The Torah parasha this week is named after a non-Israelite king, Balak, who decides that the Israelite tribes are a threat to his people, the Moabites. So King Balak hires Balaam ben Be’or, a soothsayer and prophet, to go and deliver a curse on the Israelites (Numbers 22: 5-7). Balaam accepts the gig; he and his talking donkey become two of the most comical or mysterious characters in the whole Torah. The G-dcast storyteller this week, Rabbi Andrew Shapiro Katz, formerly of San Francisco and now residing with his wife and growing family in Be’er Sheva, Israel, has given us a shorter-than-usual and very provocative commentary on this parasha.
Makes sense, doesn’t it? That the only way to “explain” a talking donkey is to imagine that Balaam projects a piece of himself, some intuition coming from his “gut,” right into the mouth of his donkey. It gets even better… Balaam ends up having a conversation with his donkey, almost the way you sometimes get two parts of yourself arguing with each other (on the one hand….but on the other hand…). There is also some medical evidence that the very same cells that formed our brains when we were in our embryonic and then fetal state also formed the organs associated with our gut, such as our intestines. For more on brain gut, you can read this.
The donkey stops because he sees God’s messenger in the path in front of him, forbidding him to continue onward. And Balaam just beats him for that — witness their absurd interaction in chapter 22 verses 28-30. When Balaam himself finally hears the voice of God’s messenger, he changes direction, both metaphorically and physically.
The King and his for-hire prophet end up discussing the parameters of the instructions to curse Israel. The prophet realizes, after several encounters with the Holy One of Israel, that he cannot go against the powerful Lord of the Hebrew tribes. He knows he is going against his contract, but he ends up actually blessing the Israelites with the words…
“How goodly are your tents oh Jacob, your dwellings oh Israel!”
Mah tovu Ohalekha Ya’akov; mish’k'notekha, Yisra’el!
— Numbers 24:5
…which appear in a lengthy poem of praise to the Israelites. This phrase has entered our liturgy, part of the opening morning prayers, every day…. Amazing, huh?
To recap: religiously observant Jews in the 21st century recite a line of poetry, now part of the daily prayers, ascribed to a pagan prophet whose story was captured in the Bible, dating back to perhaps the 8th century before the common era (BCE).
The story ends with King Balak being very angry. More poetry is exchanged, and, in the end, the prophet Balaam goes home and the King goes back to his despair and his wrath, never having achieved his goals of cursing the Israelites.
Chapter 25 has one more story: how the Israelites, who had just been blessed and praised by a foreign prophet, have resumed their naughty behaviors, in imitation of their pagan neighbors. And what is the crime? They go “whoring with the daughters of Moab.” They begin to engage in the cultic and sexual activities related to the worship of Baal Pe’or. Of course this behavior is not acceptable to God, and so Moshe/Moses tells his chiefs to impale the wrong-doers so that the people can be saved from idolatry.
One of these leaders, a member of the priestly tribe and the grandson of Aaron, is Pinchas/Phineas, a hyper-energized zealot who takes a spear in his hand and stabs an Israelite man, Zimri, son of Salu, chieftain of the Simeonite tribe. Zimri is caught in flagrante delicto (Latin for “in blazing offense,” sometimes used colloquially as a euphemism for someone caught red-handed in sexual activity) while engaged in sexual intercourse with Cozbi, daughter of Zur, a Midianite chief. She is a princess and he is the son of a chief of one of the Tribes of Israel; these are not your average schleppers, and the fact that their lineage is mentioned means that they are prominent and well regarded, until now. Seems that God wanted to make an example of God’s utter intolerance of the alliances and intermarriages between the Midianites and the Israelites, despite the fact that in a previous generation, Moshe/Moses married Tzipporah, a Midianite, daughter of Yitro/Jethro, the beloved priest of Midian.
The attitudes of the Israelites towards assimilation and interchanges with their neighbors vacillate and change with the times… In some generations intimacy seems to have been more or less OK, and at other times completely forbidden. Do you think that vacillation exists today as well? How have attitudes towards intermarriages between races and religions changed over the past several generations?
Let’s end with an 18th century poem by Robert Burns, who sees a glorious exit to this world in the example of Zimri and Cozbi:
I murder hate by flood or field,
Tho’ glory’s name may screen us;
In wars at home I’ll spend my blood -
Life-giving wars of Venus.
The deities that I adore
Are social Peace and Plenty;
I’m better pleased to make one more,
Than be the death of twenty.
I would not die like Socrates,
For all the fuss of Plato;
Nor would i with Leonidas,
Nor yet would i with Cato:
The zealots of the church and state
Shall ne’er my mortal foe be;
But let me have bold Zimri’s fate,
Within the arms of Cozbi!