A Clash Between Politics, Prophecy and Morality

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, July 3, 2020 / 11 Tammuz 5780

I will be on vacation this coming week.

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Summary: In this week’s Oasis Songs, I wanted us to examine the story of Bilam to see how the Torah navigates politics, prophecy and personal gain and how that strange combination raises questions for us.

This week we read a double parasha in the Torah, Chukat-Balak (Numbers 19:1-25:9).

Let’s focus on Balak, because it alludes to themes that are quite timely. Who belongs to society? Who is entitled to its goods? How does the system itself labor to maintain the present status quo? How do individuals participate in all this? Most important, how can we know the right course of action?

As a refresher, Balak is the king of Moab. He is frightened by the sudden appearance of our ragtag ancestors, who have escaped from Egypt and are marching home to the land of Canaan. Not only is the king frightened, but apparently the entire nation of Moab is also alarmed by this large group of refugees. In chapter 22 verse 4 we read:

Moab said to the elders of Midian, “Now this horde will lick clean all that is about us as an ox licks up the grass of the field.”

The Moabites are terrified, in other words, that this minority horde from elsewhere will plunder all of their wealth. The fear of the stranger, the other, is deeply ingrained in the human psyche as is the fear of loss, and the desire for gain. When those all collide, watch out!

Something else of note occurs in our verse that is worth commenting on. Until this moment in the Torah, the Moabites and Midianites are portrayed as separate peoples or tribes. Yet here they are conflated—they seem to have become one people. Or is it more likely that when faced with a group of people who looked and behaved differently than they did, that these two entrenched nations found common ground and forged a united strategy to protect their way of life?

That seems to be the case. For they do what nations have always done, which is to seek a tactical advantage by which to achieve their overarching strategy. In this case, they sought an “advanced weapon system” as embodied in the gentile prophet, Bilam. They attempt to enlist his help, and request that he use his powers to curse the Israelites. This in turn, claims King Balak, will give him sufficient leeway or advantage to drive out the Israelites. It’s worth noting that the Israelites had no intention of remaining in Moab. They were just en route.

Those political forces we can recognize in our turbulent times. Although the Torah never shies away from discussing political matters, as it does here, it is also not content to leave things in the political realm. There is usually a turn to the deeper psycho-spiritual realm, from which the political always bubbles up. In this case, that occurs when God approaches Bilam and queries, “What do these people want of you?” Bilam answers directly and honestly, to which God responds, “Do not go with them. You must not curse that people.”

This is a remarkable moment. Our Sages took note from this that Bilam was a genuine prophet, opening the door that other religions also have access to God. We may take that for granted now, but if we do, it is only because some of that respect and tolerance was first demonstrated then.

Additionally, we see that Bilam can hear that divine voice of conscience. He understands that he should not use his powers to harm others. And yet, very few people can maintain that level of awareness. Very few of us are binaries, either all good or all evil.

I mention that, because the King of Moab has hardly given up his plan. Rather, he sends a second retinue to make the same request of Bilam, pressuring him to yield. Bilam tries to have it both ways and says he needs to speak to God again. Lo and behold, that night, God visits him again, apparently in a dream, and says, ‘If these men have come to invite you, you may go with them. But whatever I command you, that you shall do.”

The next morning, Bilam departs, ostensibly to enrich himself. Then in verse 22, we read that God was furious that Bilam chose to go. Wait, didn’t God just give him permission? Which makes us ask, is it God who is being inconsistent, or is it Bilam?

What happened? I think what the Torah is teaching us is how very difficult it is to hear that still small voice of conscience. What seemed morally clear to Bilam at the outset becomes less so when his own self-interest becomes involved.

It is easy to rationalize moral sounding reasons for why we are taking certain actions when we stand to gain. We might even convince ourselves that we are hearing the voice of God in what we are doing, pleased with our certitude. Bilam was an actual prophet, and it was hard for him to distinguish justice from benefit. How much more so for the rest of us, who aren’t prophets, and who still need to figure out the best course of action in our complicated lives?

Shabbat shalom,

Rav D

Shabbat Table Talk

  1. In recent decades, we have learned that even infants make moral judgements. Do you think our moral judgements are well reasoned and thought-out, or like infants, do you imagine that many of our judgements are hard-wired?
  2. When you are deciding on a course of action, do you think it through ahead of time, trying to play out what might happen? Or do you go by instinct?
  3. Can you recall a time when you made what you thought was a moral choice, only to realize later that you were acting for your own benefit? What did you learn from this?

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