In this week’s Torah portion, Balak, King of the Moabites sends for Bilaam, a sorcerer-type who is reputed to have remarkable powers: whomever he blesses becomes blessed and whomever he curses becomes cursed. Impressed by his reputation, Balak recruits Bilaam to curse the Israelites and seal their doom.
What ensues is brilliant Biblical satire. Bilaam sets out on his mission and is toyed with by God at every turn. Bilaam, the great seer cannot even see what his own ass (pardon the expression) sees:
(Bilaam) was riding on his she-ass, with his two servants alongside, when the ass caught sight of the angel of the Lord standing in the way, with his drawn sword in his hand. The ass swerved from the road and went into the fields; and Bilaam beat the ass to turn her back on to the road. (Numbers 22:22)
When Bilaam finally arrives at the Israelite camp, his humiliation deepens: try as he might to curse the Israelites, God makes sure that he can only bless them. Ironically, his blessings over Israel are among the most powerful Biblical poems of praise (including the famous verses “Mah tovu ohalecha ya’akov” – “How beautiful are your tents, O Jacob!” which have since become a permanent part of the Jewish morning liturgy.)
Though some commentators view Bilaam in positive terms, the conventional understanding of this story is as a monotheistic polemic against pseudo-prophets. Indeed, although Bilaam blesses Israel in the end, his blessings are the product of divine manipulation, not authentic piety. It is difficult to read this story and not, on some level, view Bilaam as something of a fraud.
The story of Bilaam raises many issues, not least of which is the role of flatterers and sycophants in society. Are blessings truly blessings if they come to us through circumstance or with ulterior motive? Who are the Bilaams in our midst today, whose words of support only serve to mask a deeper and possibly darker motive?
For the Bilaam of the 21st century, I cast my vote for Christian evangelical pastor John Hagee, founder of the Christians United For Israel – a religious leader who has been embraced by many quarters of the Jewish community for his staunchly pro-Zionist views. Though Hagee and his followers are amassing impressive political clout and raising increasing amounts of dollars that fill the coffers of Jewish Federations around the country, there is certainly ample reason to question whether his “blessing” to the Jewish community is one we should be so eager to accept.
Hagee’s preaches a Biblically-based version of Zionism that views Israel as God’s gift to the Jewish People and is an avowed opponent of the peace process. Even more troubling, however, is his apocalyptic prescription for Mideast “peace.” In his bestselling book, “Jerusalem Countdown,” he advocates a preemptive strike against Iran and posits that the West will soon become engaged in nuclear war with “Islamo-fascists” which will eventually initiate Armageddon, the final earthly battle described in the Book of Revelation. Hagee further claims that this battle will conclude with the death of countless Israeli citizens and the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.
Some Jews argue that we have cannot afford be choosy, that in desperate times we must find our friends where we can – even if they are among the Bilaams of the world. But are such alliances truly in our best interest? Indeed, as we learn in this week’s Torah portion: motives matter. We would do well to avoid “crisis mode thinking” that could lead us to ill-advised relationships with pseudo-prophets such as Hagee – and unwittingly help create circumstances that will eventually make Armageddon a self-fulfilling prophecy.
(For more about Hagee and the growing Jewish relationship with the Evangelical Right, check out this article from The Jewish Week.)