Relating to the Divine
Parashat Balak contains the famous story of Balak, the king of Moab, who, fearing the approach of the children of Israel hires the prophet Bilaam to curse them. Commanded by God not to do so, Bilaam nevertheless eventually sets off on his journey. His donkey perceives an angel blocking their path, but Bilaam does not and begins to beat the donkey. The donkey then tells Bilaam of the angel. This story is not about talking animals, but rather an allegory for the ability of any of us, even a great prophet, to be blinded to truth. Even when Bilaam attempts to curse the people, his words (for a prophet speaks God’s truth) come out as a blessing of God. One of the blessings was placed at the beginning of our Siddur by the rabbis, to be said upon entering the synagogue in the morning: “How fair are your tents , O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel.” A major thrust of this parashah, coming at the end of our 40-year wandering in the wilderness, is God’s deep intention to fulfill the promise of Israel, to be a mighty nation in its land.
The inevitability of fulfillment of promise is not a carte blanche for wanton action, as hinted at by the concluding story of the parashah, in which our ancestors are led astray into idolatry. The consequent punishment teaches that a deeper code of behavior, or ethic, underlies the promise of inheritance. While that ethic is broadly taught through the mitzvot and the system of interpretation and application known as halakhah, the prophet Micah, whose words we read as the haftarah this Shabbat proscribe a concise teaching. “O mortal, what is it that God asks of you? To act justly,
to relate with loving kindness and to walk humbly with your God.”
Micah’s words beautifully encapsulate the essence of Judaism. The primary message of Torah is the pursuit of justice. Whether from Abraham, Moses or the later prophets, the foremost teaching is to provide equity among all, and to especially protect the poor, powerless and vulnerable. However, one should not apply justice harshly, but relate to all life (understood as God’s creation) with loving kindness.
Furthermore, one should remember one’s place within the universe, and “walk humbly with God”, that is, understand the divinity in the other and proceed with that sense of respect and humility. These simple maxims are far easier to write about than live daily, but their internalization is our challenge. Bilaam, a great prophet of God, could not perceive the truth his donkey did. However, that is no excuse for us not to respond to God’s call, as divinely expressed throughout the Torah and particularly by the prophet Micah.