Today’s Torah portion is a curious story about a king, a sorcerer, an angel and a donkey that can talk. In some ways, it reminds me more of a fable from Anderson’s Fairy Tales than a Torah portion, but here it is in the Book of Numbers standing out as one of the most controversial parashat. The story takes place right before the Israelites enter the Promised Land. Moses and 12,000 of his troops are about to attack the nearby Moabites to clear the way for the Jewish people to settle in the land of Israel.
Balak, the king of Moab, whose people live on the outskirts of the Israeli settlements, is worried that his nation will be attacked and defeated by the Jewish people. In fear, he calls in a sorcerer from Babyalonia to lay a curse on this powerful nation that seems blessed with many victories. The famed sorcerer known as Balaam is also a distinguished prophet who works for hire. Initially, Balak’s request to curse the Jews is refused by Balaam, but it is thought that Balaam was a little greedy and sought more money and fame from the Moab King. When he is asked the second time presumably at a higher fee and other promises, he agrees to invoke his powers against the Jews. In the next part of the story, Balaam is seen riding his donkey towards Moab to meet the king.
Along the way, an angel of God appears and blocks the donkey’s path. The angel that bears a sword, reminds Balaam through the donkey’s voice that cursing the Israelites was not what God intended. Balaam fails to heed the words of the angel that appears and warns three times. Feeling threatened by the angel, Balaam’s donkey refuses to go forward and instead goes off the road and pins Balaam to a boulder. Balaam, in a fit of anger, beats his donkey with a stick. Protesting, Balaam’s donkey pleads for mercy reminding his master of his past loyalty to him. Balaam ignores the plea and beats his donkey even more, threatening him with death. Finally, the donkey returns to the road and moves on towards Moab.
In Moab, Balaam meets the king and together they make plans to curse the Israelites. They decide to invoke the curse from the summit of three mountains all of which have clear vantage points of the Israelite camps. Altars are built upon each of the ridges. Balaam attempts to invoke his curse from each of the pinnacles but instead of cursing the Jewish people, he blesses them with the words of the prayer, Ma Tovu, which is recited whenever we enter a sanctuary. It translates in part: “How Goodly are your tents oh Jacob, your people O Israel…” As hard as Balaam tries, his words come out wrong. Moving from mountain to mountain, Balaam fails to invoke the curse promised to Balak. After his third attempt and failure, Balak dismisses Balaam and sends him home.
To me, this parasha speaks of God’s loyalty to the Jewish people. To be able to make a donkey speak and convert a curse into a blessing is in itself a supernatural act but in addition, it speaks of God’s allegiance to His people, the chosen people, the Jewish people. Just as He did with the punishing ten plagues and the parting of the Red Sea against the Egyptians, God, through this event, shows his loyalty to the Israelites.
Loyalty is an interesting word and concept. The idea applies to all walks of life. In our modern day business world, the term has to a great degree lost its meaning to expediency and bottom line decision making. Gone are the days of guaranteed pensioned retirement and the gold watch one received in recognition of long term dedicated service. Today, corporations think nothing of furloughing workers with long years of service only to replace them with Newbie’s paid at a lower rate of pay. It's called corporate expediency. Longevity no longer counts for anything in today's business environment. Corporate greed has superceded the worth of an employee’s dedication and loyalty. When company service is subservient to bottom line profits, the value of loyalty goes out the window. This is what happened on Wall Street just a few years ago. The large stock and mortgage brokers became very greedy and sacked their loyalty to their customers. They ignored the common standards of fiduciary responsibility and took the low road of underhanded dealing. The greedy brokers bundled worthless packages of mortgages and sold them off as legitimate financial investments. But their greed turned against them and instead of making profits on their sales, they lost billions of dollars. Their losses became our losses as our government bailed them out with our tax dollars. Today that bailout is felt by all of us. Declining property and currency values and inflationary prices at the grocery store and gas pump is our inheritance of their greed. We have a diluted economy, where everything is worth less and costs more. They call the results a recession, but to our friends and family out of work, it feels a whole lot more like a depression.
Balaam acted in a similar fashion to those on Wall Street, when he decided that the promise of fame and fortune was more important than his reputation as a prophet. He gave up respecting God’s word for ingratiating himself. Later, like the Wall Street brokers, his greed turned against him and he suffered humiliation before Balak and God.
Respecting the idea of loyalty in our personal lives is a difficult challenge. There are more divorces, more single parents and more crime than at any time in our history. To a large extent, loyalty or should I say lack of loyalty, has played an important role in the development of these sad statistics. There was a time when saying the words: "I do," meant something. It was a meaningful contract, a pledge of allegiance between a husband and wife. The words, "till death do us part" was taken seriously by the bride and groom and couples pledged to accept the good with the bad. I can't say for certain whether divorce is responsible for all the bad that has taken place in the world, but I can say, it hasn’t helped or set a good example for our children.
In today’s parashat, when the innocent donkey is beaten; he pleads for mercy, explaining that his loyalty to his master should count for something, but like as occurs in our modern world, where loyalty is no longer considered a virtue, Balaam ignores his donkey’s allegiance and continues beating him.
Loyalty plays an important role in our relationship with God. All through the Hebrew Bible God shows his loyalty to the Jewish people. Whether it is with the ten plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, or here in the attempted curse by Balaam, God shows his loyalty to the people of Israel. In return God asks only that the Jews recognize Him as the One and only God and that we follow His law which He gave to Moses atop Mt. Sinai. To my way of thinking, God’s plea for loyalty from his people does not seem unreasonable.
So, today as we reflect on the message of Torah, we need to review what we can do to reintroduce and strengthen the concept of loyalty in our lives, both personally with each other and in our relationship with God. Letting others know of our appreciation for their friendship, performing acts of charity and giving of ourselves are some of the ways we can utilize the concept of loyalty in our personal lives. In business, we need to be fair in our dealings with customers, respectful of our associates and employees and appreciative of the vendors who service our businesses.
Likewise, we need to show our loyalty to God by acknowledging Him and praising Him. The simple phrase of “God Bless You,” when someone sneezes is a perfect example of that loyalty. Prayer and repentance are yet other examples. The list goes on and on. What and how we choose to do to show our loyalty to God is a personal choice. No one is twisting our arm to do anything, but when we look around and see all of the miracles and blessings that God has bestowed upon us, it seems natural to give thanks to this great master of the universe.
So, today as we sit here in the house of God, let us pay homage to Him and let the lessons of Balak and our past continue to be our message for the future.