Parashat Chukat-Balak – Erev Shabbat 3 July 2020
Week of 28 June – 4 July 2020
Torah portion: Numbers 19:1-25:9 Haftarah: Micah 5:6-6:8
Theme: What are we seeing?
As I reflect on Parashat Chukat-Balak this week, I am reminded of how I began seeing the scriptures anew because of Bat Kol. I am not a scholar of the word, yet I was invited to draw near and dive into a whole new way of engaging with the scriptures. I would like to honor that this week by focusing on the theme of ‘seeing’. In Parashat Chukat, we find the Israelites preparing for the final journey into the Promised Land. The LORD gives instructions concerning the ‘red cow’ and the rituals of purification after touching a corpse, human bones or a grave as they continue to be the chosen people. The death of Miriam, the disobedience of Moses and Aaron in Kadesh, the defeat in battle of Kings Sihon of Amorite and King Og of Bashan by the Israelites and the death of Aaron are all narrated in this section.
Parashat Balak is considered an insert into the wandering narratives (Berlin et al, 328) as focus is taken away from the travelling Israelites and the story shifts to an inside look into the lives of the people in the foreign lands they conquer on their way to the Promised Land. This Parasha opens with “Balak, son of Zippor, saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites. And Moab was very terrified of the people, for there were many, and Moab loathed the Israelites.” (22:2-3) The thematic key word in this entire episode is to “to see” (ra’h).(Alter, 1509) King Balak saw with eyes of fear and contempt. He then passed on this “seeing” to the elders of Midian and his messengers brought it forth to Balaam, the seer-for-hire, whom they sought out to assist them in defeating and driving the Israelites out of the land by cursing them. Why could King Balak not just request a blessing on his people to grant them victory?
Balaam received the summons twice with the second one bearing the promise of being greatly honored. He was clear in refusing immediately the first time he was summoned, yet what did he see that made him reconsider, seeking again further instructions from the God of Israel? God came to Balaam the second time and said, “If these men have come to call you, rise, go with them. But only the word that I speak to you shall you do.” (22:20) What did God see differently the second time that Balaam sought him, allowing him to respond to the call yet with a condition? The next morning, Balaam rose and saddled his donkey. I am fascinated by hearing an echo here: that of Abraham doing the same action, to fulfill the word of God concerning the offering of his son. Yet, Balaam encounters God’s wrath on the journey, through the form of an angel with a drawn sword obstructing his way. What could have been pre-occupying his vision that he was not able to be attentive to a sign that was a matter of life or death for him? His donkey, clearly seeing the angel, saved his life three times? Further into the Parasha, Balak witnesses the turning of the curses into blessings, not just once but three times, in accordance with his insistence on repeating them, seeking the doom that he wanted to see. Yet in the end, as Balaam returns empty-handed to his own land, he delivers doom to Balak and leaves a legacy to the nation of Israelites as his words are echoed daily in the opening of the Jewish morning liturgy: “How lovely are your tents, O Israel.” (24:5; cf. Ps 84:1)
For Reflection and Discussion: 1. How do you see your life situation at this time and how does that affect the way you live your life each day? 2. How can you endeavor to see things anew, bringing hope, peace and joy into the moments of today?
Bibliography: Alter, R. The Hebrew Bible (New York: 2019); Berlin, A. and Brettler M.Z. The Jewish Study Bible (New York: 2004)