Douglas R. Blake
D'var Torah delivered at Westchester Reform Temple
Fifty years ago, June 25, 1960, I was Bar Mitzvah at Adath Israel, the Conservative synagogue in Trenton, New Jersey. It was a warm summer Saturday morning; my pants itched. My mother and sister and all of my aunts and uncles and all of my friends were there. My mother was widowed twice before I was 10 years old, and all grandparents were long deceased, so Uncle Frank stood in for a father. The Rabbi was kind but unapproachable for a boy 2 months shy of his 13th birthday; the Cantor had tutored me and provided the 45 RPM records of the haftorah which I had mastered, although not the Cantor’s nasal chazzanut. Both black robed officiants wore huge kipot which resembled crowns. The parashat was “Rosh Hodesh,” the New Moon, but I have no recollection of religious significance of anything I recited that day in a voice dangerously close to cracking. The “Kid’s Party” was that night at Marsillio’s Kitchen in Chambersberg, and featured spaghetti and meatballs and a DJ. Margie Garb, my classmate since 4th Grade, was there, although she later turned me down for a Coke date.
I’m sure that if my Bar Mitzvah portion 50 years ago had been Balak, as it is this Shabbat, I would have remembered more about what I recited. The tale of Balak, King of Moab, and Baalam, Seer or Charlatan is so odd and oddly placed as “comic relief” in the chronicles of Israel’s wanderings and wars that some Talmudic scholars believed it to be a separate book of the bible. I had to check to see that it was not actually a lost Monty Python skit. The tale features an apoplectic king, a stymied prophet, God who plays practical jokes, a talking donkey, sacrifices that go awry; even Satan makes a guest appearance.
Balak the King is worried that his hold on power is in jeopardy, so he hits on a novel strategy: “Lets Blame the Jews!” First the Big Lie: “Now this horde will lick clean all that is about us as an ox licks up the grass of the field.” (Num 22:4) How to go about it? The Israelites are mighty. A curse! Perhaps the French soldier from Monty Python and the Holy Grail is available: “You don’t frighten us, Israelite pig-dog! Go and boil your bottoms, son of a silly person! I blow my nose on you...” But wait, the local self-proclaimed sooth-sayer, Baalam, is a donkey ride away, and surely he will not refuse the rich commission offered. Baalam has to check it out with God first, who absolutely nixes the idea, “You must not curse that people, for they are blessed.” (Num 22:12), until God agrees that Baalam can go, “If these men have come to invite you, you may go with them.” (Num 22:20), at which point God becomes incensed at his going. (Num 22:22) It’s tough to figure out what God wants, but Baalam is certain of two things: he can’t curse the Israelites if God won’t let him, and there’s a lot of money to be made if he can get around that minor problem.
So Baalam in the great biblical tradition saddles up his ass and sets out for the Kingdom of Moab and a potential payday, but Donkey won’t move, despite cajoling, kicking, and beating. Donkey says, “Hey Shrek! I mean, Baalam! What have I ever done to you that you treat me with such disrespect? You ride me all the time; when have I ever refused a favor?” (Num 22:28-30) And as if a talking ass isn’t strange enough, an Adversary (could it be.....oh say....SATAN!!!???), who heretofore was visible only to Donkey, blocks the way with sword in hand. Yet the intrepid travelers are permitted to pass, but that troublesome injunction not to curse those who God blesses remains in effect.
Baalam and King Balak meet at last. Although the Contract Curser is straight with the King about the unlikelihood of success, Baalam goes off to search for a good luck omen, and the two build altars (seven of them!), roast numerous bulls and rams in sacrifice, gather all the Moabite dignitaries in eager anticipation, to hear the imprecations of the mighty Baalam against the Israelites. God has written a different speech for the occasion: “How can I damn whom God has not damned? / How doom when the Lord has not doomed?” (Num 23:8) Balak is furious. “What have you done to me? Here I brought you to damn my enemies, and instead you have blessed them!” (Num 23:11)
Undaunted, Balak has a brilliant idea! Let’s build another seven altars in a new location, and give sacrifices! Surely it’ll work this time. The mighty King of the Moabites isn’t familiar with the definition of insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
Another day, another barbecue, and now for the entertainment: The Cursing! Baalam takes the stage to proclaim “No harm is in sight for Jacob, / No woe in view for Israel. / The Lord their God is with them” (Num 23:21) We can imagine Balak’s rage, but he soon settles on a new stratagem, telling Baalam, “Don’t curse them and don’t bless them!” (Num 23:25) And Yes! We must have more altars and sacrifices in a new location. (See above definition of “insanity”).
This time Baalam gives up the search for favorable omens prior to the show, and with the aroma of formerly live mammals still in the air, proclaims, “Ma Tovu, o-ha-lecha Ya-a-kov, mish-ke-no-te-cha, Yis-ro-el! How fair are your tents, O Jacob, / Your dwellings, O Israel!” (Num 24:5) Needless to say, Balak refuses to pay for services NOT rendered, and sends the so-called prophet packing, but not before Baalam delivers one last message for the King of Moab: “A meteor comes forth from Israel; / It smashes the brow of Moab” (Num 24:17). All exit stage left.
Quite a cast of characters! (I’m particularly fond of Donkey.) Is Baalam a Prophet? He seems to lack most essential qualifications for the title, despite his intimacy with God. He’s in it for the money. He looks for omens. He speaks with God only in the sense that the dummy “speaks” to the ventriloquist; nothing comes out that the Master hasn’t put there. Plaut lists Baalam’s character assessments: “...proud, insolent, cunning, hypocritical, false, ungrateful, treacherous, cruel, blasphemous, deceiving, and sanctimonious.” (p. 1184, The Torah, A Modern Commentary) Why is such an unsavory character given the honor, indeed the obligation, to bless God’s Chosen People? I believe the lesson is that Truth is Truth, no matter who speaks it, and Truth is sacred in Torah. In fact, what is Torah to the Jews if not the embodiment of Truth?
Parashat Balak, underneath its comedic folksiness, has an intricate pattern of Truth and Lies, beginning with the Big One about Jews which has never died from the time of Pharaoh: They’re a threat, they’ll take over, they’re like animals who’ll strip the land bare. It’s unclear whether Baalam believes the anti-Israelite message he’s implored to deliver by the Moabites, but he’s certainly willing to say it for money. Even events that can’t be true (a donkey that talks!) and an encounter with Satan, the King of Liars, doesn’t dissuade him. The Truth about the Israelites, that they are blessed, protected, and chosen for God’s purposes remains true even if a charlatan, a hypocrite, a buffoon such as Baalam speaks it. God will have the Truth told, and all will know it.
It seems that truth is an increasingly rare commodity. Kings of Media hire the descendants of Baalam (Limbaugh, Beck) to curse their enemies for money. They build altars called AM Talk Radio, Cable Network News, and the Blogosphere. “Fair and Balanced,” they lie: the President is a Kenyan, the Death Panels are arriving by black helicopters, and evolution is for monkeys. And yet, Jews believe that lies must be countered, that God knows the Truth and Torah will help us find it.
I’d like to tell you that my Bar Mitzvah was the start of serious religious study, but it didn’t happen that way. In fact, my mother remarried the following year; we moved to Philadelphia; I was enrolled in Confirmation class at a Reform temple. With the smug certainty of the truly ignorant, I knew that this English-speaking-yarmulka-less pseudo-Judaism-lite was illegitimate, and I commenced my teenage rebellion by refusing to attend. By medical school, my alienation was almost complete. I was in anatomy lab on Yom Kippur.
And then, a Bar Mitzvah away from my own (13 years later), in September 1973, my son was born. I was strangely compelled to attend High Holiday services that season. A Bar Mitzvah later, in October 1986, my son Jonathan was called to the Torah. He looks about the same. Uncle Frank was there. Some who attended suggested that he might become a Rabbi. Margie Garb was there, as she is tonight, at my second Bar Mitzvah.
I’ve tried to tie up my feelings about the changes 50 years brings. Adath Israel of Trenton is now in Lawrenceville. It bills itself as “Egalitarian Conservative” and for 25 years has been led by a reconstructionist Rabbi. I’m glad God waited for me to come back to worship and study, but it’s easier to predict when you’re All Knowing. As for me, I’m still in tune with Paul Simon who opined, in “The Boxer,”
Now the years are rolling by me, they are rockin’ even me
I am older than I once was, and younger than I’ll be, that’s not unusual
No it isn’t strange, after changes upon changes, we are more or less the same
After changes we are more or less the same....
One final word of thanks to Rabbi Jacobs and the Congregation of Westchester Reform Temple. You have opened the doors of your home, your sanctuary, and your hearts to me and my family. Ma Tovu o-halecha, Ya-a-kov, mish-ke-no-te-cha, Yis-ra-el!
May God’s richest blessings always be upon this house and its families.