Balak 5781: Control Your Own Destiny (Or Someone Else Will)
Balak (Numbers 22:2-25:9 )
GOOD MORNING! In the course of our lives we often come into contact with difficult people. These “personalities” can be a relative, co-worker, boss, friend, or acquaintance. Obviously, the closer we are to these people, whether by blood (relative) or by circumstance (employment), the more difficult and exhausting these “relationships” become.
Of course, there are varying degrees of pain associated with interacting with difficult people, ranging from mere annoyance to outright misery. The good news is that, as we shall soon see, much if not most of how we are impacted depends on how we frame these unpleasant incidents in our minds.
To begin, we must be thankful for the difficult people in our lives because they show us exactly who we do not want to become. We are generally taught to look up to and emulate positive role models, and clearly this is a key to growing and developing our characters. However, we must keep in mind that bad examples are just as instructive as good examples.
Bottom line: Follow the good. Learn from the bad. Consider yourself lucky for having both in your life, for in this way you become a better person.
There is a well-known saying, “You cannot control others and you cannot completely control your environment. All you can control is your reaction to the situation.” While this statement is mostly true, it still doesn’t tell us how to begin to control our reaction.
In general, it’s important to be aware that if you are reacting to a situation then you are letting the situation control you, but if you are responding to a situation then you are the one in control. Therefore, the first step is to stop being reactive and to acquire the discipline to craft a measured response. But how are we to accomplish this?
In this week’s Torah reading we see an example of what the Almighty does when He is wronged; a lesson that I believe is very instructive and wholly applicable to our lives.
He sees no iniquity in Jacob, nor does He see transgressions in Israel, Hashem his God is with him and the friendship of the King is with them (Numbers 23:21).
The name of this week’s Torah portion is Balak. Balak was the king of Moab and, after seeing all the nations that had been defeated by the Children of Israel on their march to the land of Israel, he became worried that his kingdom would fall as well.
What did Balak do? He decided that the best way to attack the Jewish nation was by severing, or at least weakening, their connection to their “protector” – the Almighty. He therefore hired a prophet named Bilaam to curse the Jewish people. Now Bilaam was a truly gifted prophet and, according to our sages, his prophecy was on the level of Moses. But Bilaam was a wretched human being; he was both immoral and avaricious. The Almighty prevented Bilaam from cursing the Jewish nation and in fact he ended up blessing them instead. This of course infuriated Balak who felt he had been double crossed.
Interestingly enough, many of the statements made by Bilaam have been incorporated into the Jewish liturgy, and the verse above is part of the prayers of Rosh Hashanah.
Rashi (ad loc) explains this verse to mean that Hashem is not exacting in His judgement of the Jewish people; meaning that, in His great love for them, He disregards their transgressions even when they sin.
This verse’s reassuring expression of the Almighty’s kindness in judgement readily explains why it was chosen to be included in our liturgy on Rosh Hashanah, notwithstanding that the evil Bilaam is the source of this observation.
Yet, this verse doesn’t seem to conform to normative Jewish thinking.
In the Talmud we are taught quite the contrary. We are informed that the Almighty is in fact extremely critical of the Jewish people as the Talmud (Bava Kama 50a) states: “Hashem is exacting to a hairbreadth in His judgement of the righteous, and that anyone who says that Hashem disregards sin is forfeiting his life.”
How then can Rashi declare that Hashem simply disregards our sins?
There are two dimensions to every sin. The first is that when a person sins his actions represent a defect in his character; a flaw that must be repaired in order for him to perfect himself. With regard to this aspect of sin, the Almighty is infinitely exacting as He allows no imperfection to be ignored.
The reason for this is that man was put on this earth to perfect himself. Therefore, Hashem judges mankind with the greatest strictness in order for us to cleanse ourselves of all flaws and achieve ultimate perfection.
However, there is another dimension to sin, one that Hashem does disregard: The pain and insult that we cause Him, so to speak, by rebelling against Him and ignoring His requirements of us. In truth, of course, the Almighty is immutable and our acts cannot affect Him one iota. Our mitzvot do not add to Him and our sins do not detract from Him.
But as the great philosopher of the 19th century, Rabbi Chaim Volozhin, writes in his masterpiece (Nefesh Hachaim 1:3): The whole construct of creation is an expression of Hashem’s desire to have a relationship with mankind. The nature of this relationship is what is affected by our transgressions.
Thus, when we say that on Rosh Hashanah God ignores our sins, this is referring to the pain and hurt we have inflicted on our relationship with Him. He absolutely disregards the injury that we have caused the relationship by flouting His authority and rebelling against Him. He only judges us on the flaws in our character that have led to these transgressions; in this He is exacting because He desires to see us perfect ourselves.
The reason the Almighty is able to dismiss the pain caused by how we have treated Him is because the Almighty has no ego; it’s never “about Him.” This concept of letting go of our ego is a critical element to a person’s self-growth, one that we must incorporate into our lives.
When a newborn child cries in the middle of the night wanting to be fed, the baby isn’t doing it to irritate his parents, he just wants to eat. If we actually get annoyed, then we are making it about ourselves. We need to clarify in our minds that it’s not about us. I am not saying this is easy to do at 3 AM and I do remember one new father telling me that his child was preventing him from being the parent he always imagined he would be. Nevertheless, that is what it takes to become a great parent: to focus on what the child really needs and not how those needs impact your life.
Similarly, when we are faced with difficult people and feel like they are insulting or disparaging us, we must recognize that these feelings are generated by ego. In these situations, our thought process tends to revolve around “How can he do this to me?” / “Who is he to speak to me that way?” / “How can he disrespect me this way?” Inevitably, we become angry and react. At which point we have lost control.
While these reactions are natural because everyone is generally focused on themselves and their needs, we must make an effort to emulate the Almighty and remove our ego from the equation. When we internalize that difficult people may have severe emotional issues that really don’t have to do with us, then we can begin to separate ourselves from the equation. Once we truly incorporate this into our psyche we will no longer get angry and react. Instead, we can formulate an appropriate response to the situation.
A final word from our sages (Talmud Shabbos 88b): “This is the way of righteous people: if insulted, they do not insult others; if shamed, they do not retort; they act from love and are positive even when they are suffering.” In other words, it’s never about them.
Balak, Numbers 22:2 - 25:9
This week's portion is one of the most fascinating psychologically-revealing portions in the whole Torah! Bilaam, a non-Jewish prophet, was granted a level of prophecy close to Moses’ level of prophecy. The Almighty gave Bilaam these powers so that the nations of the world could not say at some point in the future, “If we had a prophet like Moses, we too would have accepted the Torah and would have lived according to it.” Bilaam is an intriguing character – honor-driven, arrogant and self-serving. Unfortunately, not too unique amongst mankind.
Balak, the king of Moav, wanted to hire Bilaam to curse the Jewish people for a fortune of money. It is interesting that Balak believed in God and the power of invoking a curse from God, yet thought that God would change His mind about His Chosen People (God is not one to changes His mind). Bilaam was very desirous of the assignment to curse the Jews – more for the profit motive than the prophet motive.
The Almighty the king of Moav, wanted to hire Bilaam to curse the Jewish people for a fortune of money. It is interesting that Balak believed in God and the power of invoking a curse from God, yet thought that God would change His mind about His Chosen People (God is not one to changes His mind). Bilaam was very desirous of the assignment to curse the Jews – more for the profit motive than the prophet motive.
Some people walk in the rain. Others get wet.
— Roger Miller