By Shlomo Riskin
Who controls the fortune and destiny of nations? Does the ebb and flow of history turn nondescript, banal and ordinary individuals into great heroic personalities, or do those extraordinary heroes create for themselves the perfect historic opportunities to demonstrate their courage and heroism? Perhaps it is neither history that creates great leaders nor great leaders who create history, but rather God who plans and controls the various moves of His puppet-pawns on the great earthly chess board.
Or perhaps it is none of the above; perhaps there are certain soothsayers or magicians who know the secret formulae to manipulate God and change reality to conform to their evil designs. Or perhaps nations rise and fall due to the efforts of more benign, but no less dangerous, marketers for financial profit and personal political gain, who seize control of public opinion by painting certain peoples “black” and certain peoples “white,” media moguls who understand that the bigger the lie, the greater the credulity.
I believe that these are precisely the issues being dealt with in this week’s supernatural, comical, lyrical and prophetic portion of Balak. This portion follows the Israelite encampment on the plains of Moab and concludes just after the Israelites begin to behave immorally with the Moabite and Midianite women. Its narrative style is very different from most of the verses that precede and follow it; indeed, it could be removed from the Book of Numbers without affecting the storyline whatsoever.
Balaam enters the scene after the Israelites have gone through desert rebellions and reorganizations and finally seem to be succeeding in defeating several of the smaller Canaanite nations and preparing the next generation to enter the Land of Israel. The unasked question throughout the portion is who or what will ultimately be responsible for the success – or lack thereof – of the Israelite nation in history? Balak, the King of Moab, is in mortal fear of this new “power” on the block, which defeated the mighty Egyptians and seems to be “licking up everything around them.” (Numbers 22: 4) As they inch closer and closer to Moab and Midian, he convinces the elders of Midian to join him in hiring a voodoo soothsayer, Balaam, to curse and defeat Israel through his magic powers of the occult. Balaam informs them that he, too, is under the power of God, and that even he is not able to curse those who are blessed by God. He cannot even travel with them to observe the Israelites. However, he declines the job offer in such a way as to let his “clients” know that he will nevertheless attempt to manipulate God into allowing Israel to be cursed – and he does succeed in getting God to allow him to accompany the Moabite dignitaries.
At this point in the narrative, our sages declare that “God leads individuals in the path they wish to follow” (Makkot 10b) – so that if the evil voodoo man has chosen to curse, Israel shall indeed be cursed. But what follows is both comical and at the same time profound. Balaam saddles his donkey to travel with the Moabite king, but suddenly his donkey refuses to proceed, turning aside from the road and into the field. The donkey sees what the voodoo man has missed: God’s angel will not allow Balaam to come through; God’s angel is preventing the donkey from advancing with Balaam and Balak! The donkey then speaks, and, in so doing, demonstrates that speech is a gift from God. If God wishes a donkey to speak, it will speak; and if God wishes Israel to be blessed, Israel will be blessed. Speech, whether blessings or curses, can only come from God.
The venal, virulent voodoo man still tries to manipulate God. He and Balak attempt to bribe God with sacrifices to allow for the cursing of the Israelites, but to no avail. Instead, Balaam expresses the most magnificent of blessings: “This is a nation with the ability to dwell alone, which does not have to be counted amongst other nations…” (Numbers 23:9) “No black magic can be effective against Israel and no occult powers against Jacob…” (Ibid. 23:23) “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your tabernacles, O Israel…” (ibid. 24:5) “A star shall go forth from Jacob, and a ruling scepter from Israel…” (ibid. 24:17) “Israel shall emerge triumphant… in the end, Amalek will be destroyed forever.” (ibid. 24:19–20)
“With that, Balaam set out and returned home. Balak also went on his way” (ibid. 24:25). But this is not how the portion concludes. As Chapter 25 opens, the Israelites behave immorally with Moabite women, and a prince of the tribe of Simeon publicly fornicates with a Midianite princess. A horrific plague overtakes the Israelites and Israel seems to be vanquished until Phinehas and eventually Moses punishes the wrongdoers, thereby inspiring national repentance.
The message is clear. Israel is to be blessed – but only if we serve God (and not idols) and act morally and ethically. Israel’s success or lack of success is not dependent on voodoo men, black magic operators, even solely on God’s will; it is ultimately dependent on our own moral actions.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.