This week’s Torah portion tells of a king’s desire to curse the Children of Israel as they wandered in the desert.
The Moabite king Balak hired the prophet Balaam. On his way to meet with the king, Balaam encounters an angel of God blocking his path. But there’s a problem – only the ass on which he is riding can see the angel.
And because Balaam cannot see the impediment in their way, each time the ass tries to stop he becomes enraged and beats her. Finally the ass magically speaks to him, and Balaam’s eyes are opened to the truth.
A friend of mine often refers to this as her favorite fairytale in the Torah. For me, it is a poignant reminder that sometimes we can’t see what’s right in front of us, regardless of how important it is. And sometimes when that happens we act out of anger and frustration, just as Balaam did.
I pity Balaam. The poor man was under a prodigious amount of stress, knowing that Balak, the human ruler, and God, the Divine Ruler, wanted two very different things from him. Balak was demanding curses; God demanded blessings. Both had the power to reward or punish, and inevitably one of them was going to be unhappy with the outcome.
Some commentators have said that the entire episode was actually Moses dreaming, revealing his insecurities. Jan Uhrbach, of the Jewish Theological Seminary, wrote: “It is a dream emerging from a crisis of faith: faith in himself, in the people, in God and God’s ways, and in the ability of human beings to connect, understand, and serve.”
At times of national crisis – and I believe we are in the midst of such a time – it is easy to lose faith and especially to despair of people being able to connect and understand. But we must not give up on each other.
America was founded by a small group of men who did not always agree with one another. Despite their differences, and knowing that whatever they created would be imperfect, they created a new nation with a foundational document that they hoped would stand the test of time.
The democracy they bequeathed to us was flawed then and it is flawed today. And we must not give up on it. We must open our eyes and instead of acting with anger and frustration, as Balaam did, we must do everything in our power to help make it better.
With blessings for a Shabbat of peace and a joyful Independence Day, Rabbi Jennifer