Sometimes it is hard to see what is right in front of us.
This is a lesson that the prophet Balaam learns in this week’s parashah called Balak. Balaam is the protagonist of an odd story. Balak, king of Moab, hires Balaam, a non-Israelite prophet, to place a curse upon the Israelites, whom Balak views as a serious threat. Balaam tries to refuse this assignment, but Balak is persuasive, even sending notable dignitaries to bring Balaam back to him.
Balaam is riding his donkey on his way to meet up with Balak. God, who at first says to Balaam, “Sure, go visit Balak” decides that Balaam made the wrong decision to go. God sends an adversary, an angelic figure to block the path upon which the donkey meanders. Every time the donkey tries to move around the angel, Balaam gets enraged at the donkey and beats her with a stick. Three times. The donkey can see what is in front of her-this angelic adversary blocking her path. However, Balaam cannot. It isn’t until the donkey opens her mouth and speaks to Balaam that God, too, opens Balaam’s eyes; he sees the angelic adversary who points out the folly of his mission. Balaam, nevertheless, still goes to see Balak.
Even though Balaam knows and tells Balak that any prophesy he utters will be the word of God, and that God won’t let him curse the Israelites, Balak still thinks Balaam will do the job.
Three times Balaam tries to utter a curse against the Israelites and each time words of blessing flow from his mouth.
Part of Balaam’s failure was his inability to see what was in front of him. He should’ve known that even listening to Balak’s appeal was wrong. A prophet speaks the word of God; a true prophet is also reluctant to take on this role. Balaam wasn’t reluctant. He was eager; he used omens and divination to bring forth messages from God. God did speak through Balaam, but not in the same way God spoke to the prophets of our people. The truer prophesy, that which was done for noble and moral purposes, was reserved for the great ones of later years, such as Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel.
Balaam could’ve avoided the spectacle that he initiated through his multiple attempts to curse which instead resulted in blessing. However, in trying to curse, a real lesson came through. God is protecting the Israelites throughout their journey. God won’t let others curse God’s people. And those who try, like Balaam, will fail to thwart the Israelites’ forward progress.
Opening our eyes to what is right and wrong is a core human value. Making decisions that lead to blessings-not curses-is our task. Being able to recognize the angels blocking way is our goal. May we always see ministering angels guide us and may we be open to sharing the blessings that they encourage us to offer.
Rabbi Charles K. Briskin