The Alt-Right in the Torah

A Prolegomena

I wrote the following blog on Sunday morning. But I did not send it out. Instead, I rewrote it on Monday. I still did not send it out. I set it aside on Tuesday and did other tasks in preparation for my leaving today. I read it over once again this morning, did a few edits and continued the debate with myself about whether to send it out. Spoiler alert! If you decide to read this tale of Israelite alt-right zealotry, you may find some current echoes, particularly a link between self-righteous religious pandering and wanton behaviour, and between defensive apologetics and inexcusable decadence.

In this case, I am not referring to Donald Trump and the alleged “treasonous” behaviour of Donald Trump Jr., but rather of Netanyahu’s pandering to the religious right and their imposition of shabat restrictive laws on the non-orthodox community while Netanyahu’s son, Yair, is recorded as engaging in whoring in Tel Aviv and of blackmailing wealthy friends for money to pay the prostitutes. “It was only fair given the $20 billion gas deal that “my father got you.” And there is another link – an emphasis on exclusion of the Other regarded as a danger to national identity. Donald Trump may inconsistently suddenly want to protect “dreamers,” Latin Americans brought to the U.S. at a very young age who grew up as Americans, but Netanyahu continues to move ahead to forcefully expel tens of thousands of African asylum seekers.

Why is corruption usually so intertwined with nationalist self-righteousness, whether in ancient Israel, contemporary Iran or the U.S.? Why are dodgy deals and sordid behaviour linked to a presentation of a wholesome image? When perpetrators are rewarded with an elevated status, is that elevation linked to a curse as well? Is hubris inevitable?

The Alt-Right in the Torah

by

Howard Adelman

If it is true, and, even further, if I endorsed Eric Ward‘s conclusion of his years of research, that the core of the alt-right is antisemitism, how can I suggest that the position of the alt-right is to be found in the Torah itself? I can because, although antisemitism is the central expression of the alt-Right of the twenty-first century, the core factors are universal. They characterize a certain type of personality and a certain type of political program. Those core values include the following:

Core Beliefs

  1. Supremacist beliefs, particularly male superiority
  2. Racism – defining that Other as inferior
  3. Placing blame on an Other
  4. Paranoia of that Other
  5. Nationalism rooted in racism to achieve security
  6. Ethnic cleansing or even genocide to get rid of the perceived threat
  7. Core Emotional Expressions
  8. Zealotry and evangelical fervour
  9. Cowardice or spinelessness – a lack of backbone
  10. Pornographic obsessions
  11. Authoritarianism
  12. A politics of resentment, of tactics and intrigue, rather than strategy aimed at achievable goals
  13. Utopian dreams of freedom from institutions and constraining rules
  14. Core Behaviour
  15. Spewing forth hatred
  16. Parading
  17. Property destruction
  18. Coercion versus assent; while projecting a utopian vision of social harmony, demonstrating a ready resort to non-state violence
  19. Attacks on Media
  20. Murder

The key part of the Torah where an alt-Right position is not only depicted, but seems to have been endorsed, takes place in the story of Pinchas or Phinehas in Numbers 25:10-30:1. Aaron’s grandson is called Pinchas. His most celebrated action is thrusting a spear or javelin through the bodies of a Simeonite prince, Zimri, son of Salu, and his paramour, Cozbi, a Midianite princess and daughter of Zur. It is an archetypal tale of a Jewish prince consorting with a shicksa (a gentile woman) that is perceived as threatening the genetic unity of the Israelites, completely ignoring that many, perhaps most, of the heroines in the Biblical tales are of non-Israelite background – whether Shiphrah and Puah, the midwives who disobeyed Pharaoh and refused to kill baby boys, the princess Bithiah who saved Moses, Zipporah whom Moses married, and, of course, Ruth.

The worst part of the story is not the lawless murder of the lovers, but that God forges a covenant of peace with Pinchas and makes Pinchas chief priest, inheritor of the mantle of Aaron. Not only Pinchas, but all his heirs and descendants. A divine priestly right of inheritance is created as Pinchas was credited for his “righteousness unto all generations forever.” (Psalm 106:28-31)

It is not as if this is a one-off story. It has a prominent place in the Torah. In fact, it is probably the most repeated narrative. The reward is discussed in Numbers 31:15-16 and the Ba’al Pe’or tale of sacrilegious behaviour is recounted in Deuteronomy 4:3-4, Joshua 22:16-18, Judges:20:28; 1 Samuel 1:3-4:11.

The story simplified is as follows: Just before the Israelites are to enter the Promised Land, at Shittim (named after an Acacia tree used to make furniture) where they camp, Israelite men become involved with Moabite women. Involved is a euphemism. The men are described as “whoring” with the Moabite women. Further, the men are not only enamoured by these women, but are enticed into their “idolatrous” practices. The Israelites were allegedly being led into sin via assimilation and flouting of the Mosaic ethical code.

As a result of the Israelite men consorting with the Moabite women and in partaking of their worship of their god, Ba’al, the Lord of the Israelites became incensed. God ordered Moses to take the ringleaders and have them impaled before him.  Only in that way could God’s wrath be redirected away from the Israelites. Moses ordered his officials to each slay those of his men who attached themselves to Ba’al Pe’or. Just after issuing the order, an Israelite male brought a Midianite, not a Moabite, woman into the camp. Phinehas or Pinchas, son of Eleazar son of Aaron, left the assembly at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting and stabbed the man and the woman in their bed chamber with a spear right through their private parts.

Did it matter that a Midianite rather than a Moabite woman was the consort of the Israelite? Does it matter that in this case there was no association with worshipping false gods? Does it matter that Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses and a very important and influential political adviser, was a Midianite? Does it matter that this vigilante action was taken against people of wealth and status from both the Israelite and Midianite communities? Was the action motivated by resentment? Does it matter that the execution was carried out by Phinehas, whose name, like that of Moses, was of Egyptian origin and referred to a Nubian, perhaps from Sudan, like Sadat with a darker complexion? Had Aaron or his son, Eleazar, married a Nubian woman? Does it matter that the method of killing was not stoning – the usual means of dealing with those who followed false gods – but stabbing with a spear? Does it matter that they were stabbed through the belly? As Gunther Plaut notes (fn. 8), “into the chamber….through the belly” is a Hebrew word play better rendered “into the private chamber…through the private parts.”

When I was reading the latter, I immediately recalled a vivid scene. I was at the place of a mass murder outside of Butare in Rwanda of over 17,000 Tutsis who had been killed at the Murambi Technical School where they had sought refuge from the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. They had been buried in a mass grave. The bodies, barely decomposed because they had been so packed together, had been laid out on school benches and we had the onerous task of sampling and confirming the numbers slaughtered. I was most appalled by the babies and young children killed. But some of the women who were killed still had the spears in them that had been thrust up through their private parts to kill them.

In the biblical tale, the murder by Pinchas of the Israelite man and the Midianite woman stops the plague that had already killed 24,000. God spoke to Moses and praised Phinehas, son of Eleazar son of Aaron. Because of his action, God’s wrath and desire to commit genocide against the Israelites was turned aside. As a reward, God gave Phinehas a pact of friendship granting to him and his descendants a hereditary right to the priesthood in Israel. God then ordered the genocide of the Midianites.

Does it matter that an apparent result of destroying contact between Israelite men and Moabite and Midianite women may have had the benefit of stopping the plague which may have been made worse because the form of worship of the Moabites and their allies, the Midianites, was a of a fertility cult? Does it not matter that the murder was NOT “merely a kind of battlefield execution,” as Plaut describes in his commentary, but a summary execution of unarmed civilians in their private chamber? Does it matter that the persons killed had both status and wealth? Does it matter that humans had assumed God’s responsibilities to determine who should live and who should die? Whatever the answer and significance of the answers to the many questions above, what is clear is that, to repair a breach of the covenant, civilian murder and genocide were being endorsed in the Torah.

The issue becomes even more problematic. For when the story of Pinchas is the assigned Torah portion to be read that week, the Haftorah portion from the prophets that is read is the story of 1 Kings 18, where Elijah, who also acted in defence of the Jewish God and Hebrew practices, was so esteemed and even associated with the miracle of the resurrection of the dead. Elijah is viewed as a Messiah-in-waiting and Elijah’s name is invoked at the reading of Havdalah marking the end of shabat as well as at a Passover seder and in the performance of a brit, the circumcision ceremony.

More appalling I find is all the apologetics attached to the actions, to the beliefs and to the attitudes of Pinchas. For example, Targum Jonathan (18) claims that because Pinchas held the spear with his arm, prayed with his mouth, and stabbed the couple through their innards, that explains why the tender parts of the shoulder (zeroa), cheekbone (lechayayim) and maw (kevaw) accrue to the priesthood. Hirsch in his commentary insists that Pinchas was given such great credit because he caught them in flagrante delicto, in the overt prohibited act, and by the way he assassinated them, he sent a sign to others, as do professional mafia assassins and the gangs involved in the drug cartel. Given that the couple were “royals,” Pinchas was given greater credit; Moses, in contrast, had only slain an overseer and was not credited, even though the act was carried out in defence of another Israelite.

I am clearly disturbed by the tale. I am more disturbed by those who regard the spontaneous eruption of emotion, passion and murder as worthy of merit. I am appalled that commentators are not outraged by the action and by the apologetics that explain the action away as following the norms of the time. If so, why is the action not denounced in the commentary? Perhaps the story had an ironic thread. Perhaps the death of the two sons of Pinchas was his punishment. Perhaps the reward of an hereditary priesthood was really a curse for a family who would encounter tragedy after tragedy.

I am most troubled because the scene depicted conforms so closely to that of a mass rally where one of the demonstrators is so enraged that he leaves the crowd and takes upon himself the responsibility of murdering those with whom he disagrees. He is a zealot. Hatred spews from his mouth and blood comes from the use of his arms. Coercion not persuasion is the answer. When royals engage in the practice, it is regarded as even more heinous because, just as now, socialites stand out because of their role in the media in communicating values. Sometimes the messengers are killed as well. Antisemitic zealots murdered the Jewish radio talk show host, Alan Berg, in Denver.

The defined problem is not just a difference in belief between the Israelites compared to the Midianites and the Moabites, but that intercourse with the latter was regarded as the source of the plague. The others were blamed. The Israelites were not just different, but regarded themselves as superior. And the allure of females was pointed to as a source of betrayal. The others were not only regarded as Other, as an inferior Other, as a dangerous Other, but, in the name of respect for the Covenant of the Israelites with God, genocide was endorsed. Israelite nationalism was wedded to fanaticism in defence of security and continuity of the group.

Go further. In the portrait of God, vanity and brand management seem to be the key components at stake. The Israelites, in their escape from slavery, seem to be riven with insecurity and a fear of disappointing their demanding God. For God, politics is personal. Only He could occupy the limelight. If this does not trouble you, I would like to hear why.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

 

 

 

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Balaam as a He-Ass – Numbers 22

Balaam as a He-Ass – Numbers 22

by

Howard Adelman

Understanding Balaam can be a very valuable clue to understanding Donald Trump and the danger he poses. If you are uninterested in biblical exegesis, skip the rest of this week’s blogs. They simply justify the interpretation and the character of Balaam that I use to draw the analogy with Donald Trump.

Rashi, the great mediaeval interpreter of Torah, wrote the following:

“Why did God bestow His Shechinah on a wicked gentile?” [The answer is] so the nations should not have an excuse to say, “Had we had prophets we would have repented.” So He assigned them prophets, but they breached the [morally] accepted barrier, for at first they had refrained from immorality, but he [Balaam] advised them to offer themselves freely for prostitution. — [Mid. Tanchuma Balak 1, Num. Rabbah 20:1]

In Rashi’s analysis, Balaam indeed received God’s shechinah. Why does God reveal Himself in all His glory to a wicked, indeed evil, gentile soothsayer? What is Balaam’s function in God’s plan? Rashi provides a rationale. To the legitimate question of why would God ever choose such a wicked man to be the voice of prophecy for other nations, his only answer is that they could not say we have become wicked because you gave the Israelites prophets but neglected us. Clever! As is usually the case, Rashi is extremely inventive with his interpretations. Making Balaam a prophet removed the excuse of the gentile nations, blaming their desertion of the universal code of morality on God’s failure to give them a prophet. As will be seen, I argue that Balaam was wicked but was not a prophet, except in a very ironic sense.

Look at Rashi’s conclusions on reading the text. Balaam was evil. But Balaam was indeed a prophet. God did choose him. In the only time God provided a gentile nation with a prophet, God deliberately gave them a wicked man. Why? So they could not blame their immorality on the excuse that they lacked a prophet. Sound fishy? Sounds far fetched? Condescending to the gentile nations? But if this is not the case, why would Balaam be chosen to be God’s spokesperson in blessing the Israelites? But did God really choose Balaam? Was Balaam really a prophet? Did Balaam even really bless the Israelites?

Balaam was a vehicle. But for what purpose? Not because God chose him to be a real prophet. But for the sake of the Israelites, not the gentile nations. Because of the stubborn willfulness and failure to acknowledge the true prophets they already had, God instead gave the Israelites a soothsayer who would play on their self-confidence, on their successes and consequent excesses, and verbally lead them further astray by flattering them, by appealing to their sense of superiority. God did not choose Balaam as a real prophet but as a vehicle to demonstrate the Israelite attraction to the misguidance of an evil soothsayer. The role he served was to educate the Israelites, not the gentile nations, to make them skillful in understanding. Balaam in his mouthing the prophesy of Israelite superiority served, in fact, to let them allow their sense of superiority to mislead themselves and believe they could ignore God’s commandments.

Nevertheless, one must admit that Rashi’s interpretation is brilliant. But why might a soothsayer of the enemy, a leader of an enemy nation and an enemy to Israel, have a broad appeal and undermine the morale and strength of the Israelites by pronouncing them strong? That was the direct effect of his blessing the Israelites. They became arrogant. They strayed from the ways of God. The discontented Israelites were susceptible to an appeal that promised their desires would be fulfilled and their own fears stilled if they too fell under the spell of Balaam’s depiction of themselves as all powerful and unbeatable.

That is the overarching thrust of the story. Balaam serves God’s purpose as a lesson to and for the Israelites. But that, of course, is not why Balak chose Balaam even if the outcome might be more beneficial to him than he ever intended or thought. Balak asked, “please come and curse this people for me, for they are too powerful for me. Only then will there be a possibility that they can be driven from the land.” And Balak goes on to flatter Balaam: “for I know that whomever you blessed is blessed and whomever you curse is cursed.” (Numbers 21:6) What an irony! For in his blessing lies a curse. And the curse would really have been the blessing for the Israelites.

How did the Moabite and Midian aristocracy approach this son of a beast to lead them “With magic charms in their hands.” Rashi suggests two possible interpretations. In the first, they did it so Balaam could not refuse them with the excuse that he lacked the magical tools to take up the leadership. In a second interpretation, it was a test. If Balaam accepted the use of the magic they offered, then he would be worthy of becoming their leader and prove that he has bought into their program. But if he refused, then he would be unworthy of the request of those aristocrats anyway. Pretty good. But Rashi was evidently dissatisfied with both interpretations because he never came down on one side or the other.

Let me suggest a third option. The magic tokens offered were not just an enticement and a means of preventing Balaam from offering an excuse to cop out, and not just a test, for they were both. Not just both. For it is hard to believe that the Moabite and Midianite establishment would really understand why offering the magical tools to Balaam would really be so appealing. Excusing himself was no more than a guise, a misleader in the effort to make the best deal. Balaam signaled that he did not need their magic. He did not need their help. He could do it on his own. He was a lone wolf who needed no trinkets that did not belong to him. Sound familiar. It should. Balak needed Balaam. Balak needed a personality that would unite the two normally mutually antagonistic enemies. How else could they defeat a force that seemed supernaturally powerful. They needed a joint leader whose “strength was solely in his mouth,” in his power to use words to rouse the wrath of both peoples and thereby get them to be willing to take on the Israelites.

Balak sent a message to Balaam. “So now, please come and curse this people for me, for they are too powerful for me. Perhaps I will be able to wage war against them and drive them out of the land, for I know that whomever you bless is blessed and whomever you curse is cursed.” The reality will be the opposite. Whomever Balaam blesses is cursed. And whomever he curses is blessed.

What was Balaam’s answer? Let me think about it. Stay the night and I will give you my answer tomorrow. Then the story goes, “God came to Balaam.” Why is it written, “And God came to Balaam,” (טוַיָּבֹא אֱלֹהִים) and not “The Lord spoke…” (וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָֹה)? See, for example, Number V:11. The latter is the usual expression. Or “the word of the Lord was revealed…” ()הָיֹה הָיָה דְבַר יְהֹוָה (Ezekiel 1:3) or Exodus 19:19, “The Lord said…” (וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָֹה). In this portion, God came. But the text does not say, “And the spirit of God was upon…” (וַעֲזַרְיָהוּ בֶּן עוֹדֵד הָיְתָה) (2 Chronicles 15:1) In Exodus 16:20, it is written, “God came down…” “God descended…” Here it is simply written, “God came…”

As a contrast, turn to the prophet, Daniel, Book 9. God does not call, or call on, Daniel. Daniel beseeches the Lord. “And I turned my face to the Lord God. (גוָאֶתְּנָה אֶת פָּנַי אֶל אֲדֹנָי הָאֱלֹהִים) to beg with prayer, sackcloth and ashes.” (verse 3) Daniel prays, confesses his sins and praises God for all his wondrous gifts – the covenant and His loving-kindness for those who love Him and keep His commandments. Daniel humbles himself. The angel, Gabriel, approaches. What for? He says to Daniel, “to make you skillful in understanding.”

Compare this with Balaam. Balaam does not pray to God. Balaam does not beseech God. Balaam does not confess his sins. Balak’s messengers arrive. And the bargaining starts. “I couldn’t do what you want for all the money in the world,” that is, if what you wanted “transgressed the word of the Lord” whom Balaam calls, “my God.” This last should be a clear clue that Balaam is bullshitting in insisting that he cannot act unless he ensures that he has God on his side. For God is definitely not his God. “But stay overnight as my guests. I will take the request under advisement.”

And God came to Balaam. No prayer. No confession. No beseeching. God then spoke and asked a question. “Who are those men with you?” “Balak’s messengers,” Balaam replies. The people who have arrived from Egypt “covered the ‘eye’ of the earth.” Balak wanted me, Balaam, to curse the Israelites. Balak had asked Balaam arhali (22:6), to curse, but Balaam reports to God that he was asked to curse, kbali, the Israelites. Rashi notes the use of two different terms for “curse,” but merely adds that Balaam used the stronger, kbali, rather than the weaker term, arhali, for curse. Why would he use a stronger term if the latter and stronger simply implied more detail as Rashi suggested?

The difference resides in the word “strength,” but stronger does not mean “more detail.” There is a difference between saying, “a curse resided in the land,” or requesting that a curse be put upon the Israelites. The latter presumes that the Israelites are not yet cursed (that is why the term is weaker), but something must be done to make them cursed. The former suggests that Balaam was being asked by Balak to take the initiative and put a curse on the Israelites, a curse that was not there, while Balaam shifts the meaning. There is a difference between asking Balaam to actively ensure that the Israelites become cursed, that Balaam take responsibility for driving them out of the land. Counter-intuitively, kbali is stronger than arhali in that the curse is already completed and only needs to be recognized by a soothsayer. Then Balak would know he would be strong enough to drive them out.

arhali weaker Israel not yet cursed action required by a prophet Balak
kbali stronger Israel already cursed recognition needed by a seer Balaam

God said to Balaam, “You shall not go with them! You shall not curse (active but weaker sense) (תָאֹר) the people because they are blessed.” (22:12) In other words, God said that you, Balaam, cannot make them cursed when they are already blessed. So Balaam rejected the entreaties of Balak’s messengers. The messengers return, but come again and requested that Balaam pronounce that the Israelites are already cursed.

God authorized Balaam to go with his guests, but tells him to only speak the words that God will give him. In the morning, just like Abraham, Balaam saddled his own she-donkey, not any donkey, but specifically a female one. Then God became angry at Balaam for going. But did God not just instruct him to go? Was he not simply obeying God’s will? Yes. But Balaam did not go only after he had reciprocated and entered a covenant to speak only the words God gave him. Balaam had accepted the instruction to go but not the condition that he would go but only to speak God’s words. God said he could go. Balaam did go, but on his own terms.

So God’s angel blocked his way. The angel was not there to instruct Balaam in the way of true understanding but to reveal that Balaam was incapable of such understanding. The donkey saw the angel, but Balaam, the seer, did not. The donkey then left the road to flee into the fields. Balaam beat his donkey to get her to return to the road. But the way was blocked again in the vineyards. Caught between the angel in front and a wall behind, the donkey pressed against the wall and, in the process, crushed Balaam’s leg.

Balaam’s crushed leg was a sign that he would never be able to walk in the footsteps of the Lord. Unlike Jacob who wrestled with the angel and lasted until morning and became Israel (Genesis 32:22-31), Balaam did no wrestling. Balaam never struggled. He simply believed that he had a direct transmission line to God. Jacob who actually wrestled with the angel suffered a twisted hip so that it would always be painful to walk in the path of the Lord. And Jacob would not release the angel even then, but insisted on being blessed. Balaam was simply determined to go forth and do his cursing.

Balaam beat his she-donkey again. Finally, fleeing down a narrow alley, the donkey crouched down. For a third time, Balaam beat his donkey, this time with a stick. And lo and behold, the donkey spoke. And she, not Balaam, uttered the words of the Lord. “What did I do to deserve this?” Balaam replies, “You have humiliated me. If I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you right now.”

The Lord spoke through the donkey. “Have I not served you loyally? Have I ever resisted going forward and cringed and crouched in fear?” Balaam agreed that she had not and with that acknowledgement, his eyes were open and Balaam saw what the donkey had seen all along, the angel blocking the road. Only then did Balaam bow and prostrate himself. God remonstrated Balaam, first for beating the donkey three times when the donkey was thwarting Balaam from going against God’s will and not entering a covenant with God to only utter His words. So God had a she-donkey do so. And that she-donkey, which Balaam had beaten three times, actually deserved Balaam’s thanks for the donkey had saved Balaam from God’s wrath for going ahead without committing to speaking only the words God gave him. Even a she-ass could do that.

So Balaam finally confessed. But did he admit to sinning? Did he admit to mindblindness? No, he just said that if I knew the angel with a sword was standing in my way, I would not have preceded. I recognize a greater power. I do not recognize the blindness within myself. If you are so upset, Balaam tells God, I will go home. I will return home, not because I realize I failed to obey you, that I failed to enter the agreement on offer. I returned home only because an angel stood in the way and physically prevented me from proceeding.

According to one of my readers, there is a saying in Hungarian that she had heard since early childhood: “’He just stood there and stared like Balaam’s donkey’ – which means a really dumbfounded, gobsmacked stupid reaction by a person.” Balaam is shown to be an ass, but a male one.

Let me conclude the analysis of Chapter 22 by comparing the following three passages:

12God said to Balaam, “You shall not go with them! You shall not curse the people because they are blessed.” יבוַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים אֶל בִּלְעָם לֹא תֵלֵךְ עִמָּהֶם לֹא תָאֹר אֶת הָעָם כִּי בָרוּךְ הוּא:
20God came to Balaam at night and said to him, “If these men have come to call for you, arise and go with them, but the word I speak to you-that you shall do.” כוַיָּבֹא אֱלֹהִים | אֶל בִּלְעָם לַיְלָה וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ אִם לִקְרֹא לְךָ בָּאוּ הָאֲנָשִׁים קוּם לֵךְ אִתָּם וְאַךְ אֶת הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר אֲדַבֵּר אֵלֶיךָ אֹתוֹ תַעֲשֶׂה
35The angel of the Lord said to Balaam, “Go with these men, but the word I will speak to you-that you shall speak.” So Balaam went with Balak’s dignitaries. להוַיֹּאמֶר מַלְאַךְ יְהֹוָה אֶל בִּלְעָם לֵךְ עִם הָאֲנָשִׁים וְאֶפֶס אֶת הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר אֲדַבֵּר אֵלֶיךָ אֹתוֹ תְדַבֵּר וַיֵּלֶךְ בִּלְעָם עִם שָׂרֵי בָלָק:

Verse 12: Don’t go. Don’t curse. Because the people are blessed.
Verse 20: Go with them; But the words I speak, that you do.
Verse 35: Go with them. But the words I speak, you speak.

Don’t go, then go but do what I say, then go but say what I say. Each time the command is more restricted, first about non-movement, then permitting going but only if Balaam does what he is told, and then, finally, go but Balaam can only repeat what God says. The soothsayer has been restricted to being a he-ass, uttering only what God tells him. Balaam tells Balak (verse 38) “Behold I have come to you, do I have any power to say anything? The word God puts into my mouth-that I will speak.”

Next blog: Chapters 23 and 24

Thanks to Alex Zisman for his help.

Balak Numbers 22:2-25:9 Soothsayer

Balak Numbers 22:2-25:9 Soothsayer

by

Howard Adelman

Is it serendipity that last night I listened to Donald Trump address the Republican Convention in Cleveland and this morning I write on Parshat Balak? Is it serendipity that Balak starts out on his journey to confront and curse the Israelites in a plagiarized passage from Genesis? “Abraham rose early in the morning, and saddled his donkey,” rather than allow his servant to do so. (Genesis 22:3) “Balaam rose up in the morning and saddled his donkey,” rather than allow his servant to do so. (Numbers 22:21) Donald Trump has stolen the party of Abraham Lincoln and made it his own.

Donald Trump started his four-day journey to accept the nomination of the Republican Party as its candidate for president of the U.S. with a speech by his wife, Melania, which she insisted to a reporter just before she delivered her talk that she had written it “with as little help as possible.” The speech plagiarized, of all people, Michele Obama, the wife of the current president of the U.S., Barak Obama, whom Donald Trump curses at every opportunity.

Melania: “From a young age, my parents impressed on me the values that you work hard for what you want in life, that your word is your bond and you do what you say and keep your promise, that you treat people with respect.”
Michele: (2008 Democratic Convention) “Barack and I were raised with so many of the same values — like you work hard for what you want in life, that your word is your bond and you do what you say you’re going to do, that you treat people with dignity and respect.”
Melania insisted: believe me, I know my husband.

This is reality TV, a story of ghosts, and ghostwriters in this case. Unlike when Donald himself plagiarized an op-ed of his rival Ben Carson just after the latter left the campaign in March, in this case the item was not written by the same ghostwriter but by an employee of the Trump organization. In March, the large chunks of overlapping text promised to treat Americans living in territories and commonwealths with greater equality and fairness. It was about policy and performance. Melania’s plagiarized text was about the formation of character and deeply held values – hard work, that your word is your bond and the obligation to treat others with dignity and respect when throughout the campaign for the nomination, Donald Trump demonstrated that he could and did treat his rivals with anything but dignity and respect, including Ted Cruz’s father and wife, an instance which came back to haunt Donald on Wednesday night when Ted Cruz made his non-endorsement speech.

There is no expectation that politicians write their speeches or their own op-eds, or that their wives do. There is some expectation that what is said, however, reflects reality, that the policies articulated and that the character attributed are to some degree valid. But when the plagiarizer claims to have written her own speech and it is subsequently revealed that the writer belonged to the Trump organization and not even the campaign, an illegal contribution, when the content of the speech, and that of all his children’s speeches, was about a capacity for hard work, that your word is your bond and that you treat everyone with dignity and respect jut at the time when Donald Trump’s own ghost writer of his best- selling book, The Art of the Deal, was revealing that Donald was not an example of a hard worker, was not an example of a man whose word was his bond, was not a man who treated everyone with dignity and respect in the way that the video collage of testimonials about Donald tried to present him at the beginning of last evening.

Tony Schwartz, ghostwriter of The Art of the Deal:
The New Yorker, 25 July 2016, Jane Mayer, “Trump’s Boswell Speaks.”

THE CLAIM THE GHOSTWRITER
The efficient hard worker “a fugue of failure, a farce of fumbling”
a man with “no attention span”
Your word is your bond “Trump has the ability to convince himself that
whatever he is saying at any given moment is true,
or sort of true, or at least ought to be true.”
“He lied strategically. He had a complete lack of
conscience about it.”
“I play to people’s fantasies…People want to believe
that something is the biggest and the greatest and
the most spectacular.”
“I call it truthful hyperbole,” an innocent form of
exaggeration. – and it’s a very effective form of
promotion.”
The man who repeatedly questioned Barak Obama’s
birth in the United States in the face of all the
evidence, lied by claiming his father was born in
New Jersey, a child of Swedish parents; he was born
in the Bronx to German parents.
A man who treats others with “a ham-fisted thug who had unsuccessfully tried to
dignity and respect evict rent-controlled and rent-stabilized tenants
from a building that he had bought”
known for “his willingness to run over people,
a man who would “like people when they were
helpful,” when they were loyal, and then “turn on
them when they weren’t. (Read Roy Cohn, the old
tiger of the Un-American Activities Committee who
served as Trump’s lawyer and confidante.) It wasn’t
personal. He’s a transactional man – it was all
about what you could do for him.”
I know; believe me, I know a man with “a stunning level of superficial
knowledge and plain ignorance”
nobody knows how corrupt and crooked the system is
better than me”
Trump, of course, made his fortune using donations
to politicians
A generous man As for all the testimonials of his anonymous
donations to individuals, which seem to be so widely
known, “in the past seven years, Trump has promised
to give millions of dollars to charity, but
reporters for the Washington Post found that they
could document only ten thousand dollars in
donations.” Perhaps this is the deepest reason he
does not want to release his tax returns.

From the man who repeatedly urges his listeners to “believe me,” from the man who has systematically cultivated a reputation for plain speaking , for transparency, for a man touted as running and managing everything with textbook efficiency when the Trump Convention put on display a mixture of clever and creative endorsement, of self-advertisement, especially when his own clones, that is, children, spoke, combined with a totally clumsy lack of professionalism and behaviour that seemed to belie the claims even more than the revelations of Donald’s ghostwriter.

Of course, when Trump insists he wrote his own autobiography, we can all recognize that this is simply part of his lifelong self aggrandizement, the puffing of a “one-dimensional blowhard” with “an insatiable hunger for ‘money, praise and celebrity.’” Trump presents himself as a man of truth when he is revealed to tell a half dozen lies a day on average. In fact, the whole Convention has about it the sense of the Big Lie, the repetition of slandering an opponent as a crook, a liar and a felon in spite of the investigations that showed otherwise. This is the same way he treated his competitors for the nomination, many of whom turned 180 degrees and then lined up behind him when he won. Such allegations seem relatively threadbare, relatively vapid, like the wisp of smoke representing the ghost in the machine, Gilbert Ryle’s euphemism for René Descartes’ philosophical concept of the mind, for a body in which there actually, in this case, has no mind, only an insatiable appetite.

When there is neither accuracy nor authorship, we know we are dealing with a soothsayer rather than a prophet. This is why Donald Trump is relevant to understanding the story of Balaam. As Anthon St. Maarten, the psychic celebrity, wrote, “Being a soothsayer of a tribe is a dirty job, but someone has to do it.” A soothsayer is known for appearing to be blunt, brutally honest, a diviner who exposes other’s lies, a man of frankness, honesty and integrity, an oracle and pseudo-prophet, but is, in fact, a man full of self-deceit and self-delusion, a man who offers panaceas and supposedly rejects political correctness, who professes to tell the truth, but would not recognize the difference between a true statement and an outright lie. A soothsayer is a person whose true intentions are revealed in the repeated words and actions of the people who follow him like a herd.

The Amorites had been defeated, literally wiped out. Their lands have been laid waste, the very meaning of Balak. The Moabites feared they would be subjected to the same result, ignoring the fact that the Amorites were only eliminated when they committed aggression against the Israelites. So Balak, son of Zippor, the King of the Moabites, ran to the Midianites for assistance, in particular, to Balaam, son of Beor, the Aramaic word for beast. The story is not about the Moabites, for they were afraid, irrationally so, and from the Moabites would arise the prophet Ruth, just as Naaman would arise from the Ammonites. The real problem was the Midianites. God ordered the Israelites to vex and “smite them.” (Numbers 25:17) They were led by a soothsayer, a man, as the Mishnah teaches, with “an evil eye,” “a haughty spirit and an over-ambitious soul.”

If Balaam is allowed to become the leader of the American nation, allowed to be the leader of both the blue and the red states, if Balaam is allowed to lead the union of the Moabites and the Midianites, will the prophecy of Psalm 55:24 come true, that God will bring them down “to the nethermost pit, men of blood and deceit who shall not live out half their days?” What happened to Balaam when the Moabites called on this Midianite to curse the Israelites? What happened when the toadies in the Republican Party ran to Donald Trump and asked him to run and build on his popularity as a soothsayer to lead a movement and take over the control of the Republican Party? God said to Balaam, “You shall not go with them! You shall not curse the people [Israelites] because they are blessed.” (Numbers 22:12) So Balaam rejects the entreaties of the elders of the Moabites and the Midianites. But Balak and the elders would not take no for an answer. They sent delegation after delegation, each one more noble than the last, to entice Balaam to come forth and lead a war to deal with their allegedly ferocious enemies that they believed were out to crush them. Purportedly, Balaam could not resist the will of the people and eventually agreed to go forth and curse the Israelites.

The angel of the Lord tried to block Balaam as he proceeded on his way riding his she-donkey. Upon encountering the angel, the donkey bolted into the field. Balaam beat the she-donkey to get it to return to the road. Caught between a fence and pressed against the wall, Balaam’s leg was caught and squeezed. Balaam hit the donkey harder. Blocked a third time in a narrow lane, the donkey crouched down and for a third time, Balaam beat it with a stick.

Then the donkey spoke. “What have I done to you that you have struck me these three times?” Balaam replied: “You have humiliated me; if I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you right now.” (22:29) But, protested the donkey, “have I not always been loyal and done precisely what you wanted?” Suddenly God supposedly ended Balaam’s mindblindness, opened his eyes and he saw God’s angel. The angel had drawn a sword. Balaam bent down and prostrated himself before the angel. Balaam was remonstrated for beating the donkey. The donkey had served him loyally and, by veering off the road, had saved Balaam’s life. For if the donkey had gone forth, the angel would have slain Balaam and spared the donkey. But a bully never listens to the bullied, only to a bigger and more powerful bully.

Balaam backed off but went with the Moabite dignitaries to the border with the Ammonites. The message seemed clear. Balaam could not defeat the Israelites with only his Moabite and Midianite troops. Balaam was really not retreating. He needed the Ammonites to join his troops. The retreat was a ruse. He had altars built and got Balak to contribute more to sacrifice on those altars. Then once more he went forth. And once more God purportedly stopped him. And once more he returned to Balak mouthing what he said were God’s words.

“How can I curse whom God has not cursed, and how can I invoke wrath if the Lord has not been angered? For from their beginning (my italics), I see them as mountain peaks, and I behold them as hills; it is a nation that will dwell alone, and will not be reckoned among the nations. Who counted the dust of Jacob or the number of a fourth of [or, of the seed of] Israel? May my soul die the death of the upright and let my end be like his.” (22:8-10) Balak understandably felt betrayed. You agreed to curse our enemies and you praised them.

So a third time, Balak got Balaam to reverse himself by peering over at only a part of the Israelite army and from a distance. He offered Balaam even more rewards. And Balaam betrayed Balak a third time. “God is not a man that He should lie, nor is He a mortal that He should relent. Would He say and not do, speak and not fulfill?… He does not look at evil in Jacob, and has seen no perversity in Israel; the Lord, his God, is with him, and he has the King’s friendship…There is no divination in Jacob and no soothsaying in Israel. (22:19; 21;23) Balak offered Balaam even more. And took him to an even greater height.

For the third time, Balaam blessed Israel. “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel! They extend like streams, like gardens by the river, like aloes which the Lord planted, like cedars by the water. Water will flow from his wells, and his seed shall have abundant water; his king shall be raised over Agag, and his kingship exalted. God, Who has brought them out of Egypt with the strength of His loftiness, He shall consume the nations which are his adversaries, bare their bones and dip His arrows [into their blood]. He crouches and lies like a lion and like a lioness; who will dare rouse him? Those who bless you shall be blessed, and those who curse you shall be cursed.” (23:5-9)

Balak, was in a corner. He had committed himself to fight the Israelites, but lacked the troop strength. He was in real trouble. Balaam fished Balak in. “If Balak gives me his house full of silver and gold, I cannot transgress the word of the Lord to do either good or evil on my own; only what the Lord speaks can I speak.’” (23:13) Read one way, it says since God is not on my side, even for all your money, I cannot go to war. But Balaam was just upping the ante once again. Pay me more money and possibly I can get God on my (not our) side. It is all Me, Me, Me. “Believe me,” he said. “I know.” I have an open eye that sees. Everything is transparent to me. Moab will be crushed by the Israelites – unless of course you can induce me with more incentives to lead you.

Balak panicked. Each went their own way. But the Israelites did not attack the Moabites. In fact, the Israelites began to intermarry with the Moabites. And participate in prostrating themselves before their gods, especially Baal Peor. There was now no limit to God’s wrath. “Moses, hang all the leaders of your tribes,” God raged. But one Israelite was not afraid and walked openly with his Moabite partner. Pinehas, son of Eleazar, Aron’s son, took a spear and stabbed both the young brash Israelite and his “shiksa” with the one thrust of that spear. And the plague that had been inflicted on the Israelites, killing 24,000, purportedly ceased.