This week's Torah portion, Balak, contains the second talking animal in Torah! (The first one was the snake who spoke to Eve, way back at the start of Bereshit.)
In this week's installment of our story: Balak, the king of Moab, sees the children of Israel encamped on his land. We're migrants, fleeing slavery in Egypt.
The first thing Bil'am does is consult with YHVH, and God tells him not to curse us. So he says nope, sorry, can't.
Balak sends more envoys, promises him all kinds of riches, until finally Bil'am shrugs and says, okay, I guess. I'll come to you, but I can only say what God puts in my mouth to say.
When he gets to Moab, he gets up on a mountaintop and what comes out of his mouth are blessings. Balak grouses, ugh, it's not working, try cursing them from a different mountaintop. But again, what comes out are blessings. The third time, he says:
"How good are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling-places, O Israel!" -- the words we sing as Mah Tovu sometimes on Shabbat morning. Balak yells at him, and he points out, "Hey, I told you I could only say what God puts in my mouth to say." And then for good measure, he offers a curse... on Balak!
It's a great story. But I want to focus on the part before he gets to Moab to do the cursing that turns into blessing.
Bil'am's on the road, riding on a donkey. And Torah tells us, a מַלְאַ֧ךְ יְהֹוָ֛ה, a "messenger of God," stands in his way as an adversary. Maybe you recognize the word mal'ach from Shalom Aleichem, the song we often sing on Friday nights to welcome the angels of Shabbat? Mal'ach, the word for messenger, also means angel.
Apparently Bil'am doesn't see this mal'ach. The donkey does, though, and she swerves. So Bil'am whacks her with a stick. After the third time this happens, YHVH opens the donkey's mouth, and she says to Bil'am, "What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times??"
(And maybe it's because my son was in the local sixth grade production of Shrek: The Musical a few weeks ago, but I can't help hearing this in Eddie Murphey's donkey voice.)
Then, Torah tells us, God uncovers Bil'am's eyes and he sees the messenger of God standing in the way, and he bows down to the ground.
There was an angel standing right in front of him, and he didn't see.
Jewish tradition offers us a lot of different ideas about what angels are and what they do. Here are three of my favorites.
Midrash teaches that even every humble blade of grass has an angel dedicated to its existence, who taps it and tells it to grow. (Bereshit Rabbah 10:6)
Talmud teaches that the unnamed people who materialize to deliver an important message in Torah are angels. Like the "men" who showed up to tell Sarah she was pregnant. Or the "man" who tells Joseph, "Oh, your brothers went that way."
Our mystical tradition also offers all kinds of ways to think about angels. Dr. Tamar Frankiel notes that, "Kabbalists have taught that while some angels are created by God, others develop from the results of human actions. Thus, the angel created by a good deed continues to exist and can return, so to speak, to affect people in a positive way."
I love the idea that everything on earth has a dedicated angel supporting it. I love the idea that we create angels with our actions. And I love the idea of the unnamed people in Torah being mal'achim -- messengers -- because it implies that anybody could be one. Maybe in our era, mal'ach is a role we play for each other.
What would it be like to approach every interaction as though the other person might be a messenger of the divine? If everyone I meet might have a message for me, does that change how I walk in the world? How about if I might unknowingly be carrying the message that someone else needs?
It's interesting that the angel in Bil'am's story is described as לְשָׂטָ֣ן ל֑וֹ / l'satan lo -- placed there "to oppose him." Apparently it's this angel's job in this moment to stand in his way. What would it be like to experience whatever's blocking us as an angel, a messenger from God? Whatever's getting in the way of the work, our stuck places, our frustration -- could those be messengers too, placed here to wake us up, to prod us to grow?
(The verb l'satan means to oppose, and yes, this is the origin of the idea of an angel who stands in opposition, which in Christian tradition became a figure named Satan. But that's another story.)
I feel a pang of recognition, reading about Bil'am. He was so preoccupied with his journey that his eyes were closed to the messenger of God standing right in front of him. Haven't we all been there?
It makes me think of another figure in Torah who encounters an angel. His name was Jacob. Maybe you remember: he tricks his father into giving him the blessing reserved for the firstborn, and then he runs away from his slightly older twin, Esau. He has a dream about a ladder and some angels. When he wakes, he gasps, "God was in this place, and I -- I did not know!"
Spiritual life is a neverending journey. We notice the presence of the holy; we get distracted; we notice again. Waking up and recognizing that God is in this place, or that the person in front of me might tell me something that could change my life, or that the animal beside me notices something that I don't -- none of that is one-and-done.
And we might not need the same message all the time. Maybe today I need an angel to remind me that there are good reasons to have hope. And tomorrow I might need someone to remind me to take action to make the world a better place.
Or maybe it's my job today to bring both of those messages to you.
This is the d'varling I offered at Kabbalat Shabbat services at Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)