My inner geek loves this week’s Torah portion, Balak, because it seems like something out of Tolkein’s Middle Earth. We read the story of sorcerer-extraordinaire, Balaam, and his foiled attempt to curse the Children of Israel. Instead of using his powers to curse Israel at the behest of the Moabite King Balak, he blesses them. How strange is it that the Torah implicitly acknowledges the existence and validity of magic? What are Balaam’s magical powers, and why is the sight of the tents of the Israelites enough for his magic powers to not just be nullified, but to be reversed entirely?
This parshah presents magic as Balaam’s ability to manipulate the world around him for his own agenda. Balaam’s magic is more than just coercion – he uses his will, in conjunction with ceremony and ritual, in order to break the laws of the natural world for personal gain. Yet, after his encounter with an angel and seeing the tents of Israel, Balaam’s magic fails miserably. Why? The holiness of the community of Israel, with its beautiful tents and networks of lives lived in holy relationship with one another, is something which could not be touched or manipulated by Balaam. This magic – the palpable experience of the sacred – causes Balaam to not curse, but bless, “מַה־טֹּ֥בוּ אֹהָלֶ֖יךָ יַעֲקֹ֑ב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶ֖יךָ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃ – How fair are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel!”