Balak: Hatred Twists the Soul

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Balak

In the morning Bilaam arose, saddled his she-donkey and went with the Moabite dignitaries. ” (Bamidbar/ Numbers 22:21) 

Good afternoon! Many of you know the story of Bilaam, the sorcerer hired by Balak, the king of Moav, to put a curse on the Israelites as they traveled through the land. (If you don’t know the story, or how it turns out, there’s a summary here.) While the text of the Torah seems to portray Bilaam as motivated more by greed than animus, the ancient rabbis clearly thought he wanted to curse Israel out of ill-will towards them. 

In fact, our old friend Rashi quotes an earlier text on the verse above, noting (by way of comparison to our father Avraham) that “getting up in the morning” seems to connote a special zeal for the task at hand. Rashi also notes that Bilaam saddled his donkey  himself, and comments that “hatred spoils the standard,” meaning, he was so consumed by hatred for the Jews that he disregarded the protocol due a man of his rank and saddled his own donkey, rather than having a servant do it for him. 

Now, I don’t have a servant to saddle my donkey (ok, truth be told, I don’t have a donkey either), but I’ve seen many times how resentment and negativity causes people to act in ways unbecoming their dignity. In fact, I might even propose that remembering that you and I and every person is created in the Divine Image is a way to regain the composure and thoughtfulness which resentment “spoils,” to use Rashi’s image. If we remember not only that the person or people towards whom we have anger, frustration or ill-will are children of God, but so are we, then perhaps a desire to live on that spiritual level will enable us to re-center and remember that anger and hatred rarely solve our problems, nor leave us feeling any better. How should we behave? Not like Bilaam, who gave up his dignity out of hatred, but like Aaron, who spent his live seeking peace and pursuing it. 

Shabbat Shalom, 

RNJL 

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