This week’s Torah portion tells of a king’s desire to curse the Children of Israel as they wandered in the desert.
The king, Balak, hired a prophet named Balaam, who encountered an angel of God blocking his path. But there was a problem – only the ass on which he was riding could see the angel. And because Balaam could not see the impediment in their way, each time the ass tried to stop he became enraged and beat her. Finally the ass magically spoke to him, and Balaam’s eyes were opened to the truth.
The story is a poignant reminder that sometimes we can’t see what’s right in front of us, regardless of how important it is. And sometimes when that happens we act out of anger and frustration, just as Balaam did.
I pity Balaam. He was under a prodigious amount of stress, knowing that Balak, the human ruler, and God, the Divine Ruler, wanted two very different things from him. Balak demanded curses; God demanded blessings. Both had the power to reward or punish, and inevitably one of them was going to be unhappy with the outcome.
Some commentators have said that the entire episode was actually Moses dreaming, revealing his insecurities. Jan Uhrbach, of the Jewish Theological Seminary, wrote: “It is a dream emerging from a crisis of faith: faith in himself, in the people, in God and God’s ways, and in the ability of human beings to connect, understand, and serve.”
At times of national crisis – and I believe we are in the midst of such a time – it is easy to lose faith. We despair of people with different perspectives being able to connect. But we must not give up on each other.
America was founded by a small group of men who did not always agree with one another. Despite their differences, and knowing that whatever they did would be imperfect, they created a new nation with a foundational document that they hoped would stand the test of time.
The democracy they bequeathed to us was flawed then and it is flawed today. And we must not give up on it. We must open our eyes and instead of acting with anger and frustration, as Balaam did, we must do everything in our power to help make it better.