POETRY & PROPHECY
Rabbi David Walk
In last week's article I asked a question, but didn't really answer it. I asked who were the moshlim referred to in verse 27 of chapter 21. I sort of answered by writing that they were poets as opposed to rulers. However, I skipped over the ready answer given by Rashi on the spot: This refers to Balaam, about whom it says, 'He took up his parable' (23:7), and his father Beor (based on the Midrash, Numbers Rabah, 19:30, 20:7). In other words, I answered in a generic way while Rashi went for the specific information. This is in keeping with a rabbinic conceit about the Torah. Our Sages studied Tanach under the assumption that the Holy Book is totally self contained. That assumes there are no characters or incidents which can't be identified by just studying the rest of Torah. So, the rabbis are very happy to identify the moshlim in last week's parsha with the individual (and his father who was apparently also his mentor) who recites a mashal in this week's reading. But this identification carries some baggage, since we have Balaam acting as a purveyor of proverbs last week and a revealer of God's word this week. Is he poet or prophet?
Well, this is a problem. In the Torah, Balaam is never called a prophet. However, numerous times the verses claim that God put words into his mouth (Numbers 23:5 and 16) and he claims to 'hear the sayings of God and knows the knowledge of the Supreme One (24:16).' Based on these references, our Sages refer to him regularly as a prophet. I think that we can resolve at least some of the confusion by a close analysis of one of these instances. In chapter 23 verse 5 it says that God put an utterance into Balaam's mouth, but two verses later it says 'Balaam spoke his own message (or parable, or discourse, or oracle, or poem).' This explains a lot. First of all, it helps us to see the unique nature of Moshe's relationship with God. Moshe only declaims exactly what God communicated. Other prophets say in their own way what they understood of the communiqué from God. Also, this explains why in Pirkei Avot Balaam is compared to Avraham and not Moshe. They had more in common. They both were approached by various individuals to help in what was perceived as spiritual issues. They are viewed as holy men rather than prophets.
So, Balaam was both prophet and poet. His prophecy was his ability to perceive Divine ideas which were being broadcast by God; his poetry was his skill at conveying it to the audience. I believe that great poets have two talents. The first is to perceive the world in original and creative ways. They notice things that elude the normal observer. I gave Thornton Wilder credit for that idea last week. Then they have the felicity of language to express what they've discerned in ways which draw the rest of us into their secret. We see a great example of this in our parsha. I have no idea if Balaam was a gifted prophet, but he was definitely able to recognize realities arrayed before him. The most important fact that he observed in our parsha is contained in the following quote: I see a people who live by themselves, set apart from other nations (23:9). He discerned that the Jews are different from all other nations and ethnicities. This point was missed by Amalekite, Amorite, Moabite and Ammonite.
But in what ways are we different? To answer this question requires a much more sophisticated set of skills. However, I think that he nailed this one too. The special nature of the Jews comes in two parts. One corresponds to 'a people who live by themselves' and the other is expressed by 'a nation set apart.' I believe that the first great dissimilarity can be discerned from Balaam's pronouncement: For there is no divination in Jacob, and no magic in Israel (verse 23). We don't relate to the world in natural ways. Others look for signs, omens or news reports to figure out what to do. We look in the Torah and follow the Halacha. It's not that we think that the common pathways are wrong. It's just that we follow a route designated by God and paved by our Sages.
The other area in which we differ from the rest of the world concerns our destiny. Balaam detected it in his remark: I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near: a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel (24:17). The Jewish nation sees itself as being in the game for the long haul. The present situation hints at little concerning the final outcome. Last minute developments can change mourning to joy, or victory to draw (Curse you, Portugal!). As disturbed as we may be by a crushing immediate situation, we still have incredible hope for a wondrous future. This Jewish propensity for delayed gratification has served us well. It's both healthy and edifying. We envision and fully expect the final redemption, but it's just not to be here and now. Rather it is beyond the horizon, behind those storm clouds. It's b'agala, in the final turning of the circle, and we hope b'zman karov, in the near term.
So we Jews are different because we are Ya'akov who muddles through the immediate revolting predicament by tenacious commitment to our tradition and our God. We eschew quick fixes and magic, because neither solves anything in the long run. And we are Yisrael who is confident and convinced of a better tomorrow in which our steadfast, and often heartbreaking, loyalty will be vindicated.
We have learned this perspective on our present fate and future destiny from our holy texts, from our saintly Sages and from an assiduous analysis of our long and anguished history. But ya know, it's good to hear it from an outside observer, especially one as talented, inspired and eloquent as Balaam. It's poetry as a balm for all our hurt.