This week’s Torah reading, Balak, is one of the most mysterious, as it deals with foreign prophets, talking donkeys and interfering angels. In essence, Balak, a foreign king, has hired Balaam, a foreign prophet, to curse Israel. God has told Balaam not to go (hence the interfering angel and the talking donkey), but Balaam defies God.
Each time Balaam tries to curse Israel, his words come out as blessings. The king, Balak, keeps moving the prophet around, hoping this time he will succeed with the curse. It’s a delightful story and a pleasure to read, but beneath the enchantment are important messages. One of these messages involves how the king is repositioning the prophet each time.
Balaam stands on a mountaintop and sees Israel camped below. Israel doesn’t know he’s watching them. The first time he fails, Balaam is moved to another mountaintop where he fails again, and finally, after the third failure on the third mountaintop, Balak gives up. God has turned each intended curse into beautiful blessings, but we can’t help but ask why he keeps moving from mountaintop to mountaintop.
The position of being in a high place and looking down on someone else orients us into a position of entitlement. From thinking we are entitled to these high places, it is easier to speak badly of what we see below. Each time the king moves Balaam, he keeps him in a high place so as not to disturb his entitled perspective. By God changing his words, the prophet is forced to see that these very words are elevating Israel to stand on high. Curses are turned into blessings and blessings elevate us all.
In other words, the answer to entitlement is to elevate each other to places of dignity and high esteem. The Sages tell us that the wise person learns from everyone, and this week we learn an invaluable lesson from a foreign prophet named Balaam.
I’d like to wish everyone a sweet and peaceful Shabbat –our Jewish time to regroup, rest, and reinvigorate.