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Redeemable Villains

07/13/2020 12:15:29 AM


There’s an old folktale about a village’s grumpy old wealthy man who passes away. Since he would always complain about everything, judge everyone he encountered, and never had a nice thing to say about anything, he didn’t acquire many friends. In fact, the opposite was true. He was miserable to be around, and at his funeral, there was nobody who truly mourned his loss. Yet, as the weeks went on, the village soon discovered that it wasn’t a coincidence that the charity pot and food pantry both ran dry a few weeks after this certain man’s death.

I think about this story when encountering others whose actions I find hard to justify. Our tradition teaches us that we are all created in the image of God, and thus I acknowledge that there is some element of each individual that is worthy, even if that element is hard to find at first glance. Surely, like the grumpy man of the village, I might not be seeing the whole picture and there is room to give the benefit of the doubt to others. 

This is why I never liked Parsha Mattot-Masei’s judgement of Balaam the Prophet. In this week’s portion, the Israelites take the field against the Midianites, and achieve a decisive victory. The Torah relates how they put the five Midian kings to the sword, as well as Balaam the son of Beor (Numbers 31:8). A few verses later, we learn that it was Balaam who was the mastermind behind the incident of Peor, where the Midianite women set out to seduce the Israelite men to worship their idolatrous gods (Ibid. 31:16). But this doesn’t jive with what I thought I knew about Balaam back from parshat Balak. There, it was King Balak who set out to curse the Israelites and it was Balaam who consults with God, and determines that you can’t curse what is already blessed! Moreover, this is the same prophet who takes a parting shot at the Moabites and declares that it will be the scepter that will come forth from Israel that will smash the brow of Moab. (Ibid 24:19). So why would Balaam change his tune and concoct the successful plan that causes the Israelites to sin and stumble?

One answer that our tradition provides is that I have the story backwards. Balaam was always evil, and he only appeared to be saying the right things, while in his heart he truly despised the Israelites. That he indeed set out to curse the Israelites but when he opened his mouth his words were transformed into blessings. The proof of such an approach would be this week’s Torah portion. But I wonder if it’s possible that Mattot-Masei failed to fully peg down Balaam’s reputation. Perhaps like the grumpy man of the village, Balaam amassed many demerits that made him hard to like. Could our biblical villain have had at least some redeeming qualities? And if I can at least entertain this idea for Balaam, the son of Beor, could I not also spare this line of reasoning for others around me whose actions I am so quick to judge?

Shabbat Shalom

Mon, December 4 2023 21 Kislev 5784