beg us to compare them.

Balak, king of Moab says: “For I know that he whom you bless is blessed indeed, and he whom you curse is cursed” (Number 22:6). When God first commands Abraham (still Avram) to leave Haran, God says, “Go forth from your land, your birthplace, your father’s house, to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and it shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse those who curse you; through you all the families of the earth shall be blessed(Genesis 12:3). The prophet with the power to bless and curse has met up with the descendants of the man who holds God’s special blessing in this regard.

Abraham responds to God’s command (most notably and frighteningly in the Akedah, the binding of Isaac). Balaam lacks Abraham’s proactive desire to do God’s bidding, but affirms his inability to violate God’s will (Numbers 22:18).

When God commands Abraham to offer Isaac as a sacrifice, we are told va’yashkeim Avraham ba-boker va-yachavosh et chamoro (Abraham arose early in the morning and saddled his donkey – Genesis 22:3). Of Balaam, we are told va’yakom Balaam ba-boker va’yachavosh et atono (Balaam got up early in the morning and saddled his donkey – Numbers 22:21). The language is nearly identical. Like Abraham, Balaam took two servants with him, again employing nearly identical language: sh’nei na’arav ito (Genesis 22:4); sh’nei na’arav imo (Numbers 22:22).

I even hear echoes of the Akedah in the verses that follow, with their short clipped phrases and generous use of verbs, reinforced by the trop (cantillation):
There Abraham built an altar
And arranged the wood
And bound his son Isaac
And placed him on the altar atop the wood.
Abraham reached out his hand
And took the knife to slaughter his son. (Genesis 22:9-10)

The donkey saw an angel of God standing in the way,
It’s sword drawn in its hand.
The donkey swerved from the path
And went out into the field
And Balaam beat the donkey to turn her back to the road. (Numbers 22:23-24)
Abraham carries a ma’achelet (knife) while the angel of God wields a chereb (sword). Abraham’s knife is intended to sacrifice Isaac; the angel’s sword prevents Balaam from being delivered to the appointed spot where he can curse Abraham and Isaac’s progeny, sacrificing them to machinations of Balak.

Both Abraham and Balaam are stopped by an angel of God. Neither is permitted to complete his intended devastating act.

Perhaps our Rabbis meant us to connect these stories, because they identified both the ram that Abraham ultimately sacrificed, and the donkey that spoke to Balaam, as being among ten special aspects of creation prepared on the eve of the first shabbat. In fact, they are the only two animals on the list:
Ten things were created on the eve of the Sabbath at twilight: the mouth of the earth [that swallowed Korach and his followers], the mouth of the well [of Miriam], the speech of the donkey [of Balaam], the rainbow, the manna, the rod [of Moses in Egypt], the Shamir [a legendary worm that cut through stone], the script [writing on the tablets], the writing instrument [with which the tablets were inscribed], the tablets. (Pirke Avot 15:8)
Ultimately, Balaam blesses Israel with a magnificent blessing that echoes Abraham:
Who can count the dust of Jacob
Number the dust-cloud of Israel? (Numbers 23:10)

God now said to Avram, after lot had parted from him, “…I will make your descendants like the dust of the earth. Only if one can count the dust of the earth will it be possible to count your descendants…” (Genesis 13:14-17)
Ironically, the morally degenerate prophet of Moab confirms the blessing of descendants of Abraham. Balaam’s story evokes that of Abraham, but also runs counter to it in this essential point: Balaam never sets out to do God’s will, as Abraham consistently does; he simply cannot violate God’s will. While Balaam seeks to avoid God’s wrath, Abraham is dedicated to walking God’s path. In that, there is a world of difference. Where are we?

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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