Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Parshas Balak - False Prophets and Talking Donkeys

Parshas Balak is the first time that the perspective moves away from Moshe and the Children of Israel. Instead we get a look into the camp of their enemies. Why is this necessary?

For that matter why have G-d deliver prophecies through the mouth of an evil man or have a donkey talk? And why does Bilaam so gloriously praise Israel in these prophecies as a seemingly perfect nation when the narrative before had them on the brink of destruction before their sins.

And no sooner do Bilaam's prophecies conclude than they sin again and are hit with a plague.

Clearly the Jews, like all people, are flawed. Why does Bilaam seem unable to find any flaw in them to curse them?

The answers to all these questions are interconnected. And they begin with a talking donkey that sees an angel that her master does not. Why does the donkey see the angel when Bilaam does not? Because the donkey is following G-d's will and her master isn't.

Things derive their holiness from the extent to which they serve G-d's will. That's true of the Jews, Bilaam, the angel and the donkey.  Prophets are meant to be vessels for the word of G-d. A prophet becomes false when he replaces the word of G-d with his own message.

By having a separate agenda, Bilaam had become a false prophet. Because he wanted to curse what G-d had not cursed, he lost the ability to properly see the Divine. This was graphically demonstrated to him when he was unable to see an angel that even his donkey could see.

We perceive the Godly to the extent that we serve G-d's purpose. Bilaam had lost that perception. He continued to receive prophecies, but those were now suited to his new level.

Bilaam had sought to curse the Jews by viewing them negatively from a higher spiritual plane. This curse was meant to influence G-d to see their flaws. But ironically by trying to curse the Jews, he fell from the higher plane that allowed him to see their flaws.

As Balak led Bilaam to high places in order to look down on the Jews, Bilaam was still unable to look down on the Jews no matter how high he went. Like the donkey looking at the angel, his current status only enabled him to see something gloriously above him. And that is what his prophecy expressed.

When we read the Torah, we see events through the perspective of G-d. On that level, the Jews, like most people, seem perpetually hopeless, mired in sin and on the verge of destruction.

But from the far lower perspective of Bilaam, the Jews suddenly appeared angelic. He could find no flaws to exploit in order to curse them. Instead he had to advise Balak on ways to create those flaws. Bilaam had become blind to the evil he sought and he sealed his doom by trying to create it instead.

There are many perspectives in life, but not all are equally true. Bilaam, the donkey, Moshe and G-d all had their own perspectives. But a perspective is truest when it is closest to G-d. When the donkey talked, it was a warning to Bilaam that his perspective was now lower than that of a donkey. He had become more able to communicate with animals than angels.

And as a human donkey, he could see no flaw in the Jews, just as a donkey can see no flaws in a man or a man in an angel.

Bilaam's attempt to innovate, to play a double game with G-d, turned him into a false prophet, but Moshe had been punished with being barred from Israel for striking, rather than speaking to the rock. On his high level, as the greatest of all prophets, even a minor deviation from G-d's purpose, cost him his place in performing the will of G-d.

When those who curse the Jews are cursed, it is because they, like Bilaam, presume to attack G-d's purpose. In response, G-d punishes them by taking away what spiritual gifts they have leaving them cursed to be unable to perceive anything higher than those they cursed. When they bless the Jews, they are blessing G-d's purpose and are rewarded by being blessed to perceive more of it.

The Torah shows us some of the purpose of G-d to within our ability to understand it. It blesses us in that way. When we attempt to pervert it for our own purposes, it instead becomes a curse.

Like everything else in the world, it has the property of potentially being both a blessing and a curse. Like the earth that either grows a rich bounty or turns to dust, the blessing and curse are contained within everything in the world to the extent that those who call on it serve G-d's purpose.

Those who presume to speak falsely in G-d's name act as false prophets and are nothing more than talking donkeys. And even a donkey can reprove a prophet when she fulfills G-d's purpose. That was G-d's message to Bilaam.

Holiness is not static. It ebbs and flows to the extent that we serve G-d.

Sometimes we are all Bilaam or Balak, seeking to twist G-d's will into a shape that will give us what we want, without regard for what G-d wants. As Balak, we turn to dubious interpretations or dubious religious leaders. As Bilaam, we play the hypocrite with G-d, saying one thing and meaning another.

And sometimes we are Moshe, fulfilling the true will of G-d. And other times, we are talking donkeys unknowingly doing what G-d wants because it seems like common sense to us.