Yet, despite the Marxian (Groucho, not Karl) style of Balak, there are multiple sources of inspiration and enlightenment contained in its language. Balaam is a prophet who can’t help but be a good one, despite the fact that some authorities want to give him a bad rap. Ramban suggests that he was chosen by G-d to be the conduit between Heaven and the non-Jewish world. Chazal (our sages) credit him with predicting Balak’s ascension to power as well as interpreting the meaning of the supernatural events which accompanied the revelation at Sinai to the world. Once Balaam starts to get the message, his mantra, supplied by G-d, becomes, “Whatever Hashem puts in my mouth, I will speak.” Those words are increasingly inspiring. Many of them have become iconic parts of the liturgy, including Num. 24:5… “Ma tovu ohalecha ya’akov….” (How goodly are your tents, O Jacob….), which is recited daily. So powerful is the poetry of Balaam’s parables that Chazal considered including some of them in the daily recitation of the Shema. The final mashal (parable) is, I think, the most remarkable of all. It predicts, in fairly direct terms, the future conquest of the 10 northern tribes by Assyria, followed by our fate under the rule of Greece and Rome. The eventual fall of Rome is also foretold. Quite an amazing literary and historical legacy.
Balaam teaches us through his (mis)fortune. When he gives himself over to speaking the words of Hashem, he can’t help but speak truth. As a famous, professional soothsayer, he could have said anything he wanted, knowing that his words would be meaningless absent the veracity granted them by G-d. But he speaks instead through parables supplied from above.
There are those among us for whom the words of our liturgy are the deepest and most meaningful, inspirational poetry and prose of all. And those for whom they are a comfortable but anachronistic comfort. Those who strive for a deeper, more symbolic or mystical meaning, and those for whom the mumbo-jumbo is just that; nonsense with, perhaps, a Divine purpose. This brief biblical diversion teaches us that the words of the siddur, as old and iconic as they may be, nonetheless can have a powerful effect. If we, like Balaam, can strive to speak the words that Hashem puts in our mouth, we, too, can have the ability to unite past, present, and future through prayer.
O G-d, open my lips, and may my mouth declare your praises (Psalm 51).
Rabbi/Hazzan David B. Sislen