Balak: A Burden Of Blessings

When you are disappointed, upset or angry at yourself or at an event in your day, is your first reaction usually unprintable? Mine is, but only in hindsight and after some serious deep breathing do I eventually realize that what has happened embodies a teaching for me.  I don’t mean to be preachy here; I think that hindsight is a tool we’ve been given to help us develop as we should. In the duality of Creation, some of us feel blessed for who we are and what we have, while others curse who they are and what they do not have. A very fine line divides these actions as shown in my illustrations for Balak, this week’s parashah.

The story of Balak, Prince of Moab and Balaam, a character somewhere between a prophet and a wizard provides some comic relief in this parashah. Balak, terrified of the well-organized Israelites’ hostile advance on his country, imported Balaam from the Euphrates Valley to Moab, a distance of 20 days. Promising the wizard great rewards, he ordered curses placed on these invaders to buy himself a tactical advantage in the coming war. Though Balaam’s reputation preceded him, so did God’s plans for the Israelites. After twice warning Balaam not to accept Balak’s offer, He set obstacles in the wizard’s path, the most notable being a visionary talking donkey and one of His angels.

En route, the donkey, given ability to see the angel in its path, shies into a wall (near the quote). Balaam, unable to see the angel, impatiently whacks his donkey; to no effect. Unexpectedly, the donkey berates Balaam in return, for its miracle of speech is another of the extraordinary things that appeared on the eve of the first Sabbath at Creation. Eventually, Balaam is allowed to see the angel and proceed on his journey, but only if he agrees to follow the angel’s script in his meetings with Balak. In Moab, Balaam agreed to Balak’s order and performed sacrifices to herald his campaign of curses. However, when he opened his mouth on three separate hilltops to curse the Israelites, the Divine Spirit overcame him and a series of poetic blessings emerged instead.

Balak appears on the lower left of the page, his clothing adapted from Assyrian bas-reliefs of ancient kings. He is clenching an amalgam of spear and lightning rod in one fist and clenching the other in frustration at Balaam’s betrayal. The spear-lightning rod indicates his position of power. It is adapted from a stone plaque of the Canaanite storm deity Baal found at Ugarit and dating from the early second millennium BCE.

The figure of Balaam on the hilltop dominates A Burden of Blessings as his reproachful donkey looks on and the angel returns his sword to its sheath, mission accomplished. Clothed in turban and robes befitting his status as a wizard, he also wears two medallions. Since he may have come from ancient Iran, I chose the one around his neck to represent the Zoroastrian religion that would be practiced there beginning in 1000 BCE. The other is an astrolabe, symbol of his arcane knowledge and practices. His raised hands, appearing to have six fingers each, are intended to perform two gestures, the ‘manos cornutas’ (horned hands to ward off evil) and the priestly blessing.  The additional two fingers are shown in transparency to demonstrate the simple transformation of a curse into a blessing.

In The Lion’s Shadow, the encampment of the Twelve Tribes of Israel assumes the shape of a Star of David around the Tabernacle (Mishkan). This image reflects the census taken at the beginning of this parashah. It also represents Balaam’s second oracle to Balak. The king of beasts is a metaphor for the Jewish people and justifies reports of Israels’ fierce and holy nature by treading on Sobek, the important Egyptian crocodile god, symbolizing the defeat of the Egyptian army at the Reed Sea.

To date, ‘Imaginarius‘ has mostly focused on glimpses into my book, Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009). I will continue to do so, but beginning next week, I will also present other images from my portfolios that address a wide range of ideas. I encourage you to visit often and share your thoughts on what is presented there. Are you curious about what it means to be an illustrator who also writes? Have you been harboring a secret project that would be encouraged by some subjective feedback? To the best of my ability, no question or comment will go unanswered and I welcome your challenges! We have much to teach each other and that is part of  the blessings we share…

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