THERE’S AN OLD SAYING: “IF you don’t look closely at every detail, you miss most of the jokes.” Although there are few obvious jokes in this week’s Torah portion, Balak, an admitted burlesque about a Jew-hating king and his bumbling wizard, we are missing one of the more interesting details.
In a classic Torah service, we divide the portion into seven pieces, or aliyot, each one framed by blessings. This gives us a different relationship to the text than if we just read the story straight through. Among other things, it gives us time to reflect; for the words to reach their mark; for repetitions and patterns to show us something new.
What we would notice this week, among other things, is that Bilaam is not so free an agent as he would like to believe. At the end of the second aliyah, after Bilaam the wizard has been summoned by Balak the king to curse the Jews, God appears to Bilaam in a dream: “If the men have come to summon you, arise and go with them. But only the thing that I shall speak to you — that shall you do.”
And he does, according to the next four aliyot. Balak is dismayed that Bilaam winds up blessing the Jews instead of cursing them. But Bilaam ends aliyah number three with, “Whatever word God puts in my mouth, that shall I speak.” After more blessings, aliyah number four ends, “Whatever Adonai puts in my mouth, that I must take heed to speak.” The fifth aliyah closes: “Whatever Adonai shall speak, that shall I do.” Finally, aliyah number six finishes with: “Whatever Adonai speaks, that shall I speak.”
(Now, it may be worthwhile to point out that the name of God used at the ends of aliyahs two or three — God speaking and Bilaam repeating — are the same in Hebrew: “Elohim,” which is traditionally identified with the divine aspect of justice and line-making. The next three use the four-letter Yod Heh Vav Heh, which we pronounce Hashem or Adonai and which symbolizes God’s merciful aspect. But I could neither invent nor discover any commentary addressing the why. So we’ll leave that for next year’s reading.)
Torah places a high value on words and language — indeed, by the Torah’s account, the very Universe was created from words. So here’s the question: What would it be like if we all had Bilaam’s restraint? That is, we could go where we wanted, but whenever we opened our mouths only God would come out? Maybe it would be like the world enjoined on us in this week’s haftarah, or complementary reading, from the prophet Micah. According to Micah,words don’t enter into it. “He has told you, o man, what is good, and what Adonai seeks from you: only to do justly, to love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.”
“Do justly” — Let our actions be fair and well-considered. “Love mercy” — Let our hearts judge favorably. “And walk humbly with your God” — embrace our place in the world, secure in the knowledge that we are already exactly where we need to be. Micah doesn’t mention “speaking.” But according to our Torah portion, God seems to have that already covered. May we all attain the capacity to listen, to do, to love and to walk wherever we’re called to go.