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Guest Message from URJ

Week of June 28

Whose Word Is It Anyway?

Balak, Numbers 22:2-25:9

D'var Torah By: Steven Kushner

"Blessed is the One who spoke and the world came to be . . ." (P'sukei D'zimrah, morning liturgy). It is among the most central of Jewish values. The power of the word. God created the universe by "speaking" it into being. The Torah, the link connecting God and Israel, is also known as mikra, "that which is (verbally) called." And the most essential communications of that sacred text, the Ten Commandments, are not actually referred to in the Jewish tradition as "commandments" but rather Aseret HaDib'rot, the "Ten Utterances."

The word is the currency of covenant. God speaks to us and we listen (Sh'ma Yisrael). Among the most serious breaches of our relationship with the Divine is to utter God's name in vain. Conversely, when our daughters and sons come of age to assume their place within the structure of that covenant we ask them to master the word. The list goes on and on.

This dynamic is especially present in Sefer B'midbar (the Book of Numbers), the name of which is rooted in the letters dalet-bet-reish, the same letters that form the Hebrew for "word," d'var, and "to speak," l'dabair. It is here in B'midbar that Moses receives his death sentence for hitting the rock (to bring forth water) instead of speaking to it, as he was instructed (Numbers 20:2-13). It is in this book that Miriam and Aaron slander their brother Moses, questioning "Has the Eternal spoken only through Moses? Has God not spoken through us as well?" (Numbers 12:2). And it is here in B'midbar that Eldad and Medad are found speaking publicly in ecstasy, leading Moses to wonder, "Would that all the Eternal's people were prophets . . . " (Numbers 11:29). That, indeed, is the question.

Prophecy is the dynamic of the Divine word as communicated through the human being. Any chance of us mortals being able to hear the word of God was put to an end when the people, standing in abject fear at the foot of the mountain, said to Moses, "You speak to us . . . and we will obey; but let not God speak to us, lest we die" (Exodus 20:16). As Richard Elliott Friedman points out in The Disappearance of God, the Eternal "never again speaks directly to an entire human community."1 Now the word could come only through an intermediary, a prophet. And that brings us to Parashat Balak.

In some ways the narrative of this week's Torah portion is pretty much the same as those that have preceded it. The Israelites are wandering. Along the way they encounter obstacles that require a military response. But this time, hearing the stories of Israel's improbable victories, Balak, the Moabite king, decides to enlist a prophet, Balaam, to see if God's word can be used against Israel. Needless to say, both Balak and Balaam fail. Instead of getting cursed, Israel is blessed: Mah-tovu ohalecha Yaakov, mishk'notecha Yisrael, "How fair are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel" (Numbers 24:5).

In this story, however, are much deeper issues. It is not insignificant that we have a non-Israelite prophet. Balaam is a gentile. In other words, God doesn't speak just to Israelites. By the same token, God also speaks through an animal in this story, namely an ass (Numbers 22:21-35), which, of course, is to say, it's the message (not the messenger). This, so far, is obvious. The more important question is, what is the story trying to teach us? Indeed if Balaam is a vessel for the word of God, then what is it that he does that is so wrong? After all, even Balaam admits "I can utter only the word that God puts into my mouth" (Numbers 22:38).

This is what I think. The story of Balak and Balaam is a cautionary tale of prophecy gone bad. It is an illustration of what prophecy is not supposed to be. This is not to be confused with false prophecy. Anyone, of course, can pretend to be a prophet. Anyone can stand before a community and say they have received the word of God. But this is worse. Balaam is genuinely a mouthpiece for God. Torah affirms this when, in the course of the story, God actually speaks to him. What is problematic is that both Balak and Balaam attempt to manipulate God. More to the point, they attempt to manipulate God's word. To be sure, they fail. But the lesson is unmistakable. The role of the prophet is to be a conduit for the word of God, nothing more. In other words, it should not be about what we want from God, but rather the other way around.

The message still applies today. There are no more prophets. The tradition is not clear why prophecy ceased. Perhaps it is as simple as this: nothing more needs to be said. God told us everything we needed to hear as recorded in the texts of Torah and the prophets emphasized and reinforced the core of those messages in their own communications. Now it is up to us to "do" the word. "All that the Eternal has said we will do . . . "(Exodus 19:8). Even the Rabbis of the Talmud understood this when, in the story of Achnai's oven, we are taught:

"But R. Joshua arose and exclaimed: 'It is not in heaven.' What did he mean by this? Said R. Jeremiah: 'That the Torah had already been given at Mount Sinai; we pay no attention to a Heavenly Voice, because You have long since written in the Torah at Mount Sinai . . .' " (Babylonian Talmud, Bava M'tzia 59b)

But we must be careful. Those of us who adhere to the religious life need be very cautious when it comes to embracing the word (so-called) of God. Simply put, do I have the right to speak in the name of God? A number of years ago, Emanuel Cleaver, the then-mayor of Kansas City, shared with the attendees of a Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now known as the Union for Reform Judaism) Biennial convention about his ability to hear the word of God. In addition to his political life, Mr. Cleaver is also a minister. But as he shared with those in attendance that he was certain he could hear the word of God, he also admitted that there were more than a few times when even he was unclear whether it was God speaking to him or if it was the voice of Emanuel Cleaver coming to him "in disguise."

Prophecy is powerful and sacred and potentially even dangerous stuff. The true prophet never seeks out the word of God. On the contrary, he resists it. And he certainly never tries to manipulate it. The prophet is just the mouthpiece, nothing more. Indeed, as the prophet Micah so eloquently put it in perspective, God demands only three things of us: to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8). The operative word there is "humbly."

Balak tried (and failed) to manipulate the word of God. Balaam, perhaps enamored with his God-given ability, allowed himself to be seduced into thinking he had influence with God. Not quite. When it came to prophecy, that gift was exclusively reserved for Moses whose name interestingly never appears in this story, perhaps to resist any comparisons. Indeed, as Torah comes to an end we are told clearly and without equivocation, never again would there be a prophet like Moses (Deuteronomy 34:10). In other words, Balaam was no Moses.

1. Richard Elliott Friedman, The Disappearance of God (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1995 p. 17

Rabbi Steven Kushner is concluding his 35th year as the rabbi of Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, New Jersey.

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