Wake-Up Calls: Are You Ready to Listen?
Balak (Numbers 22:2-25:9 )
Time and again in this parashah we encounter the infinite compassion and loving-kindness of Hashem, who never gives up on anyone. Balak, the king of Moab, consumed by hatred of the Jewish people, is very much aware that the secret power of the Jews lies in their prayers, in their devotion to God. To counteract this energy, he appoints a delegation to invite Bilaam, the heathen prophet, to curse the Jews. Bilaam sanctimoniously answers that he would have to ask God for permission, which, at first glance, appears to be a righteous response, but which in fact, is an indictment of his character, for how could a decent human being even consider undertaking such an evil deed? What sane man would ask God for permission to do evil?
Just the same, God, in His boundless mercy, does not punish Bilaam, but sends him his first wake-up call. In a dream, God speaks to him and asks a simple question: "Who are these men with you?"1
This question is difficult to understand, for surely God knows who these people are; but throughout the Torah, we find that God sends His wake-up calls by prodding man with similar gentle questions. For example, when Adam and Eve sin, God asks, "Ayekah? - Where are you?"2 When Cain kills his brother, Abel, God asks, "Where is Abel, your brother?"3
These questions are meant to challenge man, to make him realize how low he has sunk, and to motivate him into taking control of his life before it is too late and he perishes. What God is really asking Bilaam is to consider what has happened to him. "Who are these people with you? How do you come to associate yourself with such evil? How low can you sink?"
WHOSE FAULT IS IT?
Bilaam just doesn't get it! He is so full of his own self-importance that he never hears the deeper question of God. Again and again God sends messages to Bilaam to prevent him from following this disastrous course. Sadly, however, when a man is bent upon evil, God's warnings fall upon deaf ears. Man has this uncanny ability to rationalize, to twist and turn reality to suit his desires. As obvious and as pointed as God's messages may be, they are all to no avail if a person chooses to disregard them. So it is that, despite God's warnings, Bilaam sets out on his journey. Still, God doesn't give up on him and places obstructions in his path. Perhaps as a result of these hardships, Bilaam will re-think his malevolent plan and come to realize the catastrophic consequences of his undertaking. But Bilaam continues on his blind course, and when he encounters new difficulties, he blames outside forces and strikes the donkey he is riding, believing that the donkey is at fault.
At this point God performs an open miracle that cannot possibly be taken for coincidence. The donkey actually opens its mouth and speaks, an occurrence that would shock any normal person! "What have I done to you that you struck me these three times?" the donkey asks.4 But Bilaam remains obstinate and continues to ignore God's call.
There are several lessons that we can learn from all this. The most important message that we should absorb is how disastrously self-destructive human nature can be. This realization should give us all pause. How sensitive are we to God's wake-up calls? When difficulties befall us, do we search for scapegoats? Like Bilaam, do we blame the "donkeys" in our lives? Do we hold others responsible for our failings and difficulties, or do we have the courage to examine our own hearts and determine where and how we strayed? These are painful questions, but if we are to lead meaningful, purposeful lives, we must answer them candidly.
NEVER GIVE UP ON ANYONE
An additional lesson to be gleaned from this story is that we should try to emulate the ways of Hashem and never give up on those who are bent upon a disastrous course. Despite everything, Hashem continues to appeal to Bilaam to change his ways. Similarly, we too must try to persuade people whom we see embarking upon a ruinous path to come to their senses before it is too late. We are never to give up on anyone.
WE CHOOSE THE PATH
In a dream, God tells Bilaam not to go with those who want him to curse the Jewish people, but when a second delegation arrives, God gives His permission. A superficial reading of this text would suggest that God is sending contradictory messages.
At first glance, this appears rather paradoxical. Does God change His mind? Of course we realize that changing one's mind is a human trait, so how are we to understand this passage? There is a Talmudic teaching that "the path that a man chooses to follow is the path on which he is led."5 God grants us free will: There is life, there is death; there is blessing, there is curse; there is good, there is evil. It is for us to choose the good, but God cannot force us to do so without depriving us of our free will and rendering us robots. If we will it, there are no external forces that can prevent us from choosing the right path. If we will it, there is nothing to inhibit us from becoming better and kinder people. It's all in our hands, and we can't blame fate or the stars for our actions. We are all responsible!
God warns Bilaam not to go with Balak's emissaries, but when he insists on doing so, God gives him permission to accompany them, but at the same time, Bilaam is warned not to join them in their evil scheme. This warning is evidenced in the use of the Hebrew word, itam - with. In the Hebrew language, there are no redundancies; thus, the two words for "with" have different connotations. Imahem, derived from the word "am - nation," implies a common ideology, while "itam" is more objective, implying being physically in the same place as others (i.e., on a plane or a train with many passengers) but having no common purpose with them.
In Bilaam's first dream, God warns him not to go "imahem"6 - "Do not be one in purpose with them." In the second dream, when Bilaam persists in his desire to go, God gives His consent with the word "itam," meaning that if Bilaam was determined to go, he could physically accompany them, but he could not join forces with them.7 But once again, despite God's clear warning, Bilaam refuses to listen and he goes "im," joining them in heart and mind.8 Later, when he was already on the way, God warned him again that he could go only to pronounce what he would be commanded to say.9
The sad lesson that we learn from this incident is that even when God gives us a specific warning, even when His messages are crystal clear and cannot possibly be misinterpreted, even then, man can pervert and twist God's command.
But the sad lesson does not end there. There is a kabbalistic teaching that Bilaam was a gilgul of Laban, the treacherous father of Rachel and Leah. Like Bilaam, Laban was bent upon destroying the Jewish people. He too was warned by God in a dream to stay away from Jacob and refrain from speaking either good or bad to him - informing us that even his apparent good was bad. However, just as Laban refused to heed God's warning, Bilaam repeated the same evil. Generations may pass, conditions may change, but man's perverse nature remains the same. How very sad!
THE SECRET POWER OF THE JEW
Bilaam was bent upon cursing the nation, but God placed a blessing on his lips. When Bilaam beheld the beautiful, modest family life of the Jewish people, despite himself he proclaimed the timeless prayer that has become the identifying characteristic of our people throughout the centuries: "Ma tovu ohalecha Yaakov … - How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel."10 This is the first prayer that we pronounce upon entering the synagogue, and it is the prayer that some people chant under the chuppah as a new Jewish home is created.
What is the significance of this blessing? What exactly did Bilaam see? Indeed, there are many dimensions to this prayer. Bilaam was awed by the sanctity and modesty of Jewish family life, as evidenced by the manner in which the tents of the Jewish people were placed. To assure the total privacy of each family, the doors of the tents were set up so that no one had a view of the other.
The "tents" and the "dwelling places" are also references to the synagogues and the study halls. It is this threefold bastion of strength that guarantees the Jewish people's invincibility and eternity:
The modesty and sanctity of Jewish family life.
The nation's devotion to prayer and the service of God.
The people's commitment to Torah study.
These three pillars guarantee our Jewish survival, but if they are compromised, then the very life of our nation is at risk. Bilaam intended to invoke a curse on our Jewish people by declaring that our study halls and synagogues be empty and that our homes and family lives be infiltrated by foreign influences. But despite himself, he had to declare praise, for God granted him vision, and he saw that for all of eternity there would be Jewish people who would cling tenaciously to these three foundations upon which Jewish life is built.
Indeed, no matter to what corners of the earth destiny may have propelled us, no matter how much suffering, pain, and persecution we may have experienced, no matter how the ravages of assimilation may have eaten away at us, there have always been and shall always be committed Jews who are prepared to sacrifice and adhere to this threefold formula: the sanctity of the Jewish family, devotion to prayer and the service of God, and our study of Torah.
Indeed, "how goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel."
- Numbers 22:9.
- Genesis 3:9.
- Ibid. 4:9.
- Numbers 22:28.
- Makkos 10b.
- Numbers 22:12.
- Ibid. 22:20.
- Ibid. 22:21.
- Ibid. 22:35.
- Ibid. 24:5.