This week’s parsha is named for the King of Moab, who fears the successes of the Israelites in wars against other peoples.
Balak hires a local magician, Bilaam, to curse them. Bilaam sets out riding on his ass, which stops and complains to him about his master’s ill treatment. Bilaam later encounters an angel and returns to Balak, who reiterates his command to curse the Israelites. Instead, Bilaam pronounces a blessing. The parsha ends with Pinchas, grandson of Aaron, slaying an Israelite man and a Midianite woman having sexual relations, thereby staving off a threatened plague.
The reading is filled with magical elements: curses and blessings from a magician, a talking donkey, a plague averted through an act of zealousness. Is there something like Jewish magic? (While there are Jewish magicians — Harry Houdini, nee Weiss, and David Copperfield being only two examples — we’re discussing something quite different here.)
Most ancient peoples believed in magic, usually undertaken by someone with special knowledge. As with Bilaam, the goal of magic was to use arcane ritual to influence the gods into performing an action ostensibly paid for by the customer, here, King Balak.
The Jewish view is that it is wrong to even attempt to manipulate divine power.
A talking donkey is such a remarkable creature that the sages could not leave its existence unremarked upon. They suggest that what we perceive as unnatural was part of creation from the beginning, fashioned by God. This is a clever rationale, but it is circular: What appears unnatural is actually natural because God created it anyway. The Italian commentator Luzatto opined that the usual word for speaking (from the Hebrew root with the letters dalet-bet-resh) is not used with the donkey, and we should infer that another form of communication was taking place, perhaps a dream or a vision. This last idea won over most of my Shoresh Hebrew High School students.
Despite the obvious moral of the text that it is wrong to try to manipulate God’s power, our day-to-day tradition is filled with instances of trying to do just that by magic. Last week, for example, we read about Moses making a metal serpent to protect the people; there are references in Psalms and in other writings about demons, angels and a plethora of mythical creatures. Astrological symbols adorn many ancient Jewish texts, pottery and synagogues; among the Dead Sea Scrolls we find fragments of incantations and spells.
Kabbalists sought a way to ascend through seven celestial palaces to view the throne of God and wanted to compel angels to descend from heaven to teach them the great secrets of Torah. During the Middle Ages, Jewish texts attempted to reveal one’s character traits or one’s future based upon palm reading or astrology. Amulets and charms were used by Jews to heal, to exorcise demons, and to protect one from the “evil eye.”
Some customs remains with us. A red string tied on a baby boy until his brit mila to protect him from the Angel of Death is just one example.
Jewish life, folklore and practice have always included elements of magic. How we interpret it today is for you to decide.
Questions for discussion
1. Do you think that the story of Bilaam’s ass should be read literally or metaphorically? Why or why not?
2. Do you or members of your family have customs which are rooted in Jewish magical customs? If so, what about them gives you comfort?
3. What is the difference between magic and a miracle? n
Gary D. Simms is a faculty member of Shoresh Hebrew High School, and a former executive director of Reform, Orthodox and Conservative synagogues in the Washington area.