Balak: Ego and Narcissism (2 of 3) (7/21/2019)

2) I am one of those people who see the Bible as intertwined with life. So I have to share a little bit about today, before getting to the reading.
3) Probably the nicest part of today was that I got to hold a baby in my arms.
4) We met mom in synagogue, and she had her hands full, so I held the baby, and it was unbelievably lovely.
5) As it happened we were having lunch at the same host. The baby was crying. I offered to hold him. Let mom eat.
6) This time the baby was pretty vocally upset and he wouldn’t stop crying.
7) With mom’s permission I took the baby outside, took off my shoes and sat there with him in the grass.

He couldn’t sit so I sort of tried to stand him up.
8) Well let’s face it, I couldn’t calm the kid down. But it wasn’t for lack of trying. I tried all sorts of goofy things including singing “So you have a shitty cold, a shitty shitty shitty cold,” as only a homemade song can be sung.
9) When that didn’t work I tried fast-walking through the grass holding the baby. 

Everything was good for about 5 seconds.
10) The point is, for the first time in my life I felt absolutely zero need to shush a crying baby.

I understood that babies need to cry to express themselves, that crying exists outside of my efforts to soothe the baby, and that shushing is about the adult, not the kid.
11) Too often, we adults have kids, but we are selfish about taking care of them.

We distort their needs, to fit our needs, and then claim we’re being selfless.

That’s what this Bible portion is about: Stop being narcissistic.
12) In this portion, the king of Moab wants to curse the Jews, although he knows they are God’s blessed people. 

He pays a prophet who knows the Jews are blessed, but takes the money, rationalizing that his prophetic skills surpass God’s will.
13) First he tries to distort God’s will. 

When that doesn’t work, he leverages the Jews’ weakness (lust) — just like a predatory adult takes advantage of the emotions of the child.
14) And as we see today unfolding right before our eyes, the slide to immorality always starts with words that sound like virtue.
15) Let’s dig in.
16) Numbers 22:2-5.

The nation of Moab is scared of the Jews. Not just God being with them, but the sheer number of them.

So they team up with Midian (Moses’ nation of origin) to think of a plan.
17) The escape of the Jews was supernatural, so the first attack is spiritual. They go to the prophet Balaam with sweet words.
18) Num. 22:6, Moab to Balaam:

He intentionally uses the same words that would otherwise refer to God in blessing the Jews. 

He ascribes God-like power to the messenger.

“For I know that whomever you bless is blessed and whomever you curse is accursed.”
19) You might think this is stupid except look how people idolize Silicon Valley “geniuses” while dismissing the notion that God actually created them.
20) The narcissism (you only see yourself as real) in this portion is truly over the top.

Narcissism —> grandiosity —> irrational self-centered thinking.

“I must shush the baby for his own good.”
21) Moab and Midian show up not just with sweet words but also with “charms in their hand.” (Num. 22:7)

What does this teach us?
22) Rashi (commentator) explains that “charms” refers to “the tools and implements that Balaam would need to cast spells.”
23) But if they truly believed that Balaam had an all-powerful mouth, why did they need special spell-enhancing implements?
24) The answer of course is that they only wanted to flatter Balaam, but they also had to “bridge” the gap between the truth and their lie.
25) We see this all the time with wasted Hell-wood stars and their “handlers,” who tell them “you’re fine, you’re fine” while also propping them up in any way imaginable so that they perform.
26) When it comes to human nature, nothing has changed at all from the time of the Bible, till now.
27) Balaam sees the flattery, sees the charms and sees the prospect of riches. He knows very well he can’t deliver unless God lets him.
28) So he drags the situation out with tricky and grandiose-sounding words. 

Num. 22:8 “Spend the night here and I shall give you a response,” he says. 

“God shall speak with me.”
29) This act of hubris earns Balaam a visit from God.
30) Num. 22:9 

“Who are these men with you?”
31) Num. 22:10-13— 

Balaam replies that the king of Moab asked him to curse Jews, to save the Moabites from being conquered.

God says no.

Balaam sends the officers away.
32) Num. 22:14-19

We now have an elaborate back and forth where the Moabites keep coming back promising more and more money. 

Balaam keeps protesting that he can’t disobey God, “my God,” but he somehow also keeps letting them in.
33) We learn a few things from this.

First of all, many people say that they are God-fearing. Few truly are.

Second, that actions speak louder than words. If you want people out, build a wall.
34) If you really stop to think about it, this entire episode is remarkable, for it counters the entire “chosen people” narrative.

Balaam is a non-Israelite who has the gift of prophecy, and God’s full and complete, direct attention.
35) The entire idea that God favors the Jews, meaning that the love and devotion of other faiths is less valuable, is completely and totally false.
36) This false belief, in a way, fuels the flames of child abuse.
37) Because the implicit assumption behind child abuse, from the perspective of the abuser, is that there are certain children who cannot be touched and certain children who can.
38) If we truly understood that God loves all people equally, regardless of our deeds (hate the sinner, not the sin) then abuse of any human being would truly be unimaginable.
39) Because Balaam was not a nice man. And still, God spoke to him, and he had the opportunity to do good.
40) Over and over again, Balaam fails the test, and he fails because he uses words to deceive.
41) Num. 22:20-22

So God, having told Balaam not to curse the Jews, comes back to him with a message. 

You can go with those guys, but only do what I tell you.
42) Balaam does what God says, but then the text says “God’s wrath flared because he was going.” (Num. 22:22)

43) Among the multiple explanations for this — “Before God destroys the foes of Israel, he elevates them.” 

(Midrash HaGadol, citing Midrash R’ Eliezer [ch.10], Stone Bible p. 859)
44) This concept is so important.
45) The concept of Israel here is the concept of struggle. It is very deep.

Our forefather Jacob struggled with the devil and won: In the end, the devil begged Jacob to let him go. 

Jacob only acquiesced in exchange for a blessing – this new name.
46) To struggle in life is to feel pain. To struggle is to cry.

The Jews were blessed not with a pain-free existence but with the promise that at the end of our struggle to fulfill God’s command there is victory.
47) Sometimes in the midst of the struggle we feel that the other side is winning, that God has abandoned us.

Nothing could be further from the truth.
48) But in order for God to really “redpill” the evil, cynical people who are watching, it has to look like they are absolutely unstoppable.
49) A couple more things.
50) Num. 22:28 – The donkey can only go where its master tells it. 

Balaam is trying to make it go, but it sees obstacles on all sides including an angel.
51) The frustrated Balaam hits the donkey — and miraculously the donkey talks back in a human voice!

“Why are you doing this to your loyal servant?”

The point was to teach this man that he had the power to choose his words. If a donkey could, so could he.

Turn back!
52) The donkey had perceived an angel blocking the way, but Balaam didn’t see it.

God makes the angel visible, and Balaam apologizes. 

He offers to go home.
53) Now Balaam embarks on a weird double-agent mission.

The angel says to go, but only to speak as directed.

Meanwhile the Moabite says “where the heck have you been?”

And Balaam says “See, I made it! I can say anything God tells me to!” (Num. 22:38)
54) And now we have to go into another intermission.

The next thread will explain how God turns the Moabites’ “cursing opportunity” into a tremendous blessing. 

(And how they very sneakily took revenge later on.)
(End, for now.)
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By Dr. Dannielle Blumenthal. All opinions are the author’s own. Public domain.