Much of Sefer B'midbar (Numbers) is pretty uncomplimentary about the Israelite people. Complaints about the quality of the leadership, the food, and the destination abound. Backbiting within the leadership is not unheard of. When we rolled up the Torah last week, we were down two key leaders, Miryam and Aharon, who had both died. Moshe himself was notified that he was officially a lame duck.
All of which makes Parashat Balak a fascinating interlude. One moment, the story is down in the roads and valleys where the Israelites are walking. Then suddenly we're up in the mountains of Moab on the east side of the Jordan, listening to conversations involving Balak, King of Moab, and Bil'am, a sorcerer-prophet. Balak wants to hire Bil'am to curse the Israelites.
And we're thinking -- that should be easy enough! But the Torah has its subtle ways of getting our attention. The Balak-Bil'am story is a literary feat. After chapters of conflict, we have comedy. Bil'am, who hears God's instructions but is still tempted by the king's offer of riches. Bil'am's donkey, who can see an angel from God when his master the prophet cannot. Then there's poor King Balak, who schleps Bil'am from hill to hill, like a sniper looking for a shot, hoping to get Bil'am to cross God and issue the paid-for curse.
What we're getting, in short, is a totally different view on what's happening with the Israelites. From outsiders, on top of mountains. God, through these Moabites, reminds us that no matter the troubles below, the Israelites are in good shape. From the mountaintop, it's possible to see, as Bil'am famously puts it: Mah tovu ohalecha Yaakov, mishkenotecha Yisrael! How good are your tents, Jacob, your places-where-God-dwells, Israel!
A good message for these weeks. After all the focus on Israel's Gaza blockade, and the horrible story of religious Jews who refuse to send their children to school with other religious Jews because they aren't religious enough...we might think the Jewish people are in dire straits. There are enough "Balaks" around who would say that, who rush to tell us that we are a curse!
But we are, indeed, more a blessing. This past week at our synagogue we had our annual meeting. We could look back on a year of mutual support, celebration, creativity, and action for the good of our community and the world. Multiply that story of a small community by several thousand, and think of all the blessing that Jews add, that we are.
There's the more personal lesson too, about changing the point of view. Don't misunderstand me -- there are curses in our lives. Not every lemon can be made into lemonade, and not every cloud has a silver lining. But we can take the story of Balak and Bil'am as a prompt. If we're on a road that seems difficult...is it possible to see something different? If I were an outside observer, would I see it different? Would I see a blessing amidst the curses? Is there a laugh to be had somewhere nearby?
It's not an answer, a yes necessarily. It's just the questions. Sometimes, we just need to remind ourselves to take a moment and see if there's another way to see what's going on. Maybe there is.