Jewish learning Striking out in all the wrong places
Parashat Chukat-Balak (Numbers 19:1-25:9)
The sequence of parashiyot that follows us through early summer—Korach, Chukat, Balak—is saturated in disappointment and its aftermath. One by one, we watch our heroes succumb to a plot thread so common it feels like TV: character experiences significant loss; then, in predictable yet always cringe-inducing fashion, said character proceeds to lose it about something totally trivial at an unsuspecting innocent.
See the rebels in our previous parashah, Korach. Their complaint to Moses begins with a well-worn desert trope: “was it not enough that you brought us up from a land flowing in milk and honey to kill us off in the wilderness?” But then it takes a more personal turn: “must you also lord over us??” (Numbers 16:13)
In response, Moses is—as targets for misplaced disappointment tend to be—defensive, and a little confused. Like a rabbi complaining to her spouse after a dispiriting board meeting, Moses takes his frustration to the Divine. “I haven’t taken a single donkey from these people!” he exclaims (Numbers 16:15). Addressing the rebels’ gripes against his brother, he asks in wonderment: Aharon ma hu lach? “What does Aaron have anything to do with this?” Moses admonishes them. “Your fight isn’t with him; it’s with G-d!”
But how simple is it, really, to take a complaint directly to G-d? Even Moses, in the first of this week’s two parashiyot, seems to put his fury in the wrong place. Faced with a new water crisis, reeling from his sister Miriam’s death, the panicked Israelites breathing down his neck once again, Moses turns to G-d and is instructed to speak to a rock. And Moses, instead of speaking, takes aim with his staff and whacks the rock—twice.
You have to wonder if the rock could have spoken, if it might have echoed Moses himself: What’s your problem with me? I’m just a rock! Take your fight to G-d where it belongs! But the Divine, who meets Moses’s outburst with a harsh response, hasn’t exactly presented an open door.
Moses’s rock may not talk back, but soon after, someone surprising does. Bilaam, a prophet commissioned to curse the Israelites, has hopped on his donkey to go meet his benefactor Balak. Incensed, the Divine sends an angel with a drawn sword to stand in his way. Bilaam doesn’t see the obstruction, but the donkey does. Fielding blow after blow from her rider, the donkey tries and fails to circumvent the angel. When she finally stops, completely stuck, she receives a familiar response: “Bilaam was furious, and he beat her with a stick.” (Numbers 22:27)
In this (forgive me) striking reenactment of Moses’s recent attack on the rock, here “G-d opened the donkey’s mouth” (Numbers 22:28)—but instead of water, speech flows out. “What have I done to you?!” she excoriates her rider.
“I’ve been your donkey all this time. Have you ever known me to behave this way?” demands the donkey—presumably, rhetorically—and Bilaam, spurred to reflection, admits: “No.” (Numbers 22:29)
Certainly, a talking donkey is an unexpected turn. But just as unexpected is Bilaam’s response. His “no” marks a moment of revelation—a moment denied every other character we’ve seen so far slamming headfirst into their own disappointment. In direct response, vayigal Hashem et einei Bilaam (Numbers 22:30)—G-d removes whatever was preventing Bilaam from seeing the source of his frustration—not the donkey, but an insurmountable roadblock in her own path. And here Bilaam’s story turns around; not only is his personal disaster averted, but the curse he intended for the Israelites will become abundant blessing.
I find myself wondering why, out of all the frustrated folks in these chapters, it is only Bilaam—a non-Israelite, a brand new character—who manages to recover from the displacement of his disappointment. Notably, to get him there requires significant Divine intervention. It’s as if the ultra-miraculous exception proves the rule: most of us, most of the time, will find ourselves stuck in a loop of rage that lands on unsuspecting strangers (or unsuspecting loved ones), who are likely, in turn, to dump that feeling of unfairness onto others.
Part of the challenge of navigating life’s daily disappointments—the missed job opportunity, the terrible test results, the lost loved one—is that there is often no one or nothing concrete to blame. When our lives inexplicably veer off course, we know our fight is not with each other; it’s with G-d. But for many of us–as, perhaps, for the Israelites and even Moshe–moments of greatest loss are also moments when we feel furthest from the Divine. How can I lay my rage at G-d’s feet if it feels like G-d’s back is turned? And if bringing our grief to the Source of All feels out of reach, how do we avoid simply passing unfairness forward?
Bilaam may offer us one workaround: to hop aboard someone else’s blessing. The episode of Bilaam literally interrupts the regularly scheduled Biblical narrative; here is an outsider, telling a new story about the Israelites and their journey, with a well of resilience and reflectiveness we may be too embittered to access. Sure, Bilaam’s travel troubles are peanuts compared to what the Israelites have been through: plague, violence, beloved leaders lost. Still, there is something cathartic about watching a stranger struggle with a surmountable problem, recover, gain perspective, and land on a happy ending. The blessings flowing through Bilaam reach us, even if we never see our own angels; even if we don’t feel on speaking terms with the Divine; even when hope eludes us.
Maybe your burden is too heavy right now; maybe reflection and recalibration are beyond your reach. Is there a Bilaam around, someone who can pray for you when you can’t find the words yourself? Someone who seems, miraculously, to have recovered their own hope or grit? Maybe you find your Bilaam in the form of a predictable TV show, one whose plot defies the rules of real life: where conflict resolves, wisdom lands, relationships are repaired within thirty-three minutes. Or maybe you connect with a friend who is nursing their own sorrow and, remarkably, surviving.
Or maybe Bilaam is not the model you need today; maybe yours is Moses. A reminder to forgive yourself for directing your rage where you know it doesn’t belong: even our greatest teacher sometimes felt he had no other option. After all, moments when we can gracefully shoulder the burden of our disappointments—or even admit when we haven’t—do feel like a certain kind of miracle. Absent that, we may just need a sturdy rock, or a very patient donkey.
Shani Rosenbaum teaches Talmud and Halakha at the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College in Newton, MA. Meet Shani and learn more about Hebrew College’s Rabbinical School at our fall Open House, Ta Sh’ma (Come & Hear) on November 13, 2023.