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Hukkat-Balak 5783           July 1, 2023

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom,

There are many topics to address in parshat Hukkat. The Israelites are on the road and ready to enter the Promised Land. They have to overcome many roadblocks. Miriam and Aaron, the siblings of Moses, both die in this Parsha. The people find themselves in need of water and Moses wills disobey God and strike a rock when he was told to just speak to it. Moses is punished by not being allowed into the Promised Land. Finally, the people arrive at Bet Peor, on the banks of the Jordon River. They seem ready to enter the land and conquer it.

But there are still roadblocks ahead. They are on the edge of the land of Moav, and Balak, the King of Moav, is not happy that they are there. Bnai Yisrael has defeated two of his rivals, Sichon and Og; Balak now worries that he will be conquered next. Going to war will be useless since those two other nations fought with Israel and lost. There must be another way to defeat them. Balak hires a mercenary “prophet” named Balaam to come and curse the People of Israel.

In a chapter that is almost comic in its story, God sends an angel with a sword to prevent Balaam from arriving in Moav. Balaam can’t see the angel, but his donkey can. Realizing the danger, the donkey does what it can to avoid the angel. Balaam thinks the donkey is being belligerent and beats the donkey to get him back on the path. After the third beating, the donkey speaks up and tell his rider to look up and see how the loyal donkey has been trying to save Balaam from being killed by the angel. Apparently even a donkey can see more than this so called prophet-for-hire. The angel warns Balaam to only say what God wants him to say; he must bless the people and not curse them. Only then does the angel let Balaam go on to Moav.

What is this story of a talking donkey all about?

The Talmud says that this talking donkey was one of the ten miraculous items created just before the first Shabbat. Modern commentators note that this is a common theme from folklore; a tree, bridge, or river that has a troll that prevents crossing. But Rabbi Jan Urbach, Director of The Block / Kolker Center For Spiritual Arts, in her D’var Torah, looks at this story from a very different point of view.

Rabbi Urbach notes that Balaam is from a place called “Petor” a word used in the Joseph stories to mean “interpreting a dream.” Balaam is thus from a place called “dreamland.” Who is doing the dreaming? This is a dream of Moses, and it speaks to his insecurities at this moment in his life.

Think about the position that Moses is in. His siblings have all died. He has been forbidden to enter the Promised Land with the people. Moses did not ask for this job because of his speech problems and he thought that his words would not be enough to free the slaves. He has faced every roadblock he could imagine. He has become angry and impatient with the people, the children of those whom he took out of Egypt. This new generation, Rabbi Urbach says, does not know about his role in Egypt and he knows that soon they will part ways as they enter the Promised Land.

Rabbi Urbach looks at the dialogue between Balaam and his donkey and sees it as a conversation between God and Moses.

 

Donkey: “Why have you beaten me?”
Balaam: “Because you mocked me. Would that I had a sword in my hand, for now I would kill you.”
Donkey: “Am I not your donkey that you have ridden forever until today? Have I been accustomed to do such a thing to you?” (
Num. 22:28–30)

Moses: “Why have you beaten me?”
God: “Because you failed to have faith in Me, and to sanctify Me publicly, therefore you will not bring this congregation into the Land.” (
Num. 20:12)
Moses: “Am I not Your servant that You have used forever until today? Have I been accustomed to do such a thing to You?”

 

Rabbi Urbach writes, “In other words, if the story of Balaam and Balak is actually Moses’s dream, it is a dream emerging from a crisis of faith: faith in himself, in the people, in God and God’s ways, and in the ability of human beings to connect, understand, and serve. It emerges from a fundamental anxiety: Not am I blessed or cursed, but am I bringing blessing or curse? Are my life and effort for the good? And reading it thus not only explains the bizarreness of the story, but opens important teachings for us.”

Many commentators note that Moses is disqualified from entering the land because he was supposed to speak to the rock but instead he struck the rock with his staff and in his anger berated the people who were in dire need of water. It seems like a rather small mistake, and they all wonder why the punishment is so great. What has happened is not a mistake or a misunderstanding of what God is asking of Moses. Moses has shown that he is not the leader who can lead these people into the new land. It is at this moment he asks himself if he has been a blessing or a curse to the people he is leading. As we all know, a lifetime of success can be wiped out by one tragic failure. Moses feels as if he has been tried and tried over and over and has always come through for the people but now, with this last test, a test he failed, Moses feels that his life will be defined by this one event.

“Am I not your faithful servant?” cries the donkey and Moses in his dream. With all that I have endured for your sake, will you beat me and cast me aside? This is the fear of Moses as played out in this fantasy dream. There will be a war with the king of Moav, and Israel will again score a decisive victory. But right now, Moses is plagued himself with insecurity and doubt. What are we to learn from this new reading, where Balaam and his donkey exist in Moses’s dreams.?

Rabbi Urbach writes: “First, by revealing the full humanity of Moses, with all of his doubts, fears, mixed motives, and anxieties, the Torah simultaneously offers comfort and conveys responsibility. We need not judge ourselves harshly for our own self-doubts and anxieties, but neither can we use them to excuse a failure to move forward. Such concerns and anxieties don’t disqualify us from leadership or service. On the contrary, self-doubt and introspection are hallmarks of authentic service; we should worry, instead, if we ourselves (or our putative leaders) lack such doubts.

Second, our parashah is no longer a story about a wicked man whose evil designs are thwarted by an interventionist God. Instead, it portrays righteousness as the courage to struggle with one’s dark side, to face one’s fears and doubts. If it is true that every character in a dream represents the dreamer, then God here is not a supernatural being but an aspect of Moses himself—the divine spark in him, able to illuminate his own inner challenges and impurities and to transform them.

At times we all are—or fear we are—Balaam. We have mixed motives, we get full of ourselves, or we are seduced by money and power. We push in the wrong directions, grasp at the wrong things, and sometimes fail to see what even an ass can see. We may doubt our ability to make a difference, doubt that good will ever triumph. But somehow—through our own efforts in confronting and managing the worst within ourselves, in combination with opening ourselves to being transformed in ways we can’t quite understand—somewhat mysteriously and in spite of ourselves, we may turn even our curses to blessings.”

Like all the characters in the Bible, Moses is just an ordinary human being, not so very different from you or me. We all have our successes and failures. But we are not defined by what we do, rather we are defined by what we learn in life and how we apply those lessons as we move forward. Often we can’t see where our efforts will lead. Sometimes success will only come years after we are gone. I am sure that all of us remember that moment in our lives, as we matured into young adults, where we realized the wisdom in all that our parents taught us. The moment where we finally understood who they were and why they did all that we once criticized in our immaturity. Now we also understand that our children and grandchildren will someday also realize the wisdom of what we tried to teach them. The seeds we planted in our family will someday take root and we will be remembered as a blessing in their lives.

Balaam is not some mercenary prophet trying to make a living through his oratory skills. He is the dream of Moses trying to turn the curses of his life into blessings. He will sum up the lessons of his life in the Book of Devarim that we will begin in just a few weeks. As the end of his life looms large, he will leave his legacy to the people he has led for 40 years.

Balaam is also our dream. We too think about our failures in life and wonder if our blessings outnumber our curses. Is Shakespeare correct when he writes in his play Julius Caesar “The evil that men do lives long after them, the good is often interred with their bones?” I think not. Moses had many failures, but he is remembered as the greatest prophet who ever lived. Memory is a funny thing; we remember only the good. Whatever failures that once existed are forgotten and only the lessons we have been taught remain.

Whatever our doubts and anxieties, we still have to move forward; we can’t let our insecurity hold us back. Right or wrong, as long as we are alive, we can learn from our experiences and leave them as a legacy to the next generation.

May God be with us as we live our lives as an example for those who will follow us, as we say:

Amen and Shabbat Shalom

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          

Mon, December 11 2023 28 Kislev 5784