The universality of God
In this week’s Torah portion, the Israelites move north along the eastern edge of the land of Israel. As they approach the territory of Moab, through which they must pass, Balak and the Moabites fear that the Israelites will outnumber and overwhelm them.
Unable to overcome the military discrepancy, Balak sends a request to an apparently well-known sorcerer named Balaam, who is believed to have the magical power to bestow curses. Balak assumes that through cursing (or more precisely, casting a spell upon) the Israelites he will be able to defeat them. However, Balam is unable to curse the Israelites, and instead ends up offering words of blessing each time he opens his mouth.
The account of Balak is reminiscent of the confrontation between Moses and Pharaoh prior to the Exodus. Like Pharaoh, Balak suspects Israel because of their numbers. The fear is not over an actual threat posed by the Israelite population, but rather one of imagined antagonism.
Pharaoh believes that through magic and oppression he can resist the power of God, who has decided to act to free the Israelites from slavery. Balak also believes that there is a real power residing within the magic embraced by a sorcerer such as Balaam. And like Pharaoh, Balak will end up defeated by the power of God, not by the Israelites.
In the ancient Near East, the ability to manipulate divine power was accepted as a skill that certain people could deploy. Pharaoh has court magicians who can approximate some of the miracles that Moses and Aaron display. Balaam is hired by Balak based on his reputation as a reliable purveyor of efficacious incantations.
The religious revolution of the Israelite tradition was to assert that there is only one God, and that God is not subject to magical manipulation by any human. The defeats of Pharaoh and Balak are not merely the vanquishings of hostile rulers; they are the symbolic subjugation of pagan religious beliefs.
Balaam is one of several biblical figures who, while not an Israelite, recognize the sole sovereignty of God. Balaam tells Balak, “I cannot go beyond the word of the Lord, to do either good or bad on my own initiative; only what the Lord speaks, can I speak.” (Numbers 24:13)
In this way, Balaam anticipates the universal dimension of Jewish religion: that there is only one universal God, but one does not have to be within the covenant of the Jewish people in order to recognize or relate to this God. Non-Israelites are equally expected to act ethically and responsibly toward God and other people. But they do not have to convert to Judaism to be in a relationship with God.
Perhaps it is for this reason that one of Balaam’s prophecies has been incorporated into synagogue liturgy and song, and often into synagogue architecture as well. For it is Balaam who give us the well-known verse, Mah Tovu, customarily recited upon entering a synagogue: “How goodly are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel.” (Numbers 25:5)
Rabbi Richard Hirsh is assistant rabbi at Congregation M’kor Shalom, Cherry Hill.