Parashat Balak

No Rest(s) For The Wicked

Unlike Jewish prophets, Balaam was merely a mouthpiece for the word of God, not an active participant engaged in transmitting God's message to humanity.

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The following article is reprinted with permission from the Union for Reform Judaism.
According to the Rabbis, Balaam was one of seven non-Israelite prophets. (One list also includes Balaam's father, as well as Job and the four friends who came to "comfort" him. Another list includes Adam and Noah.) God does not speak only to Israel, but the Rabbis detect important differences in the way God speaks to Israelite prophets. R. Hama the son of R. Hanina said, "To the prophets of the world, the Holy One appears with half-speech only; but to the prophets of Israel, with complete speech, clear speech, affectionate speech."

We should like the prophecy of Balaam, as related in this week's Torah portion, Parashat Balak, because there is no reproof in it, only praise of Israel. How rarely do we find that in the words of Israelite prophets! And indeed, Balaam's words are the first to be recited when we enter a synagogue: "How fair are your tents, O Jacob,/Your dwellings, O Israel!" (Numbers 24:5) But something is missing.

If you look in a Torah scroll, you will see many breaks in the text, some at the end of a line (p'tuhah) and some in the middle of a line (s'tumah). There is a long tradition preserving these spaces, and scribes follow this tradition carefully. Just as the silence of rests is an important part of music, so, too, breaks in the Torah text (the absence of words) can be important clues to its interpretation. But Balaam's prophecy contains no such spaces.

prophet balaamThe Hafetz Hayyim (Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan, 1838-1933) asks why there are no breaks in this parashah as it is written in the Torah scroll. From Balak's initial alarm and commissioning of Balaam to curse Israel to the very end of Balaam's prophecy (Numbers 22:2-24:25), there is only solid text.

True, Balaam was a prophet, and his prophecy was inspired from above: "I can utter only the word that God puts into my mouth." (Numbers 22:38) But why should this section look so different from others in the Torah? The Hafetz Hayyim answers his own question, based on several midrashic sources, in the following way: The various breaks in Moses' prophecy (i.e., the rest of the Torah) are indications that God gives Moses (and other Israelite prophets) breathing room to process what they are receiving. They are not to act simply as mouthpieces, as empty vessels through which divine speech flows. Rather, the prophet must understand the prophecy and be changed by it.

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Rabbi Lawrence Edwards

Rabbi Laurence Edwards is the rabbi of Congregation Or Chadash in Chicago. In 2005 and 2006 he was in Jerusalem as a faculty member of the Bronfman Youth Fellows. He was the associate national director for Interreligious Affairs of the American Jewish Committee in Chicago.