Tuesday, June 22, 2010

A Blessing on Your Head - Parshat Balack

The Nation of Israel is kicking butt right and left as they make their way to the promised land, putting the fear of God into some of the neighboring nations. Well, more like fear of the Israelites. In this week's Portion, Parshat Balak, the King of the Midianites, Balak, is frightened that the Israelites will overtake them, so as a preventative measure he sends for an oracle to curse the Israelites and keep them away from the Midianites. The oracle called upon to do the job is a man named Balam, but he faces some issues in carrying out the job. God tells him that under no circumstances is he to curse the Israelites because they are a blessed people. Obligingly, Balam refuses to go to Balak to curse the Israelites.

But Balak is a stubborn king (and what king isn’t?) and sends for Balam again. He just doesn’t seem to understand that no matter how much money he offers, Balam won’t be cursing the people. Balam does eventually end up going to the king at the instruction of God with the condition that he not say anything other than what God tells him to say. On the journey God wants to make the point abundantly clear and we have a case of fairytale-like anthropomorphism. The donkey that Balam rides on the journey starts to freak out. Balam has never before had trouble with this particular animal and tries to keep it in line by hitting it with a stick. Three times the donkey strays from the path and stops walking; veering into a field, ramming Balam’s leg into a wall, and finally laying down and refusing to go anywhere. Each time Balam reacts by hitting the poor animal, but what Balam can’t see is that the donkey has been scared by an angel of God who has appeared on the path brandishing a sword.

God opens the mouth of the donkey and it speaks to Balam “Why have you hit me three times?” Balam, apparently not too surprised that his donkey is now conversant in something other than braying, answers that it’s because he’s made him look like a fool. “Look” the donkey levels with him, “in all my service to you have I ever disobeyed you?” Hmm... thinks Balam, the ass has a good point. God then opens Balam’s eyes and he sees the menacing angel that has been in the path all along and understands. Balam knows that once he gets to Balak he is the mouth-piece of God and must do as He instructs.

When Balam finally reaches Balak he explains his situation, the whole can’t-say-anything-God-doesn’t-want-him-to situation, and instructs Balak to build seven alters to offer sacrifices to God. They are on an overlook where they can see the nation of Israel. Balam pronounces a lengthy blessing on Israel and Balak is incensed. “I brought you here to curse these people, what are you doing?” Balam again explains that he can only convey the words that God is putting in his mouth, but Balak isn’t catching on. Balak tries to take him to another vantage point, hopefully more suitable for nation cursing, but the same thing goes down. He builds alters and offers sacrifices but Balam can only offer blessings. Balak foolishly tries this several more times, thinking he can outsmart God. But of course, all Balam is able to do is bless the people.

There are two stubborn characters in the portion providing some fodder for my recipes this week. Donkeys have always been portrayed as stubborn beasts, and the one in this story is only half as stubborn as King Balak. To evoke both of them at the Shabbat table I’ll be making a salad with some alfalfa sprouts, one of the choice grazing material for donkeys. I’ll also be adding into the salad some hearts of palm to evoke the multiple blessings that the nation receives from Balam. In one of the blessings Balam likens the nation to palm groves; “How fair are your tents O Jacob, your dwellings O Israel. Like palm groves that stretch out, like gardens besides a river.”

I’ve been getting great heads of deep red lettuce and rich green romaine in our CSA, which I’m working on using up each week. With all the farmer's markets around now I’m sure you’ll find some great sprouts for the salad. The hearts of palm are easy to buy canned in a supermarket, and while they aren’t a colorful addition to a salad, they’ve got a great taste and a nice circular shape. In the summer salads can really become the focal point of a meal. Here are my top tips to making a centerpiece worthy salad – keep it colorful, try to strike a balance between sweet and savory and add in some protein like sliced egg, chickpeas, nuts or chicken. Serving something cold can keep your oven off, which keeps my apartment much cooler!

Hearts of Palm and Sprouts Salad

A head of red or romaine lettuce

A handful of dried cranberries

Canned Chickpeas

Canned hearts of Palm

Fresh alfalfa sprouts

Cherry tomatoes

Optional protein such as Chicken breasts, pepper steak, egg or tofu

1 lemon

2 teaspoons of olive oil
Dash of water
1 teaspoon or coarse salt garlic

First prepare my favorite dressing. Cut the lemon in half and squeeze both halves with a handled squeezer into a cup. Crush the garlic clove with a good quality crusher into the cup. Add oil, water and salt.

Then wash the lettuce, spin it dry in a salad spinner and add it to a large salad bowl. Throw in the cranberries and alfalfa sprouts. Rinse the chickpeas and add them too. Slice the hearts of palms into ¼ inch thick slices.

If you’re using the protein follow these instructions. For eggs add them to a pot and cover with boiling water. I use a timer that goes in the water and changes color to show the degree to which the egg is being cooked. Cook them to medium, about 7 minutes of boiling, let them cool and then peel and slice them. For chicken, marinate in some olive oil, salt, pepper and garlic and then put under your broiled for 5 minutes on each side, let cool and slice into bite size pieces. Do the same for the pepper steak or tofu but marinate it in soy sauce, scallions, garlic and pepper for a few hours. Add the protein to the top of the salad and then dress right before serving.


  1. I too have been making food each Shabbat corresponding to the parsha, and I stumbled on your blog when I was stuck one week. I really enjoy your blog. I loved your idea for the salad, but unsure about the palm tree reference. The verse says "k'nechalim nitayu" which means like rivers stretched out, not palm trees stretched out. Am I missing something?

  2. Hi Mark - thanks for stopping by and for the comment. You ask a god question and make a good point. For the translation of "nachalim" to palm tree, I was relying on the JPS Tanach. But now that you wrote that I am questioning it, as I haven't ever seen "nachal" translated as anything other than river. So I'm going to have to do some research on this (I hope it restores my faith in the JPS Tanach because I really love it's translation).

    I hope you keep stopping by and I'd love to hear what you're whipping up.

  3. Thanks for your comment. I usually I use the mechon-mamre.org translation. In addition to your salad (which went over well) I made a tented chicken for how goodly are you tents Yaakov...
    By the way, the user name is Mark because I used my husband's account - I am Melissa.
    Shavua Tov