Here's the d'var Torah I wrote on this week's portion in 2007, originally published at Radical Torah. I would note now that I see an added universalistic note to this story: this story shows the Torah's recognition that there are true prophets outside of the house of Israel! But apparently I didn't think of that in 2007.
This week we're in parashat Balak, in which Balaam is called-upon to curse the Israelites, but upon opening his mouth discovers he can utter only blessings.
Looked at through a certain lens, this parsha reads like slapstick. Balaam, on the road toward the place of the cursing, is temporarily thwarted by his donkey, who refuses to do his bidding -- and then talks back to him, giving him tsuris for whacking her with a stick. Shades of Shrek; can't you just hear the donkey speaking in Eddie Murphy's dulcet tones?
Once Balaam gets to the place where he's meant to offer curses, he opens up his mouth and the wrong thing comes out. (In this moment I imagine Balak as a kind of Homer Simpson figure: "D'oh!") Balak drags him to a different mountaintop -- maybe the cursing will work from here! -- but, once again, Balaam succeeds only in saying what God wills. At that point Balak, exasperated, orders him to stop: "Don't curse them and don't bless them" -- just stop talking, because you're ruining my plan! But Balaam offers blessings a third time.
Now Balak gets really mad, and vows to send Balaam away without payment. Balaam shrugs -- fine, he'll go home; he didn't want to come here in the first place -- but before he goes, he offers yet more praises for the Israelites, and while he's at it, damns a couple of enemies for good measure. Take that, Balak. See what happens when you dare to try to bring down curses on a people favored by God.
Talking animals, curses that come out backwards, a wicked king spluttering with frustration -- it's a goofy story. But it's a goofy story wrapped around a serious message: that when a prophet is in-tune with God, the words he utters will inevitably be sweet. Well, sweet from our perspective; we're Israel, after all. I don't imagine the Moabites were especially pleased by what Balaam had to say. Therein lies the challenge today's post-triumphalistic or universalistic readers may find in this parsha: why does Balaam's blessing have to be paralleled with curses for the other guys?
There's a strong particularism to this story. Those whom God favors are showered with blessings, even when the speakers intend to speak otherwise; those whom God doesn't favor are ultimately doomed. That reading can be problematic for those of us on whom the mantle of chosenness doesn't rest comfortably. The stark binarism of the good guy / bad guy paradigm may seem outdated, no longer useful. How can that tension be resolved?
In his commentary on the writings of the Sfat Emet, Rabbi Arthur Green sees in this passage a "glimmer of another view, one that will be essential to any contemporary reappropriation of Jewish spirituality." Every nation -- "religious community," he amends -- has its own prophet, whose powers ultimately derive from the same one God. "The quality and clarity of each prophet's message depend on the community he or she represents and the degree to which that community is willing to say, 'Let us do and listen,' as Moses' people was." In other words: every community has its prophets, and all of them exist in relationship to the same Source. The efficacy of a prophet depends on how ready her community is to truly and actively listen.
Rabbi Green's interpretation neatly elides the sense of nationalism that might be troubling to the modern ear and eye. Prophets don't only exist in the context of Israel -- and what makes the people Israel remarkable is not some inherent superiority, but our willingness to stand in readiness to receive the prophetic message.
Prophecy, writes the Sfat Emet (in Green's translation), "brings speech forth from potential to real." But in order for a prophet to have significance, there also needs to be an audience -- ideally, a receptive one. A prophet speaking in a vacuum isn't fulfilling his mission; that tree falling in the proverbial forest doesn't make a discernible sound until there are ears to hear. Balaam's prophecy was meaningful because it reached somebody's ears. In that sense, prophecy is inevitably a relational activity -- the prophet relates both to God and to the person or people who hear the prophetic words.
And sometimes humor is the best way to get a serious point across. Parashat Balak is, by and large, a romp (aside from the challenging little story of Pinchas that seems tacked-on to the end; more about that next week.) It's comedic, but the words that come out when Balaam opens his mouth elevate the story to a different level. His prophetic speech cuts through the humor of the story, and reminds us how powerful our words can be if our speech is fired by connection with God.