Balak 5778 – Blessings, Blocks and Hidden Things

By: Dr. Melissa Steiner

Before I dive into the story of Balak and share some reflections, I feel the need to provide full disclosure about this parsha. Balak has become a Steiner family tradition. Ron read Balak at his Bar Mitzvah in Israel and so did his brother, David. Rachel read Balak at her Bat Mitzvah in Israel and so did Lilly. So, I have some familial material to draw upon and you’ll hear some of their lessons in this dvar.

In parshat Balak, we read that Balak, King of Moab, fears that he cannot defeat the Israelites. So instead, Balak hires the prophet Balaam to curse the Jews. God spoke to Balaam to explain that, basically, this assignment is a waste of time.

God said to Balaam, “You shall not go with them! You shall not curse the people because they are blessed.”

Balak and the elders of Moab would not take no for an answer and so, Balaam and his donkey set out on the journey.  God sends a sword-carrying angel to block his path. The donkey sees the angel and she turns away from the road and into a field. In response, Balaam beats the donkey to return to the road. The angel blocks the way. Two more times the donkey tries to move forward and stops abruptly when the angel blocks the path; Balaam beats the donkey each time. After the third beating, the donkey speaks! She asks Balaam “what have I done that you beat me three times?” Balaam says to the donkey that she has humiliated him. Only then does God open Balaam’s eyes and he sees the angel blocking the path. He falls to his knees and states that he will not continue the journey to curse the Jews. God tells Balaam he should continue; but, he must speak whatever words God puts into his mouth. And we know that when Balaam opened his mouth to curse the Jews, only blessings came forth. And now several thousands of years later, every morning service begins with:

“Mah tovu ohalecha Yaakov, mishk’notecha Yisrael”

“How good are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel!”

Cantor Ellen Dreskin writes in the book “Text Messages” that ‘… these simple words emphasize the blessing of each individual’s role in our community, the blessing that is contained in every aspect of our own personalities, and our obligation to attempt to speak blessings and be blessings at every moment of our lives.”

In her Bat Mitzvah speech, Lilly didn’t focus on the blessings part so much. Lilly gave the following two lessons:

  • “If you see wrong-doing you should try to stop it. Sometimes you speak up in defense and other times, you speak up for the purpose of educating the person who is doing wrong. For example, even when I was little, I realized the importance of speaking up when I told my teacher, Ms. Starry, that one of my classmates wasn’t sharing his toy truck. It is important that I spoke up because his lack of sharing was hurting someone else.”
  • “Another lesson is that your friends and family look out for you and steer you away from bad decisions. For example, in preparation for high school, Rachel and her friend, Christine, warned me which hallways I should avoid when passing between classes so that I would get to class on time and so that I would stay out of trouble.”

That God gave the donkey the ability to see the angel and further to speak out loud is akin to recognizing a wrong-doing and speaking out against it. It is our duty to speak for ourselves, our family, friends and community whenever there is something wrong in how we are being treated or how we are treating each other. You might think of the donkey in today’s terms as an ‘upstander’; we need people like that – who look out for each other and who stand-up against injustices.

It is wrong to blindly follow our own desires or attend only to our own needs. Balaam said that the donkey humiliated him – he was concerned with how the donkey’s lack of obedience reflected on himself! Instead, we (and Balaam) need to look outside ourselves and take care of each other.

It is especially relevant in today’s climate – we need to move beyond our own personal needs, our own personal comforts and privileges. Can you empathize with those who are escaping persecution in their own lands and seek refuge at our borders? Can you offer time or money or food to those who live without adequate means to care for themselves and their families? Can you empathize with those who feel targeted, threatened, or insecure about police officer behaviors?

Can you recognize that you are an example of privilege? I can… and it was a handful of years ago when I first really saw that privilege in action… Fourth of July at our house with the Sullums and we decided to shoot some fireworks in the baseball field across from our house. We weren’t the only people setting off fireworks in that field. That’s within city limits. It’s against the law to use fireworks within city limits. And when the police came by… they barely spoke to us… they barely spoke to the white folks. There was a more lengthy conversation with our Hispanic neighbors.

We should take that ‘privilege’ and use it to help others.

At Lilly’s Bat Mitzvah, Ron added his spin on Balak. Ron’s lesson is to look at the shape Hebrew text of this parsha. Amazingly it is a single block of text – there are no “paragraph’ or chapter breaks.

Ron thinks this represents our family unit – that we stick together. It symbolizes the strength of our family. Perhaps it is representative of the Jewish community, standing together as a whole?

Maybe speaking blessings, acting as a blessing, caring for others and speaking out against injustices… these behaviors are the building blocks of our community.

And what of these hidden things that I mentioned in the title?

Some hidden things are things we need to be protected from:

  • The angel was hidden from Balaam and the donkey tried to protect him.
  • Parents protect their children from all kinds of “hidden” dangers – parents use their experience to guide their kids toward being safe and toward making good decisions.
  • Natural gas – you can’t see the vapors and unless the gas company adds a pungent odor we wouldn’t be able to smell that gas either. So, the gas company protects us.
  • All kinds of illnesses fall into this category as well.
    • Cancer, MS, Diabetes, fibromyalgia: just a few examples of illnesses that you can’t see from the outside and if remain unknown to the patient… well, that’s kind of obvious what happens to the patient. But when your family or your community is unaware of your physical pain or limitations, they may push you toward joining in on activities that don’t match your current abilities, or they may inadvertently say something hurtful.
    • Mental illness, including depression: if not identified and acknowledged can lead to misunderstanding of the source of a person’s behavior and to incorrectly placing blame and that can further lead to ostracizing or isolation of that person.

And then there are those things which are hidden, and probably should remain hidden…  because they are personal. In a dvar torah from 2002, Rabbi Dovid Green wrote:

“In counter distinction to modern western culture where all dirty laundry is washed in public, the Torah attitude is that not everything is for the public eye. Some things are meant to remain known only within the community, or the family, or between husband and wife. When everything intimate is public knowledge, it violates the goodness of the tents of Yaakov.”

I’ll leave you with one more thought… sometimes there are things within each of us which are themselves hidden but which define us, and shape our lives, and guide our behavior:

  • Commitment
  • Caring and Kindness
  • Love
  • Patience

In the documentary about Fred Rogers (currently available in theaters), you’ll hear a quote along these lines. I think I found the original source from the book “The Little Prince”:

“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

Shabbat Shalom