Shabbat Shalom: Parshat Balak (Numbers 22:2- 25:9)
By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin
Efrat, Israel – “God said to Balaam, ‘You shall not go with them; you shall not curse this nation because it is blessed'” (Numbers 22:12)
The Balaam/Balak episode in this week’s portion naturally leads us to a discussion of the relationship between God’s will and our own. We have free will, but what happens when our choices fly in the face of the will of God? Are we truly given the freedom to go against His will or is freedom of choice only a delusion?
Balak, King of Moab, is terrified by the strength of the Israelites. Not only has the Jewish nation been freed from Egypt, but as they proceed towards the Promised Land, they seem to vanquish every army that attacks them. For some reason, Balak deems the very survival of the Israelites to be a threat to his nation’s survival, and therefore he sets about ‘acquiring’ his weapon of choice; Balaam, the master curser of his generation. Balak sends a high-ranking delegation to this famous soothsayer, a wonder-working Gentile prophet, urging him to curse the Israelites, so that Balak will be able to overcome and banish them from the vicinity of his land.
Inviting the delegation to spend the night, Balaam, the prophet-soothsayer awaits a directive from God. The Divine response is unequivocal: “Do not go with them! You shall not curse the people, for it is blessed” (Numbers 22:12). Balaam then sends the delegation back to Balak.
Undaunted – because Balaam’s expression of refusal actually leaves the door open for a second conversation – Balak then dispatches a new, higher ranking delegation to Balaam. They are to give a blank check to Balaam; the sky’s the limit and he can have whatever his heart desires, so long as he curses Israel.
Again Balaam refuses. “Even were Balak to give me his entire house full of gold and silver, I would not be able to transgress the word of the Lord my God… And now, you too remain here now for this purpose, you too, for tonight, and I will find out what more the Lord has to say to me” (Numbers 22:18).
Hidden between the lines of this second invitation to spend the night, our Sages hear a subtle message: “I cannot transgress God’s word even if I receive Balak’s house of gold and silver – but if I also receive his storage house of gold and silver, maybe we have something to talk about! Moreover,” says Balaam, “stay the night for this purpose” – meaning, let me attempt to convince or at least “wear God down.”
That night, the Almighty visits Balaam. “If the men come to summon you, you may go with them, but only whatever words I tell you, may you do” (Numbers 22:20). The very next verse declares, “And Balaam arose in the morning, saddled his she-donkey and went with the officers of Moab” (Numbers 22:21). Balaam did not report God’s caveat; he merely took the Divine words as a carte blanche to do Balak’s bidding. Despite the permission that Balaam received to go if they ‘summoned’ him (Numbers 22:20), the text reports, “God’s wrath flared” because Balaam went (Numbers 22: 22).
But if God had just allowed him to go, why was He angry? Is there free will or not?
Several Biblical commentaries see these verses as expressing the fundamental freedom of choice granted to every individual, even a prophet of the Divine who presumably knows the will of God and cannot defy that will.
The Ibn Ezra suggests that God never prevents an individual from doing what he really wants to do, even if it goes against the Divine will. We see this at the time of the spies when God clearly tells the Israelites to go up and conquer the Promised Land (Deuteronomy 1:21). Nevertheless, when they demur and insist upon sending out a reconnaissance commission (ibid 22), God tells Moses to send out such a group of spies (Numbers 13:1). God may not desire such a commission, but He will always acquiesce to the will of the people.
Here in our portion, God acquiesces to the evil and venal will of Balaam. The Midrash Rabbah succinctly expresses the great principle of human freedom with the words: “From this text, we learn that ultimately God leads an individual to walk on the path that he wishes to travel”.
In other words, God lets people decide which way they want to go, even if He disagrees! (Bamidbar Rabbah 20:12; see Ramban ad loc for a slightly different interpretation).
However, the dynamics of human will vs. Divine will don’t end here; neither in the case of Baalam nor in terms of Rabbinic theology. The Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 85), in an obvious reference to Balaam, makes the following pronouncement:
“Shmuel bar Nahman opened [quoting the prophet Jeremiah]: ‘For thus said the Lord, Master of Legions, God of Israel: Do not let your prophets who are in your midst and your magicians delude you, do not listen to your dreamers whom you appoint to dream. It is falsehood that they prophesy to you in My Name… For thus said the Lord: I will remember and appoint you and I will establish for you My good word to restore you to this place. For I know the thoughts, which I think about you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give to you a future and a hope'” (Jeremiah 29:8-11).
The Midrash elaborates:
“The tribes were engaged in the sale of Joseph. Joseph was engaged in his sackcloth and fasting, and Judah was engaged in taking a wife. And the Holy One Blessed be He was engaged in creating the light of the Messiah.”
This fascinating Midrash teaches us that we must look at life and history through two perspectives: the earthly dimension, predicated upon human choice, and the Divine dimension, in which God ensures that whatever mistakes we may make, the final result will be messianic redemption and a world of peace.
Hence, although Balaam may have desired to curse and destroy Israel, and offers practical expression to this at the end of our portion when he advises Moabite and Midianite women to entice the Israelite men into idolatry and assimilation, God will turn all of these disasters into ultimate redemption.
Our Rabbis teach that Balaam’s donkey was the same animal as that which Abraham rode to Mount Moriah to sacrifice his son Isaac and that this is the donkey that will eventually carry the Messiah. They explain that the sexual immorality that we read of in the Bible, between Lot and his daughters, between Yehudah and Tamar, between Mahlon son of Elimelech and Ruth the Moabite, will ultimately be manipulated by God to lead to the marriage between Ruth and Boaz, which will bring forth David, progenitor of the Messiah. God will see to it that His designs will ultimately prevail, turning the bitter into the sweet, sadness into joy, and curses into blessings, immorality into Messianism.
Our daily prayers open with Balaam’s words, “How goodly are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel” (Numbers 24:5), a subtle reminder that no matter how strongly individuals may want us cursed, God’s blessings will prevail.