Parshat Balak, famous for featuring a talking donkey, is unique in another way. The protagonist of our story is not part of Am Yisrael. Bilaam, a wizard and Navi employed by the Moabite king to curse Am Yisrael, is the center of our story. Bilaam is gifted with the ability to speak to God. He supports himself by monetizing this potentially life-changing ability and hiring himself out to the highest bidder. Rather than using this amazing gift to make the world a better place, he tries to financially better himself. Even the appearance of a talking donkey and an angry angel standing in his path, sword drawn, do nothing to shake Bilaam out of his self-centered perspective.
How can someone who is able to connect directly with the Divine be so short-sighted, so selfish, and ultimately, so evil? Our text gives us clues in its introduction of Bilaam at the beginning of our parsha. Bilaam is referred to only as the “Son of Beor,” Bilaam lives “in the land of his relatives,” but he lives alone. He has no spouse, no immediate family, no friends, no colleagues. Everyone else in our story has someone else to consult; the Moabite King Balak consults the Elders of Midian. The deputation of dignitaries sent by Balak as emissaries speak and act as a group. Am Yisrael, camped out in the desert at the foot of the mountain, function together so closely and so well that they have terrified Balak into wanting them cursed.
Bilaam lives alone by a river. Am Yisrael live together, as a camp. As a camp, they also connect directly with the Divine – via Moses, but also via their own direct experience. Am Yisrael stood together at the foot of Mount Sinai and heard God’s voice “k’ish echad b’lev echad,” “as one person with one heart.” They were able to hear the Divine together. Unlike Bilaam, the transformative nature of the experience was shared with others. Rather than turning inward, hearing the Divine Voice turned Am Yisrael outward toward each other.
Machane Yavneh provides everyone who enters this beautiful space with the opportunity to live through transformative experiences together. Each person at Yavneh, whether staff or chanich (camper) is enveloped in a group of people here to support, encourage, and help them grow into who they are. Bilaam was alone by his river, isolated by his selfishness and inability to care for others. At Machane Yavneh, together by (and frequently in) our lake, we are learn to be Jewish community members, leaders, and friends together.