Yom Chamishi, 13 AdarI 5781
Ta anith Esther Thursday, 25 February 2021
Parashat Balak 2012

Parashat Balak: Rabbi Rachel Benjamin
6th July 2012

On my wall at home hangs a mystical painting of the prophet Balaam on his donkey, by the Israeli artist Yoram Raanan.· It was given to me on the occasion of my step-granddaughter’s Bat Mitzvah, two years ago, and has special meaning for me, as a reminder of the privilege I had of helping her prepare for that day.· She will be celebrating her Kabbalat Torah this weekend when, as luck would have it, she will be reading from the same portion, Balak, Numbers 22:2-25:9.

The painting is beautiful, ethereal, a little bit frightening – at different times, I see different things in it.· ‘Seeing’ is a crucial theme in the parashah, which begins with the Moabite king, Balak who ‘saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites’, and fears that the Israelites are too powerful to defeat in battle.· He summons Balaam, the prophet, to put a hex on the Israelites.· However, being a true prophet, Balaam is unable to do that, and in fact he goes on to bless the Israelites with the well-known words, with which we open our services, mah tovu ohalekha· Ya’akov mishk’notekha Yisrael, ‘how goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel’.·· However, before that, he does go with the intention of cursing them and receiving a hefty reward from Balak.· This displeases God, who sends an angel, drawn sword in its hand, to bar Balaam’s way – an angel that the donkey can see and Balaam, at first, cannot; this part of the story hinges on what the donkey can see and what Balaam cannot.· Balaam is incensed at the inexplicable behaviour of his animal, so angry that he would even like to kill her. ·When he finally sees the angel, it completely changes his perspective on the situation, and he understands that he is to prophesy only what God tells him.

What you see is not always what you get!· And although we can’t see something, with our eyes or with our understanding, it doesn’t mean it’s not there.· If something appears, at first sight, to be threatening, annoying, frustrating, it may turn out to be quite the reverse.· It may even save us from something far worse.· Sometimes not having everything we want or expect can be a stroke of luck, too.

There is a folk story about the prophet Elijah, who permits Rabbi Joshua to go with him on his travels, on one condition – that he remains silent.· They receive wonderful hospitality with a farmer and his wife, and the next day, Elijah prays that their prize cow should die.· The next night, they are sent packing by a wealthy landowner who refuses to give them shelter.· On his land is a beautiful tree, about to topple over and, as they leave, Elijah prays that the tree may stand upright in the ground.· In a town full of wealthy people, they are laughed at and despised, and Elijah prays that everyone in the town should become a leader.· At another town, the humble townsfolk welcome them in and look after them as if they were royalty.· Elijah prays for the people of that town to have only one leader.

Finally, Rabbi Joshua could not hold it in any longer, even though he knew that his travels with Elijah must end when he spoke.· He demands explanations, unable to understand why Elijah appeared to wish to punish those who had shown kindness, and reward those who did not.

Elijah explained that it had been decreed that the poor farmer was to die the next day, so he prayed that their prize cow would die instead.· As for the landowner who kept them out in the cold, underneath that tree was buried a great treasure, which he would never find.· As for the wealthy townspeople, a community with too many leaders would never find peace and harmony, but the small village would benefit greatly one day from one true leader to guide and help them.

Things are not always what they seem.· Sometimes what appear to be obstacles turn out to be angels.· The stranger, with unsheathed sword, standing in the middle of the road, the death of a prize cow, the annoying work colleague, the family member who irritates, the friend who lets us down – it can be quite a challenge to see in them a messenger from God, with something to teach us, but it is one of life’s greatest gifts to be able to turn the negative into a positive by looking deeper and longer.