Balak: Priests and Prophets

by Sharon RosenzweigWell, here’s an odd little story in the middle of the wilderness.

There’s this non-Israelite king (one of the “bad” guys) who is going up against the Israelites in battle, and to ensure victory, he seeks out what apparently was a typical way of gaining an upper hand in war:  find a local prophet to curse your enemy and you’ll win.  So Balak (the king) finds Balaam (the well-known, non-Israelite prophet who has a great cursing/blessing record) and tries to get him to curse the Israelites.  Balak  tries really hard, sending increasingly important emissaries with more and more of a retainer, but Balaam only says he can say what God puts into his mouth.  Balak hires him anyway.  On the way, Balaam is blind to a message coming from God…his donkey sees it, however, and Balaam grows increasingly frustrated at how his donkey is just stopping in the middle of the road. After all, the donkey can’t move when the angel is blocking the path!  After beating the donkey again, the donkey speaks up, saying in effect, “Hey, knock it off!  Have I ever disobeyed you before?  Open your eyes and LOOK!” Finally, Balaam sees the angel, and he is appropriately chagrined.  When Balaam finally got to King Balak, and followed the king to vangtage point after vantage point, making an offering at each hill,  always seeing the israelite encampment in the valley below,  the King was dismayed to hear Balaam keep blessing the Israelites, not curse them, just like God had said:  How good are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel”…

Then there’s another odd story, though this one has a more violent turn.  Moses is walking along by the Tabernacle when he came upon a scene of the  Israelites whooping it up with the Moabite women – brazenly flaunting themselves , worshipping their god.  Moses starts to issue forth punishment  (impalement) for such behavior, when suddenly one of the Israelites brings his Midianite floozy over, and in sight of the whole community, walks her into his tent.  Pinchas the priest, Aaron’s grandson, grabbed a spear, rushed into the tent and skewered the couple straight through their, um, “bellies” (according to Rashi, 11th c French winemaking rabbi).

What to make of these two incidents?  One involved a non-Israelite prophet who nevertheless praised the Israelites as the ones whom God protects, and blesses them.  The other involves a zealous (homicidal?) Israelite priest who was trying to make a point about cavorting with the enemies.   Though the topic is far deeper than these few comments, they give us an opportunity to look at the nature and role of ritual (the priest) and vision (the prophet).

The prophet is the one apart – outside society, in a kind of communication no one else can hear.  S/he is the mysterious, the remote, the leader with the vision but not the practice.  The priest is the opposite – among the people, skilled in relaying the rules and concretizing the vision, but often so much a guardian of the ritual that s/he leaves no room for human emotion or individual thought.  Is it the nature of ritual to be rigid and exclusive, but based in the community, and the nature of prophecy to be fluid and inclusive, but solitary and apart from society?  How do we make ritual inclusive?  How do we make vision communal? How do we blend the passion and vision of the prophet with the structure and context of the priest?

 We need to reach beyond the solitary prophet, beyond the regulated priest, to a community that has a way to put the passion into practice, involving the entire community and sharing the vision of blessing.

By the way, that cool challah art up top is the work of my friend and master challah artist Sharon Rosenszweig.   Along with her husband Aaron Freeman, they created the Comic Torah   Check ’em out.

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