We are often called the People of the Book, but perhaps we would be better described as the People of Miracles. It is difficult to comprehend how after thousands of years of persecution and barbaric treatment we are still here. Not only do we exist, but we continue to grow and thrive in both spiritual and material ways. Throughout our history, God has provided us with national and personal miracles. These miracles have sustained and inspired us in times of joy and distress. Miracles usually fall into two categories: There are utilitarian miracles, performed to remedy an immediate, necessary need e.g. the splitting of the sea, manna in the desert etc. Then there are teaching miracles which occur to impart to us a lesson or shape our ideology e.g. jug of oil which lasted 8 days.
In this week’s Parsha we find a most peculiar miracle. After seeing the downfall of the two powerful Canaanite kings, Sichon and Og, Balak the King of Moav, realized that he could not defeat the Jewish nation through conventional means. Balak hatched a new plan. He dispatched messengers to the great gentile prophet, Bilaam with a simple request, “curse the Jewish people.” As Bilaam traveled to the Jewish camp with the messengers of Balak, the Torah records an amazing episode. God dispatched an angel to stop Bilaam from carrying out this doomed mission, but Bilaam did not see the angelic emissary. However, Bilaam’s donkey did, and as a result the donkey veered off the road and wandered into a nearby field. Bilaam, angered by this display of disobedience, struck the donkey. The Torah relates:
“God opened the mouth of the donkey, and she said to Bilaam: ‘What have I done to you, that you have hit me these three times?’ Bilaam said to the donkey: ‘Because you have ridiculed me; would that I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you now.’ The donkey replied to Bilaam, ‘Am I not the very same donkey that you have been riding on all your life until this very day? Was it ever my habit to do this to you?’ And he said: ‘No.’ God then enabled Bilaam to see, and he observed the angel of God standing in the way with his sword drawn in his hand. He bowed his head and prostrated himself on his face.” (Bamidbar Chapter 22:28-31)
This miraculous event begs a simple question. Why was this miracle necessary? What was the message being conveyed in this miraculous and supernatural event?
Rabbeinu Bachya (Spain, 1255-1340) explains: God performed this wondrous act, changed the regular laws of nature and allowed the animal to speak to teach us that even the animal understood that this mission was not appropriate and would not result in success.
In other words, the donkey was able to see what Bilaam was not. Already in the beginning of the Parsha when Bilaam was first approached by the messengers of Balak to curse the Jewish nation, Bilaam inquired of God as to whether he should go. God responded, “You shall not go with them! You shall not curse the people because they are blessed.” (Bamidbar 22:12) God made it clear from the beginning that if Bilaam’s intent was to curse the Jewish people, he would not succeed. The people are blessed. But Bilaam was so intent on cursing them (either out of hatred or more likely because of the wealth and fame it would bring him) that he ignored the Divine warning and convinced himself he would succeed. He managed to convince himself to such a degree that he became oblivious to the signs unfolding all around him. His first attempted “curse” resulted in beautiful blessing. Then, his trusted donkey suddenly veered off course. There was an angel on the road with an outstretched sword. Sign after sign, yet Bilaam ignored each one. Numerous signs of Divine displeasure so obvious and clear that even the donkey understood what Bilaam did not.
It is here, in the midst of this story, that the Torah teaches us such a profound and crucial lesson. There are times in life when we are so desperate to believe that something is true. There are times when we feel compelled to perpetuate a particular reality. There are times when we have so much invested in our personality and life-style that even when we realize the need for change, we are reticent to do so. Instead we ignore certain realities and signs in order to sustain the life and identity we have created. Like the addict who refuses to see how his habit is destroying his life, we are often unable to see the realities of our life for what they are. We refuse to confront our demons and challenges. We prefer to live in a state of cognitive dissonance in which we create an alternate reality for ourselves whereour faults don’t exist, our weaknesses are ignored and our problems remain unsolved.
Herein lies the true tragedy of the Bilaam story. God tried to prevent him from making this terrible mistake (that would later cost him his life). God spoke with him, sent messages and messengers, but Bilaam was too wrapped up in his contrived reality to see or heed what was really happening. God sends the signs but can’t force us to see and internalize them.
We each put incredible amounts of time, effort and resources into constructing ourselves and our lives. As we continue on the journey of life, it is important to periodically take a step back to examine the lives we lead and the people we have become to make sure that we are travelling in the right direction. We should not keep living or acting a certain way by rote. If we possess negative traits or if our life hashkafos (values) are skewed or incorrect, we must find the strength to rethink and potentially restart. We must find the courage that Bilaam lacked and open our eyes, see the signs, modify, adjust and if need be – start again.
“Sticks and stone may break my bones but words will never harm me.” While the authorship of this statement is subject to dispute, it is clear that it is unequivocally false. Yes, sticks and stone can most definitely break bones, but words can harm and leave lasting scars.
Over the last number of weeks the Torah has tried to teach us the power of words. Almost a month ago we read the story of the meraglim (spies) who derailed our national dream of entering the Land of Israel through their slanderous speech. Words destroyed the dreams and aspirations of an entire nation. We then went on to read of the rebellion of Korach. Korach, angered that he did not received a coveted position of leadership, ferments a rebellion against the leadership of Moshe and Aharon. Through words he turns 250 men and their families against God and His chosen ones. The end is catastrophic; the earth opens up and swallows the men and their families. Words caused the death of so many. Last, we read of the mistake of Moshe at Mei Merivah.
Moshe was instructed to speak to the rock and bring forth water and instead he hit it. The Chasam Sofer explains that Moshe was to speak to the rock to teach the people the power of speech. It is not only actions which bring about results, speech creates realities as well. But Moshe failed to teach this lesson. Words were supposed to be used instead of the staff. The absence of words resulted in Moshe’s inability to enter the Land of Israel. And then we came to Balak:
“He sent messengers to Balaam the son of Beor, to Pethor, which is by the river of the land of his people, to call for him, saying, “A people has come out of Egypt, and behold, they have covered the “eye” of the land, and they are stationed opposite me. So now, please come and curse this people for me, for they are too powerful for me. Perhaps I will be able to wage war against them and drive them out of the land, for I know that whomever you bless is blessed and whomever you curse is cursed(Bamidbar 22:5-6).” Balak, the King of Moav, realized that he could not defeat the Jewish nation through conventional warfare and decided to try to beat them with words.
Through these stories and episodes the Torah reinforces for us the power of words. Words impact the other, words can hurt the other. We are living in tumultuous times. The current climate in our political landscape is one of constant attack and maligning of the other, the opponent. Terrible things have been said about our leaders and our leaders have in turn said terrible things about others. But it’s ok – because it is only words. But my dear friends, it is not ok. Because it is not “only words.” How we speak and what we say creates the very consciousness through which we formulate our plans for dynamic activity. How we speak influences how we think, approach others and ultimately act. We are careful to avoid nivul peh (speaking profanities). If you curse, swear and use inappropriate language, those words influence who you are and shape your actions. But profanities are not only four-letter words. Any word that is specifically used to hurt or deconstruct the other is a profanity as well.
There are real issues to deal with. In our current political landscape issues like healthcare, immigration and the economy impact us on a daily basis. We have our sacred right to agree or disagree with the proposals and policies of our government. But we must always make our voices heard in a way which reflects the refined nature of our humanity and holiness.
We were shocked and saddened to hear of the allegations of fraud perpetrated by a number of religious families in Lakewood, New Jersey. It is important to remember that we must reserve final judgement until the legal system has run its course. We know that in many respects whatever the outcome is; the damage is done, the Chilul Hashem (desecration of God’s name) has already been committed. Nevertheless, we must remain vigilant about the way we talk about others Jews and other communities. Each of us has our faults and weaknesses. We don’t make excuses for the egregious mistakes of others nor do we sit in judgment and malign the other. We must resist the urge to make sweeping generalizations about segments of our people. In the same way in which we actively refrain from making generalizations about other minorities, recognizing that such statements would be racist; we must apply this same standard to our own.
In Israel we face our challenges. The current decision to “freeze” the Kotel compromise has many up in arms. The legislation to grant the Chief Rabbinate final decision making powers in matters of conversion has many worried about the status of certain converts. We don’t have to agree on these issues (and I will not use this as a platform to advance for my own opinions) but we must disagree agreeably. Having a passionate position is not license to lash out or demean others. We must recognize that there are certain core issues on which the various streams of Judaism will never see eye to eye. We will disagree and remain steadfast in our positions. Our mission is to learn how to dialogue with dignity.
Let me end on a positive note. During our forty-year sojourn in the desert we were protected by the Divine cloud which hovered overhead. The Talmud explains that this cloud was given to us in the merit of Aharon HaKohen. The great tzaddik, Rav Yisroel of Ruzhin (1796-1850) explains the connection between Aharon and the cloud. Aharon’s entire life-mission was to create peace and harmony within the ranks of the Jewish people. He would do whatever was necessary to restore shalom to the homes and lives of our nation. When a person speaks and exhales, there is breath which exits their body. Aharon spent his years sharing encouraging words, complimenting and building the sense of self of the other. The breath expended by all of these words and positive conversations coalesced and formed the cloud above the Nation of Israel. It was words of love, encouragement and unity which formed the protective cloud around our people.
There are challenging days ahead. There are real issues we must tackle and contend with. But we must be mindful to do with proper use of our speech. Words can harm, words can hurt and words can destroy. But words can do so much more. Words can heal and words can build. May we find the strength to use our gift of speech to grow as individuals, help the other and create the beautiful cloud of unity to envelope our nation.