Hope you all enjoy this commentary I offered during the Sim Shalom online Shabbat morning service. Join me next time August 6 at 8:30am PST/11:30 EST by going to www.simshalom.com.
In the portion for this Shabbat, we have a king named Balak. Balak is not too happy about the fact that the Israelites (who, by the way, are still in the wilderness heading toward the Promised Land) seem to be able to conquer whatever enemies they encounter. Knowing the Israelites are protected by their God, Balak figures he needs some strong magic to defeat them, so he calls upon Bilaam, the sorcerer, to curse them.
Now, Bilaam is not an Israelite, but he’s caught on to the power of their God and not only believes in that God but seems able to have full-fledged conversations with God. So, when Balak sends messengers to ask Bilaam to curse the Israelites, Bilaam talks to God and says no. But over time, they wear him down, and God says he can go as long as he only says and does what God tells him to.
So, off Bilaam goes with the king’s soldiers, riding on his donkey, when an angel of God stands in their way. Apparently God decided it wasn’t such a good idea after all to let Bilaam hang with the king’s soldiers. Perhaps God could sense that Bilaam’s allegiance was wavering. The donkey can see this angel, and she stops in her tracks (yes, this is a girl donkey). Bilaam is quite angry at the donkey because he can’t see the angel, so he beats and beats her. And then, the donkey does the unexpected. She speaks. She says to her rider, “What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times? Look, I am the she-ass you have been riding all along until this day! Have I been in the habit of doing thus to you?”
Bilaam realizes the error of his ways, and with that, his eyes also open so he can see the angel of God too. Now all is understood about what he must do. In the end, Bilaam blesses the Israelites rather than cursing them, naturally angering the king to no end.
As I was thinking about this portion, it occurred to me that it has a great deal in common with the Harry Potter story. Once I chatted with my 14 year old (who knows all things Harry Potter), I was sure.
In Harry Potter, the king Balak is played by, of course, the evil Lord Voldemort. Both of them are powerful. Both of them act out of fear of their own deaths. Both of them send others to do much of their dirty work. God is represented by Dumbledore, the ever-wise, good, and powerful wizard who is lovingly protective of his “nation”, but will kick butt if he needs to, in spite of his peaceful soul. Balak is Snape, the teacher who picks endlessly on Harry and whom no one quite knows if he is an instrument of Lord Voldemort’s or Dumbledore’s until the very end. The angel is Fawkes, Dumbledore’s phoenix, who comes to the rescue only to those who believe in the Good and is no help to those who don’t.
And who is the donkey? Why, Harry Potter himself! He is “ridden” constantly by his teacher Snape… cornered, accused, and threatened at every turn. And why? Because (at least while he’s young) he is easy prey for Snape’s anger, and because Harry has his mother’s eyes which are wide open to the Good while Snape’s are too confused to fully see.
It’s easy to understand why fantastical stories such as this one in the Torah or Harry Potter are popular. They have obvious sides of good and evil, and there are clear heroes for whom we can root. But most intriguing are the middle-men, Bilaam and Snape, the ones we aren’t quite sure whether they are part of the light or part of the dark.
They are us.
None of us are Voldemort and none of us are Dumbledore. None of us are Balak or God. We are all somewhere in between. We all serve something that might be considered a “dark lord”. It could be an abusive relationship, a nasty boss whom we feel we have to appease, our egos, or an addiction of some sort no matter how minor that addiction is, but we’ve all got something. However, we all serve light masters too… children who remind us who we really want to be, supportive spouses, mentors, parents, communities, faith structures, and friends. We find ourselves battling with these two sides all the time, and often the negative voices seem to be louder than the positive. And while we are arguing with those voices in our heads, we may find there is someone younger or smaller or weaker we can let out some of our frustrations on because we believe they won’t fight back. Maybe we find ourselves being less than our best to an employee, or a waiter, or a less popular kid in class, or a bagger at the market… Maybe we hurt the ones we love most, like our children or our spouses, because we know they will forgive us.
But maybe, just maybe, those “little guys” are the guys who can see the Truth, who can see the angel, who can be heard by Fawkes. We might not consider them enough, or give them enough respect to notice that they are staring straight into the eyes of an angel of God. We miss the opportunity to learn from them because it appears they have nothing to teach. But let’s remember the idea that we should treat every human as if he/she was the Messiah, because if a Messiah comes, it might not appear as a king or as a president, but as some kind of quiet request. The student. The employee. The waiter. The homeless.
We may not be sorcerers or wizards, but we all harness an enormous amount of power over each person we encounter every day. Which master do we serve as we engage with each one? Do we act from love or fear? Let’s be truthful with ourselves, and when we catch ourselves operating from fear, let’s try to open our eyes, see the angel before us with a hand open-palmed in a gesture of “Stop!”, and try again from a place of love.