A tongue-tied wizard. A talking donkey. An enraged king. Game of Thrones? Harry Potter on Broadway during the blackout? No, it's this week's seemingly bizarre Torah portion. Balak, king of the Moabites, is terrified that the approaching Israelites will destroy his kingdom. He calls upon the wizard Balaam "son of Beor in Pethor" to "'Come then, put a curse upon this people for me, since they are too numerous for me...'" G-d appears before Balaam, ordering him to defy Balak's wishes, though his messengers offer Balaam great riches. When Balak's men come a second time, Balaam hops on his "she-ass" and follows them.
Bad move. "...G-d was incensed at his going; so an angel of the Lord placed himself in his way as an adversary." The poor donkey suddenly faces "the angel of the Lord standing in his way, with his drawn sword in his hand." But clueless Balaam doesn't see a thing. The terrified animal refuses to continue and Balaam, becoming frustrated, beats her; this cycle repeats itself three times. "Then the Lord opened the ass's mouth" and she lets her master have it.
"'I am the ass that you have been riding all along until this day!'" she cries, giving him the guilt trip. Then G-d "uncovered Balaam's eyes and he saw the angel of the Lord". His head spinning, Balaam is told by the angel to continue on his journey but "'... say nothing except what I tell you.'" When Balaam finally meets Balak, in a spot where the two men can see the Israelites from afar, Balaam instructs the king to "'Build me seven altars here'" and make sacrifices.
But rather than obeying the king's request that he curse the advancing Israelites, Balaam, in whose mouth "...the Lord put(s) a word", instead blesses them. This too happens three times. "'When He blesses, I cannot reverse it.'" says Balaam. "'No harm is in sight for Jacob, no woe in view for Israel. The Lord their G-d is with them, and their King's acclaim in their midst...How fair are your tents,O Jacob! Your dwellings, O Israel!'" (Balaam's final words are among those recited by Jews every single day.) Meanwhile, while camped at Shittim, the Israelites are cursing themselves by "by whoring with the Moabite women", leading to idol worship. G-d orders Moses to "impale" the "ringleaders" and "slay those of his men who attached themselves to (the god) Baal-Peor'". At the same time Phinehas, "son of Eleazar son of Aaron the priest" sees an Israelite man take a Midianite woman alone into a "chamber". He stabs them both and thus "the plague against the Israelites" that claims 24 thousand people "(is) checked". Even a story that some commentators suggest may have a comic cast ends with a stark, haunting message about what happens when we ignore G-d's words and stray from His path.