Friday, July 22, 2016

Parsha Balak: Do Lost Causes Exist? A Lesson on Choice and Blessings

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound. That saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now I'm found. 'Twas blind, but now can see. I know it's a Christian hymn that has become popularized in American culture, but it's actually a good depiction of this week's Torah portion. How so?

Balaam was the original "prophet for hire." King Balak was afraid of what the Israelites did to the Amorites (Numbers 22:2), and thus hired Balaam to curse the people of Israel (Numbers 22:7). Throughout the passage, Balaam does everything possible to distort G-d's word in order to curse the Israelites. Balaam takes G-d's ambiguous permission (Numbers 22:20) and manipulates it to his advantage. Balaam was so hellbent on bringing down the Jewish people that it took a talking donkey to make him realize just how far he strayed (Numbers 22:34). But Balaam makes up for his evil intentions and collaboration with the Moabite king. He starts by building seven altars for seven bulls and seven lambs (Numbers 23:1). In Judaism, the number seven represents creation, good fortune, and blessing.  He continued the goodwill by blessing the Jewish people, even in spite of Balak's protestations. He even made a statement that was so strong that it part of the Jewish morning liturgy:

מה טבו אהליך יעקב משכנתיך ישראל.
How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel. -Numbers 24:5

Yet by the end, Balaam counseled Balak to entice the Jewish men to debauchery (Numbers 31:16). Balaam ended on such a bad note that he is one of the seven people who has no share in the World to Come (Sanhedrin 90a). While rabbinic literature considers Balaam to be so evil, Pirke Avot [4:1] teaches us that a wise person is one who learns from every individual, so what can we learn from Balaam's behavior?

When Balaam is first commiserating with Balak, Balak points out that "I know that whomever you bless is blessed and whomever you curse is cursed (Numbers 22:6)." The Chofetz Chayim points out that Balak recognizes in this verse that Balaam has the ability to both bless and curse. There is the question of why Balak didn't ask Balaam to simply bless his own people, but there is also the question of why Balaam went along with it, especially knowing that G-d already blessed the Jewish people. Someone as blinded as Balaam had the ability to do good all along.

According to Sforno, the meaning of being created in G-d's Image is that we have the faculty to choose between right and wrong. For Sforno, it is what makes us human. Even with someone such as the Pharaoh and his heart being heartened, Sforno believed that the hardening was necessary for Pharaoh to have free will. At least looking at another evil man such as the Pharaoh of the Exodus narrative, we see that G-d does not deprive us of choice in the regards of morality. We don't know what Balaam's background was. We don't know how much the "school of hard knocks" kicked him around. We don't know what made him the wretch he turned out to be. What the Chofetz Chayim points out in Numbers 22:6, however, that Balaam had the choice to not be a wretch, and also that we have choice. We have the ability to bless and curse. We have the ability as to whether we emphasize blessings in our life or whether we view life negatively. I think that hubris and the power of prophecy got to Balaam's head, which prevented him from thinking clearly about what G-d wanted. He was so close to G-d, yet Balaam made it all about Balaam. Yes, we have a choice every time we act, think, or speak. We have a choice as to whether to be blind or to see. We have the choice, and it should be one of blessing. 

1 comment:

  1. Hi Steve! Very perceptive d'var Torah. We do have a choice.

    I notice this the most when I'm around people who haven't chosen the way of blessing, particularly older people. In my view, an "elder" is a person who has allowed himself or herself to mature, and is generally kind, calm, and at peace with the world and within themselves. This doesn't mean that they ignore the realities of life for rosy idealism. No: but they know how to react to tragedy or setbacks or frustration in a fundamentally optimistic, hopeful way.

    Somebody who views life negatively, constantly causes anger and stress and confusion in others, and is confused themselves- is not really an elder, just an "older person." Same for Balaam.

    I have always loved the part about Balaam's donkey speaking to him, and all the other donkey references in the Torah and NT. I am, after all, a former donkey owner.