Irony and Role Reversal

Parsha Balak Drash

by Fran Margulies

Our word irony comes from ancient Greek theater device erroneia. A comic character was an eiron, a faker who pretended to be dumb but was really smart. At end of the play the eiron triumphs over the loud-mouthed braggart who is actually stupid. So the characters in an ironic story switch roles: good guy becomes bad guy, or the reverse, or the winners and the losers switch, for comic (or serious) effect, to confound characters and delight the audience.

We at Sof feel this irony every shabbat when we open  Shacharit with Balaam’s sweet words of praise – this very Balaam whose job was to curse and destroy the Hebrews: “Mah tovu! Ohalecha Ya’akov, mishk’notekha Yisra’el:” How lovely are your tents, O Jacob! Your sanctuaries, O Israel! Indeed, on the third try, Balaam is told to look only at the edge of the Hebrews because they will be so multitudinous, so spread out! So this morning just for the fun of it, I will try to look for more ironies.

But first, Where are we? Let’s step back and take a  wider look at the setting. These events are happening  maybe 38 years after the Exodus. The Israelites are  almost there!, not quite, but close. To get to the banks of Jordan and cross over into the promised land of Canaan, they must move farther up North, and pass through Moav.

These approaching Israelites scare the Moav’s King Balak because they are second generation and they are strong now. The old, worried, frightened Exodus generation has died off; now they are winning more battles. So Balak is the worried one now. Will their passing through be overwhelming and destructive or not? He doesn’t know. He is scared. So he tries to defend  himself by calling in the professional seer Balaam to use magic and put a hex, a curse, on them. And what are the approaching Israelites thinking?  They are sort of worried too. But for different reasons. So close now to the Promised Land – but – will it really happen? Will Canaan in truth be as good for them as promised? Will they truly be able to settle down, expand, and grow as a people? A strong pep talk is needed!

So I consider our Balak/Balaam story, its placement in our narrative today, as a pep talk by God to this new generation, poised so near their goal: You will prosper there! Don’t worry! Good times ahead! I said I will bless you, and I will! A star —a scepter! —has come up from Israel. And I have indeed already blessed you. And only I,  God of all, heaven and earth, not any magician, only I have the power to control your destiny, to bless you or curse you. But in our drama, the players will try anyway, and that is, of course, ironic. But let’s look for more. The very names tease us with their similarity: Balaam/Balak! Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee! Let’s see now: which one is the king?

We have a seer who cannot see, but ends up seeing. We have God who first says “Don’t go” to Balaam, then says “Go!” So Balaam saddles his donkey and goes. But, switch again! God is angry at him for going and tries to stop him. Comes now the most famous irony; the role switch between Balaam and this donkey. The professional seer cannot see the blocking angel but the animal plodding along has perfect vision. Balaam strikes the donkey and splutters at her in dumb rage, while the donkey objects, quite cooley, in reasonable words. When is a seer not a seer? Who is the animal here? They ride on.

Roles reverse again in the next scene. And I thank Lorna Holmes for this insight! King Balak now plays the frustrated and fuming, clueless Balak while Balaam is the reasonable donkey, cooley explaining what he can and cannot do. And how about Balaam? Is he a good guy or a bad guy? He is the veritable Eiron. In the first scene he appears shallow, worldly, seduced by all the money and goodies that the King dangles in front of him. By the end, he is revealed as a vessel of divine inspiration, as open as a true prophet to God’s words and spirit and a veritable fountain of elegant poetry.

One more appeal – and fun – of the story is that the ironic reversals come in threes like familiar folk tales: think of the three little pigs, or Goldilocks and the three bears. Balaam strikes his donkey three times; Balak sets up three altars, and the gotcha comes on the third time. I leave you with a question. In the midst of Balaam’s vision of a prosperous Israel, he says we will be a people set apart. Is that an ironic prediction? It has certainly come true, but has it been a good – or a bad thing? Shabbat Shalom.

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