Thursday, June 28, 2007

A King, A Wizard and an Uncooperative G-d

Last week, the Jews defeated the powerful armies of Sichon and Og. Unprovoked, the enemy had marched out with full confidence of victory, only to be annihilated on the battlefield. The Jews then occupied the entire territory of the Amorites; cities, women, bank accounts and all. These events did not go by unnoticed.

Continuing their march to the Holy Land, the Jews must now pass through Moab and Midian. These countries know what happened to Sichon and they are terrified that they will share the same fate. Balak, the king of Moab, is well aware that standing armies and conventional weaponry are useless against the Chosen Nation. Desperate to defend his country, he comes up with a new plan.

What we need, declares King Balak, is a more “spiritual” approach. A wizard! An evil spell cast by a powerful wizard is just the thing to stop the Jews.

A quick search on Google brings up a fellow named “Billam,” reputedly the most respected wizard in the business. Royal emissaries are dispatched to his home, but it’s a bad hire. Unlike Merlin, Gandalf or Voldemort, Billam answers to a higher authority.

“Spend the night here,” he replied [to the king’s emissaries], “and when G-d speaks to me, I will be able to give you an answer.”

Bamidbar 22:8

Predictably, G-d says no and the emissaries go home. But King Balak won’t take no for an answer. He sends a more distinguished delegation who promise Billam great honor and wealth if he would only curse the Jews. Again Billam tells them that he can’t do it without G-d’s permission. He invites them to spend the night and he goes to sleep. For the second time, G-d comes to him in a dream.

“If the men have come to summon you, set out and go with them. But only do exactly as I have instructed you.”
Billam got up in the morning, saddled his female donkey and set out with the Moabite dignitaries.

Ibid 22:20-21

Seems like the reasonable thing to do; after all, G-d did tell him he could go. But G-d is not happy. Here’s the very next verse:
G-d was angry that Billam went…
At night G-d tells him he can go and then in the morning G-d is angry that he went? What is going on here?! Has G-d changed His mind?

Of course, anyone with Jewish parents knows that permission is never to be equated with nachas. But, as the Ramban points out, there is another piece here. When Billam got up that second morning and went with Balak’s emissaries, they assumed that G-d had granted him permission to curse the Jews – and Billam does nothing to dispel this assumption. He does not tell them that G-d’s ban against cursing the Jews is still in place. By going with them in silence, Billam gives the impression that G-d has changed His mind, when in fact G-d was never against his going. G-d was only against his going and cursing.

There is such a thing as “changing G-d’s mind.” In certain situations, repentance and prayer can be quite effective. But neither of those is applicable here. Yesterday G-d said no cursing and now, it seems, G-d has given permission to curse. Billam has committed a Chillul HaShem, damaging G-d’s reputation as an infinite, eternal and unchanging being. This is why G-d is angry.

Billam the Wizard arrives in Moab and meets with the king. He admits that he can’t do anything without G-d’s permission, but he promises to try his best to get G-d to allow him to curse the Jews. It’s a classic pagan approach and Billam is trying it out on the One G-d. He brings dozens of sacrifices on dozens of altars, all to no avail. Once again, Billam has committed the ultimate Chillul HaShem, intimating that G-d is malleable and if you just press the right buttons, G-d will change His mind.

Now it’s time for G-d to have some fun. Instead of curses, after each of Billam’s attempts G-d instructs him to bless and praise G-d and Israel. This drives Balak absolutely mad.

These blessings were not composed by Billam; they were dictated by G-d. We are thus presented with verses of great beauty and majesty, and some have taken their rightful place in Jewish liturgy. (Having been first uttered by an enemy makes them even more delightful!) For example, our daily prayers begin with this verse: “How goodly are your tents, Jacob, your tabernacles, Israel” (Bamidbar 24:5). And this one is recited on Rosh Hashanah: “[G-d] does not look at wrongdoing in Jacob and he sees no vice in Israel; G-d their Lord is with them and they have the King’s friendship” (23:21). But there are other verses here that seem intended not only for us Jews, but for Billam and Balak themselves.

“What curse can I pronounce if G-d will not grant a curse? What divine wrath can I conjure if G-d will not be angry?”

Ibid 23:8

The prophecy is clear, but Balak doesn’t get it.

Balak said to him, “Come with me to another place… From there you may be able to curse them for me.”

Ibid 23:13

Balak thinks man can manipulate G-d. Presumably, he picked up his theology from Billam’s own behavior at the beginning of the story. So after Billam’s next attempt, G-d gets straight to the point:

“G-d is not human that He should be false, nor mortal that He should change His mind. Shall He say something and not do it, or speak and not fulfill?”

Ibid 23:19

Here G-d forces Billam to rectify his Chillul HaShem. Billam himself must declare the ultimate truth. G-d, the unmovable mover, does not change His mind. The Jews are blessed. And that decision is final.

Or is it? Something unexpected happens on the way to the end of the parsha.

Israel was staying in Shittim when the people began to behave immorally with the Moabite girls… Israel thus became involved with the Baal Peor [idol] and G-d displayed anger against Israel…
Those who died in the plagued numbered 24,000.

Ibid 25:1,3,9

G-d does not change His mind. The Jewish people are blessed and no wizard can ever curse them. But if the Jews sin, all bets are off.

1 comment:

  1. First of all, Billam was aware of the covenant between the Hebrew nation and HaShem, which clearly stated the Hebrews would obtain the land of Canaan if they believed in HaShem. There might have been some question as to whether the Hebrews were following the laws of HaShem. So, there is the possibility that they were not and perhaps they could be cursed.

    But HaShem stated that the Hebrews were blessed. That should have been the end of the story, except Billam felt that he could take the upper-hand with HaShem and continued in his pursuit of finding a way to curse the Hebrews. Of course, HaShem expressed his anger to emphasize the defect of lack of respect of HaShem by Billam. But he gave Billam permission to go to Balak because HaShem performed the opposite and made Billam bless the Hebrew nation.

    This parasha emphasizes that HaShem appeared to many nations and there were many prophets similar to Billam. The behavior of these prophets was that of man speaking to a g-d that could be manipulated by man for worldly gain. Clearly, g-d could not give his blessing to any of those peoples.

    Aside from Abraham, Isaac Jacob, Moses and Aharon, how many Jews met the standard to receive the blessings from HaShem during the first years in the desert?