The Purple Sheet
Shabbat Parshat Balak– July 22nd/23rd 2016 – י’ז תמוז תשע’ו
Only You Can Make You
In this week’s Torah portion, the Jewish people are confronted with an enemy of a different sort. Balak, the king of Moab, witnessing the success and power of the Israelites as they traveled in the desert, fears that his nation will be overrun. He summons a non-Jewish prophet, Bilaam to utilize his spiritual powers and curse the Jews.
It is ironic that Balak has the clarity to realize that physical might alone will not succeed against the Jewish people. He understands that God is the source of Israel’s triumphs and must therefore battle them on their own turf. Perhaps hecan find a chink in their spiritual armour. To this end, he hires Bilaam.
Bilaam informs his boss – that would be God – of the proposition but he is unequivocally told not to join Balak. Bilaam rebuffs the job offer, telling Balak that God has instructed him that the effort would be futile inasmuch as the Jews are a blessed people and not subject to curses. One would think that, given this news, Balak would abandon his offer. Instead, Balak’s messengers return with the same request, but with a larger monetary gift should Bilaam comply.
Faced with this new possible windfall that will result in his financial security, Bilaam again makes his request of God to take the job and curse the Jews. However this time God’s response is slightly different. Instead of the original response to Bilaam of, “You shall not go with them. You shall not curse this people for it is blessed.” God tells Bilaam, “If the men came to summon you, arise and go with them, but only the thing that I speak to you – that you shall do.”
It seems a little bit odd that God would change His mind regarding Bilaam’s participation. Originally Bilaam gets an emphatic “No” to his request, yet upon further inquiry by Bilaam, he gets an “O.K., but…” reaction from God.
Bilaam’s behavior is also strange since he got a very clear response of God’s wishes, yet he still persists to try and offer his curses. As the story progresses, it is not just once or twice but on three occasions where Bilaam attempts to curse Israel but instead is forced to bless them.
Why would God change His mind, so to speak, and why would Bilaam persist in his desire to curse Israel despite God’s clear disapproval?
The Talmud states that “the path a person chooses to take, God shall lead him along it.” And this episode is a lesson in the power of our free choice and how God Himself does not get in the way of that.
Free choice was given to enable man to be independent, and hence God-like. Nothing else in creation shares this uniqueness with humans, not even angels. Choice is so powerful that, even though God could overrule it, He doesn’t. We are the ultimate arbiters of our own fate. However we choose to make our bed, that is what we sleep in. Whatever we decide to choose, the Almighty will allow that door to remain open for us – for better, or even, for worse.
In fact, when it comes to choosing, Jewish tradition teaches that it is easier to make the right choices in life over the wrong ones. The Talmud in Tractate Avodah Zara (55a) states that if “one comes to defile (i.e. do the wrong thing) – (the opportunity) is open for him to do so. But if one comes to make pure (i.e. do the right thing), then God assists him.” God does not get in the way of someone making an immoral choice; He remains passive and allows it to happen. On the other hand, He will actively help someone who undertakes to do the right thing.
As with Bilaam, God may initially show us clearly the true and good thing when we are still unsure or deciding, but once we have made up our mind, He gets out of the way even if we go against His good advice and wishes. However, when it comes to doing good, then He immediately jumps in and helps us along.
It is only through such a system – where our choices really do make a difference – that our actions in life are meaningful and not robot-like. Free will is a gift from the Almighty necessary for us to achieve the greatest good – which is to be independent and hence God-like. In fact, this is what we mean when the Torah says we are created in God’s image.
Accomplishments mean nothing if I did not gain them myself. Nothing in the world, not even God, has the power to make me, me. The only being who has final say on what and who I become is me. We may seek out, and indeed receive – sometimes without asking – all kinds of guidance and assistance – but ultimately we make our own moral choices for good or for bad, and not even Almighty God gets in the way of that.
And when you think about it, we wouldn’t want it any other way.
You can go on your way
Go on your way