I take the traditional negative approach to the figure of Bil’am, the non-Jewish prophet whose story we find in the weekly portion of “Balak,” personally. On this point I have had more than one occasion to express my thoughts in the past. What I had never noticed until now is the complex combination of motifs of revelation /uncovering and of hiding / covering.
Num. 22:2ff “Balak son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites. Moab was alarmed because that people was so numerous. Moab dreaded the Israelites, and Moab said to the elders of Midian, “Now this horde will lick clean all that is about us as an ox licks up the grass of the field.” Balak son of Zippor, who was king of Moab at that time, sent messengers to Balaam son of Beor in Pethor, which is by the Euphrates, in the land of his kinsfolk, to invite him, saying, “There is a people that came out of Egypt; it hides the earth from view, and it is settled next to me. Come then, put a curse upon this people for me, since they are too numerous for me; perhaps I can thus defeat them and drive them out of the land. For I know that he whom you bless is blessed indeed, and he whom you curse is cursed.” The elders of Moab and the elders of Midian, versed in divination, set out. They came to Balaam and gave him Balak’s message.
There are quite a few things to discuss and understand in this passage – I would like to focus on the part where the alarmed Balak says to the elders of Midian that the people of Israel are so numerous that they hide the earth from view. Now, one could just say it’s a rhetorical exaggeration, a hyperbole intended to express the level of anxiety in Balak. I would like to refer at this point to the Sfat Emet who, as it is often the case with his commentary, has an interesting take on this phrase. Pondering on the possible reasons behind Balak’s intention to curse the people of Israel, the Sfat Emet inquires: “Did he not know that they [the Israelites] are the people of God ad his legacy?” The real question the Sfat Emet is asking is – was it not clear enough to Balak that the People of Israel were the people of God? Had he not heard of the great miracles in Egypt? Had he not heard of the recent clash with the King of Heshbon? In other words, we could rephrase the question and say “Was Balak blind to the obvious?” And that is the point we really need to address – there is actually nothing obvious at work here, nothing absolutely and totally revealed.
“Because in truth the People of Israel, whom God had taken out of Egypt and had chosen to be his people and legacy, had been redeemed in order to hide the force of sanctity, such that God could project his goodness and hide it within the righteous and thus prevent from the wicked to see his Light… The people of Israel are therefore the partition [hiding Divine sanctity] preventing the wicked from seeing this abundance.”
As opposed to most of the Hassidic rhetoric I have come to know in the last few years, Israel is here not portrayed as the agent of revelation of Divine will in a world of darkness and ignorance, but rather the opposite – they are the partition, the “mehitza” or separation which blinds the otherwise immediate revelation of things. And the Sfat Emet adds to this “And this is also a good thing for the wicked, for it is thus that they can, despite their wickedness, perceive the epitome of Divine sanctity.”
God, and God’s intention, may be perceived, but never directly – there is always a system of signification at work, a semiosis through which the internal meaning is conveyed externally to the eye of the observer. The outcome of things is uncertain, even to Balak – and that is what makes him so dangerous. He looks to Bil’am for answers, for true and certain answers – because, as he employs twice the word “perhaps” in the same parashah, uncertainty is what makes the outcome of things impossible to perceive. The truth is hidden just as the angel remains hidden to Bil’am – the truth can, by Divine decision, be revealed to an ass but not to a prophet. The truth, in the form of an angel with a drawn sword, can then be revealed, yet the violence produced by this uncertainty is destructive: “Balaam said to the ass, ‘You have made a mockery of me! If I had a sword with me, I’d kill you.’” Bil’am’s answer is simple: “Balaam said to the angel of the LORD, ‘I erred because I did not know that you were standing in my way. If you still disapprove, I will turn back.’” Bil’am did not know.
Nothing, not sacrifices, nor dreams, nor prophetic visions, can actually reveal the Divine intention (whatever that may be or mean or entail). Upon approaching the interpretation of Divine will the individual must accept that it is a process of hermeneutic search, a never ending process in which one perceives signs yet cannot know what the full intention behind them is. The Israel presented by the Sfat Emet is a sign, a conveyance which both reveals and hides. Confronted with a reality which we do not understand, it is essential that we assume a stance of intellectual humility – because the hidden is always somehow to be revealed, and the revealed is always hidden.
*Yaakov Mascetti holds a Ph.D. and teaches at the Department of Comparative Literature, Bar Ilan University.