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July 01, 1988 - Image 33

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1988-07-01

Disclaimer: Computer generated plain text may have errors. Read more about this.

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A Heathen Prophet's
Loving Praise Of Israel

RABBI RICHARD C. HERTZ

Special to The Jewish News

T

his week's Ibrah por-
tion records one of the
strangest events in all
of Israel's history. The scene
opens with the children of
Israel, flush with success,
pushing closer and closer to
the Promised Land. Every
tribe in their way had been
overwhelmed in defeat.
Now Israel is approaching
the land of Moab on the
eastern side of the Jordan.
Moab's King Balak is a smart
ruler who senses grave
danger facing his people from
the oncoming Israelites. He
realizes that stronger kings
than he have fallen before the

Shabbat Balak:
Numbers 22:2-25:9,
Michah 5:6-6:8

secret power of the Israelites.
He has heard, too, the rumor
that a powerful God is protec-
ting the Israelites and that
the people are led by a pro-
phet of rare insight and power
named Moses.
Strangely enough, this king
of Moab senses that the forth-
coming battle between his
people and Israel will not be
decided by strength of arms,
but rather by some spiritual
force which alone will bring
victory.
Balak decides that what
Moab needs is a supernatural
power stronger than Israel's.
Moab needs a prophet of
greater forcefulness than
Moses. Balak had heard the
reputation of a soothsayer
from Mesopotamia, a heathen
named Bala'am, a so-called
prophet who had the power to
bless or to curse with ir-
revocable effectiveness.
Balak decides to send his
emissaries laden with rich
gifts to this soothsayer, hop-
ing to bring Bala'am to where
the Israelites are encamped
in order to curse them.
At this point, there seems to
be a break in the Bala'am
story, for we have two distinct
characters revealed under the
name of Bala'am. One story
says that Bala'am receives
Balak's messengers and in-
structions from God and sets
out for Moab to carry out
Balak's wishes. But by divine
inspiration, he pronounces a
blessing over the tribes of
Israel instead of a curse.

Dr. Hertz is rabbi emeritus of
Temple Beth El.

The other thread of the nar-
rative is more dramatic, and
shows Bala'am to be an
unscrupulous, conniving,
greedy man subject to bribery.
This account shows Bala'am
eager for the riches that
Balak had promised as a
reward for cursing Israel.
Bala'am immediately sets
out for Moab without waiting
for any word from God, thus
incurring the wrath and
anger of God. An angel of the
Lord, with a drawn sword in
his hand, shows himself to
Bala'am's ass which refuses to
proceed along the road
despite Bala'am's prodding.
Three times the angel, in-
visible as yet to Bala'am, puts
himself in the way of the ass.
Bala'am beats the ass unmer-
cifully. Then the ass is
miraculously given the power
of speech. He asks Bala'am
reproachfully why he is being
beaten. Bala'am is apparent-
ly not astonished by the
miraculous speech of the ass.
He replies angrily that if
there were a sword in his
hand, he would kill the ass.
The angel then becomes visi-
ble to Bala'am and the
soothsayer confesses his sin.
It is this aspect of Bala'am
that rabbinic Judaism retain-
ed: Bala'am the "roshah," the
evil person, the selfish, grasp-
ing fakir who covets the
rewards of King Balak. Of
course, the rabbis of old could
not tolerate the appearance of
a true prophet of God among
the heathen. Hence the un-
favorable position that
Bala'am occupies in our
tradition.

No one who reads the full
story of Bala'am, noting the
two characterizations, can fail
to sense the exalted tone of
the oracles which Bala'am
pronounces.
The so-called prophet
Bala'am had been brought
from a great distance in order
to curse Israel. He ascends
the heights of a mountain,
scans the multitude of Israel's
hosts, and lifts up his voice in
adoration:
How shall I curse whom
God hath not cursed?
And how shall I damn those
whom the Lord hath not
damned?
For from the top of the
mountains see them.
And from the heights I
behold them.
Lo, they are a people who
shall dwell apart
Not reckoned among the
nations.
Who can count the dust of

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ZOA ASKS: WHERE ARE THE AMERICAN JEWS?

The American Media Hype has been disastrous
for Israel tourism.

Detroit's ZOA Convention delegates meeting in
Jerusalem report Israrel is perfectly safe.

PLAN YOUR VISIT TO ISRAEL NOW.

Zionist Organization of America, Metro Detroit District

THE
WEXNER
HERITAGE
FOUNDATION,

acknowledges with gratitude the
gracious hospitality extended by the

Jewish Welfare Federation of Detroit
President, Dr. Conrad Giles

and

United Hebrew School
President, Barbara Goodman

in hosting the Foundation's
leadership development Seminars
for the 1987-88 academic year.

"The World Stands on Three
Pillars - Study, Prayer and
deeds of Kindness"
Avot 1:2

Mr. Leslie Wexner, Chairman
Rabbi Herbert Friedman, President
Rabbi N. Laufer,
Director of Programs

THE DETROIT JEWISH NEWS

33

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