You Gotta Keep ‘Em Separated: Balak 2022

by Adam J. Rosenbaum

Pre-Game Chatter: Have you ever been asked by an employer to do a job you knew to be futile? Did you say so to your employer? If not, what might have happened if you had done so?

The seer Balaam continually reminds Balak that it’s pointless to curse the Israelites, though Balak is hardly moved:

The Pitch: “How can I damn whom God has not damned, how doom when the Lord has not doomed? As I see them from the mountain tops, gaze on them from the heights, there is a people that dwells apart, not reckoned among the nations …” – Numbers 23:8-9

Swing #1: “[Abraham’s] obedience foreshadows a key fact about the ‘great nation’ that will emerge from him: namely, that in this and other biblical texts, its existence is due to the special providence of God rather than the natural processes of human reproduction and population growth. The barrenness of the other two generations of matriarchs (Rebecca, Rachel and Leah) underscores this key theological point, one that will be echoed throughout the history of Judaism.” – Jon D. Levenson, Inheriting Abraham: The Legacy of the Patriarch in Judaism, Christianity & Islam

Swing #2: “Having a nation requires at least some kind of separation. As Rashi comments: ‘This (separation) is what Israel’s patriarchs earned, the opportunity to live alone.’ One of Rashi’s other explanations of the separation is considerably darker: ‘When they [the Jewish people] rejoices, the other nations do not rejoice with them.’ This could be understood in at least two ways. First, it could imply that the Jews are good and the other nations of the world are wicked – an interpretation most modern readers of the Torah would rightly reject. Perhaps, then, a second, lighter interpretation is in order, namely that the Jews rejoice about different things than the other nations of the world.” – Rabbi Eli L. Garfinkel, The JPS Jewish Heritage Torah Commentary

Swing #3: “‘Moses, Aaron and Chur went up to the top of the hill’: as we mentioned: to bring to mind the deeds of the patriarchs and the matriarchs, ‘for from “the peaks of the rocks” (the patriarchs) I see him; from “the hilltops” (the matriarchs) I gaze upon him.’” – Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael

Late-Inning Questions: Do our commentators seem to believe that Balaam truly understands Israel’s uniqueness? Or is Balaam simply mimicking God’s praises for the Israelites? Do we compromise ourselves when we parrot the thoughts of others? Or does it make more sense to acknowledge when someone else makes more sense than you?

On-Deck at TBT: As we are entering the Three Weeks, we are approaching Tisha B’Av, the saddest day of the Jewish calendar. We hope you’ll join us for our observance of Tisha B’Av August 6th-7th.

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of mimicking others’ thoughts, I love the story of Moe Drabowsky, whose favorite prank during his playing days was impersonating pitching coaches and calling the bullpen phones in other different cities, causing random relief pitchers to warm up when they weren’t needed.

Shabbat Shalom!