At this point, in Judaism’s yearly reading of the Torah, we come upon the section known as Balak. Balak is the king of Moab, and, as the story develops in Numbers 22-24, he is alarmed at the approaching Israelites. He decides to utilize an interesting offensive strategy and contacts a man named Balaam, inviting him to come and curse the Israelites. The Bible does not directly explain who this Balaam is, but we soon learn that he is in contact with God: He prays to God for instructions, and God answers him.
The story has a variety of lessons — that God’s answers are not always what we want, that prophets do not control God (it’s the other way around), and that people can be more dense than donkeys — but the one I want to stress today is the curious fact that Balaam, this fellow who is very close to God, is not Jewish. He is not a Hebrew or an Israelite, or any of the other terms used to describe Children of the Covenant God made with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Balaam is a Gentile, and yet the God of Israel has direct communications with him. Hmmm.
In the Bible, Balaam remains a rather mysterious character, but the rabbis of the Talmud (200 BCE-500 CE) develop his character into an important theological lesson. They note Balaam’s communications with God and go so far as to put him on a par with Moses: Both speak to God and get answers. Moses, they explain, is God’s main prophet to the Israelites, while Balaam is God’s main prophet to the non-Israelites. Since God created everyone and is concerned with everyone —and since God has important information for everyone on how to live good and holy lives, God appoints prophets to communicate this information. Moses is sent to the Jews, while Balaam is sent to the non-Jews.
In a world where so many of us think only in terms of our own messages from God, this ancient lesson reminds us that God loves us all and that God has communicated with us in a variety of places and languages and ways. The prophets may be different, and the messages may vary slightly, but the message of heaven to earth is remarkably similar across all of the world’s religions: God loves us, and God wants us to treat each other with respect and justice and love. There seem to be a variety of ways to approach God — with different prayers and holy texts and rituals — but the idea of approaching the divine and then allowing ourselves to be influenced by godliness is ubiquitous.
Let us rejoice in our own spiritual traditions which enrich our lives and help us to live in relationship with the Eternal One. Let us also rejoice that God has blessed other people with spiritual paths that are beautiful and wise, as well.
David Ostrich is the spiritual leader of Congregation Brit Shalom, and a founding member of Interfaith Initiative Centre County. Contact him at email@example.com or InterfaithInitiativeCC@hotmail.com.