07/03/2012 07:33 am ET | Updated Sep 02, 2012

Numbers 22:2-24:25: Money, Religion, Leadership

Religious leadership isn't easy. Just ask any of the rabbis who have told me about their own attempts to address controversial issues within their institutions, take on the challenge of moral leadership and manage relationships with members of a diverse community.

Or just ask the prophet Balaam, the unexpected hero of this week's Torah portion. As the story begins, Balak, the king of Moab, becomes alarmed that the Israelite people have settled in his land. Having heard both about their unlikely escape from Egypt, and about their more recent military triumph over the Amorites, Balak fears that these strangers will conquer his territory as well. Since the Israelites themselves seem to be relying on divine intervention, Balak seeks out some divine intervention of his own, in the form of Balaam, whom he hires to curse Israel.

Balaam hesitates from the start. He waits for a sign from God, who appears to him in a dream to tell him only to speak the words that God puts in his month. Though initially blind to the divine messenger who blocks his way, Balaam (with help from a talking she-donkey) eventually recognizes this sign and agrees to take marching orders from God.

When Balak and Balaam next meet, the king wonders why the prophet has not yet cursed the Israelites. Balaam responds, "Perhaps God will grant me a manifestation (yikareh), and whatever God tells me, I will tell you." (Numbers 23:3, JPS Translation -- as are all future quotes from the Tanakh, with minor adaptations)

Indeed, God does appear. The very next verse begins, "God manifested (vayikar) Godself to Balaam."

It takes chutzpah for any prophet -- especially one inclined to curse the Israelites -- to attempt to summon God. The biblical prophets far more often resist their prophecy, or at least appear surprised to receive it.

For this reason, most of the rabbinic commentary on this verse sees in the wording a subtle condemnation of Balaam. The verb used here "k-r-h," translated as "manifest" rarely appears within the context of prophecy. More common are the verbs "to come" or "to speak." Balaam, the rabbis say, is just not on the level of prophecy of Moses or Isaiah or any of the other Jewish prophets. Some even see in the root k-r-h a connection to the word keri, a seminal emission that renders a man impure.

But the very fact that God does, in fact, appear to Balaam suggests that this prophet is not being punished for his chutzpah. Rather, Balaam becomes a vessel of blessing, offering praises that have since become an integral part of Jewish liturgy.

The midrash (rabbinic interpretation) of this story notes that God only directs a person in the direction that s/he is already going. That is, Balaam's repeated submission to divine instruction indicates his disinclination to curse the Israelites. God needs only to give him a small push in the right direction, or perhaps to allow Balaam to attribute to divine intervention the actions that he would anyway like to take.

Another hint toward Balaam's character comes from the similarity between the word vayikar ("God manifested" here) and the same Hebrew word in Psalm 49. There, the word v'yekar means "it is expensive/dear." These two words actually derive from different roots, yet end up taking on almost identical forms in these two verses.

Psalm 49 reads, in part:

In time of trouble, why should I fear

The encompassing evil of those who would supplant me --

People who trust in their riches, who glory in their great wealth

Ah - -it cannot redeem a man, or pay his ransom to God.

The price of life is too high (vayikar); and so one ceases to be, forever.

This psalm and the story of Balaam both reject monetary wealth in favor of putting a higher value on human life. Balaam could easily have accepted Balak's offer of gold and silver in exchange for curses, but instead forgoes wealth in favor of summoning a manifestation of God. The psalm dismisses worldly riches as meaningless in comparison with the infinite value of a human being.

In the world today, gold and silver speak volumes. This is true in every realm of life -- politics, business, and unfortunately even religion. The rabbis who call me to talk about the difficulty of doing human rights work in their communities most often cite concerns about wealthy donors, or about impending contract negotiations. In the current economic climate, when so many talented rabbis and cantors are unemployed or underemployed, many fear taking any risks that could lose them their jobs.

It couldn't have been easy for Balaam to reject the promise of gold and silver. But he, at least, had God whispering in his ear, sending an angel, and putting words in his mouth. None of us today enjoy such direct access to God. Even if we are already going in the right direction, as the midrash imagines Balaam to be, we may have difficulty balancing following our hearts with maintaining our livelihoods.

This is not a problem for rabbis and cantors to solve. Rather, it is a challenge to the Jewish community: How do we prevent monetary interests from getting in the way of religious moral leadership? How do we ensure that our communities -- both our leaders and our laypeople -- can follow our convictions, rather than succumbing to financial pressure? How can we guarantee that our institutions serve always as vessels of blessing?

ON Scripture -- The Torah is a weekly Jewish scriptural commentary, produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks and Hebrew College. Thought leaders from the United States and beyond offer their insights into the weekly Torah portion and contemporary social, political, and spiritual life.