The Painted Bird

In Balak, this week’s Torah portion, we read various stories regarding animals.   Long before we get to the climax of this story where Bilaam’s donkey talks to him, we meet Balak. There we read:

And Balak the son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites. (Numbers 22:2)

Balak the king of Moav was afraid of the Israelites and  he sent messengers to Balaam. We wants this prophet to curse the Israelites.  But what is his name? Balak the son of Zippor- Balak the son of Bird. And of course this story of animals fits into the larger context of the book of Numbers where the people of Israel are acting like animals. We saw this last week from when they were being struck down by snakes and at the end of this week’s Torah portion when they succumb to animal-like sexual promiscuity. What do we make of all of this “parshamenagerie“? Why does Balak hate the Israelite people?

This animalistic vision of Balak the son of Bird’s hate evokes for me images from the cover of  Jerzy Kosinski‘s  book the Painted Bird.

Image result for painted bird jerzy

In this controversial 1965 novel by Kosinski describes World War II as seen by a boy wandering about small villages scattered around an unspecified country in Eastern Europe. Like the book of Numbers, this book describes the boy’s encounter with peasants engaged in all forms of sexual and social deviance such as incest, bestiality and rape, and in a huge amount of violence – often at the expense of the child. While the book has been said to depict peasants in a derogatory fashion, some argue that it was not a particular social group, but all people, who are viewed as inherently predisposed to cruelty.

The title is drawn from an analogy to human life, described within the book. The boy finds himself in the company of a professional bird catcher. There we read:

One day he trapped a large raven, whose wings he painted red, the breast green, and the tail blue. When a flock of ravens appeared over our hut, Lekh freed the painted bird. As soon as it joined the flock a desperate battle began. The changeling was attacked from all sides. Black, red, green, blue feathers began to drop at our feet. The ravens ran amuck in the skies, and suddenly the painted raven plummeted to the freshly-plowed soil. It was still alive, opening its beak and vainly trying to move its wings. Its eyes had been pecked out, and fresh blood streamed over its painted feathers. It made yet another attempt to flutter up from the sticky earth, but its strength was gone. (Jerzy Kosiński, The Painted Bird)

When the man is particularly upset or bored, he takes one of his captured birds and paints it several colors. Then he watches the bird fly through the air in search of a flock of its kin. When it comes upon them, they see it as an intruder and tear at the bird until it dies, falling from the sky.

Back to Balak, what separated the Israelites from other nations? There was no biological difference. The soul difference was their faith and practice. But if they lost their faith or stopped their practice, what separated the Israelites? There in the story of their Exodus we read:

You shall keep watch over it until the fourteenth day of this month; and all the assembled congregation of the Israelites shall slaughter it at twilight.They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they are to eat it. ( Exodus 12:6-7)

We separated from our neighbors by painting our door posts. The book of Numbers is the story of the nation of Israel wandering in the desert after having been liberated from their slavery in Egypt. Like the Painted Bird, we see the Israelites being sent back to interact with the flock of humanity after having been painted as different and their struggle to keep their faith and practice. While the authorship or authenticity of the book might be suspect, for me the Painted Bird has always been a haunting portrayal of what happens when humanity gives into hate and scorn, we are all but savage animals ripping apart what we perceive as a threat. Sadly we have to ask if  anything has really changed?



0 Responses to “The Painted Bird”

  1. Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 245 other subscribers

Archive By Topic

%d bloggers like this: