Balak 5776: Of Care and Acquaintances
Ac·quaint·ance [uh-kweyn-tns] – an individual with whom one has been in contact but who is not a close friend.
As Israel approached the land of their forefathers, there were several surrounding nations that they had to fight in order to pass; Moab was one of them. In a last-ditch attempt to destroy Israel, Balak, king of Moab, hired Bil’am, a gentile prophet with a fantastic record, to curse them.
Bil’am had an interesting connection with God. It would not be far-fetched to say that Bil’am treated God as an acquaintance. Bil’am knew and acknowledged God, even admitting that he would never go against an express command that God gave him:
‘I would not be able to cross the order of God my Lord to do anything small or great’! (22:19)
Still, God was not a major part of Bil’am’s life.
Bil’am was a great philosopher who observed and accepted that the world was random and chaotic. But to Bil’am, a random world meant that God was uninvolved with it, and the chaos of life indicated that God remained distant from the world He created.
What’s troubling is that it seems that God confirms Bil’am’s notions and speaks as if He is unaware of what was happening:
“God came to Bil’am and said: ‘Who are these men with you?’” (22:9)
Expecting the question, Bil’am responded with an explanation. This interaction seems bizarre, unless perhaps, it is presenting us with an important insight into the nature of God’s relationship with man.
Let us consider that instead of this passage expressing the nature of God’s knowledge of the world, we are reading instead of His care about world events and human behaviour. By asking Bil’am who the men were, God wasn’t showing that He didn’t know, but that he was now turning His attention to this particular circumstance.
While G-d knows all, it does not necessarily mean that He cares equally about all things. The intensity and consistency of His care – as with all meaningful relationships – depend on the intensity and consistency of ours. While God is interested in relationships, He will not fully engage in one that is one-sided. God acted with Bil’am as Bil’am acted with Him.
The randomness of our world is indeed an indication that God is not intimately involved with all things. The purpose in that is not to disregard us, but to create the space that allows man to choose a relationship with God rather than have that relationship forcibly imposed upon him. Instead of building that relationship, Bil’am sufficed with keeping God as nothing more than an acquaintance, and God in turn kept His distance. Because of this, every interaction he had with God was a random or haphazard encounter:
“And the Lord happened – ויקר – upon Bil’am” (23:4)
“And God happened -ויקר – upon Bil’am” (23:16)
This is a principle that not only functions with Bil’am, but is also repeatedly (and jarringly) emphasised with the entire nation of Israel:
“If you walk with me randomly – בקרי – …I too, will walk with you at random – בקרי.” (Leviticus, 26:23-4)
“If you continue to walk with me randomly – בקרי…I will walk with you in the heat of randomness – קרי.” (ibid., 26:27-8)
“Being that they walked with me randomly – בקרי…I myself will walk with them randomly – בקרי.” (ibid., 26:40-1)
God is popularly considered to be a never-ending fountain of care. We often believe that no matter how warm or caring we may or may not be with Him, He will always be an unwavering blanket of warmth to us when we need Him. The problem with this is, that if it were true, it would make God’s care cheap and generic – which wouldn’t be very caring at all. Earning God’s care is no less complex and sensitive than earning the care of a human being. Just as we must show consistent faithfulness, dedication, love and support with our friends and loved ones, so too must our engagement be with God.
The one major difference with G-d is that He is always prepared to love and He encourages us to seek connection.
Bil’am was convinced that God didn’t “do” relationships. The beauty of parashat Balak is that it shows us that He most certainly does. In the end, through the undeniable consistency of God’s refusal to show any ill will or damnation to the Children of Israel, Bil’am learned that God did indeed care about this nation, and it wasn’t a fluke. There was indeed a relationship and a commitment that God had with these people. Bil’am finally took the hint:
“Now Bil’am saw that it was good in the eyes of God to bless Israel, and so he did not go forth as time and time before to encounter divine meetings.” (24:1)
The love affair between G-d and Israel began with Abraham but it is the underlying foundation of our covenant with Him.
“I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to me…you shall be to me a special-treasure….” (Exodus, 19:4, 5)
“God was not willing to hearken to Bil’am, and God your Lord turned for you the curse into a blessing, for God your Lord loves you.” (Deuteronomy, 23:6)
“You Israel…the children of Abraham my beloved.” (Isaiah, 41:8)
We often mistakenly expect that because He is God, a real relationship need not be cultivated with Him. After all, He is all-knowing and hears when we call. Bil’am teaches us that while He may hear, He doesn’t always listen. We can hear many things, but when we care, we listen. God listens to calls that come from hearts that genuinely love. When we build a relationship with Him, involve Him in our lives and thoughts, and concern ourselves with His wishes and dreams, He cares and concerns Himself with ours. He becomes our truest and closest friend and partner. It isn’t easy. Acquaintances are easy. Deep relationships are among humanity’s greatest challenges but they are also our most valuable endeavour.
God’s bond with the Jewish people has withstood the test of time, and it is known deep in the heart of every Jew even if, at the surface, we sometimes feel that such a powerful relationship may be a bit too close for comfort.
Rabbi Joseph Dweck
72b Bilaam, backed by Balak, tries to curse Yisrael
The first deputation to Bilaam (22:5-14); A second
Deputation (22:15-20); Bilaam and the ass (22:21-35);
Arrival and reception (22:36-41); Preparations for the
curse (23:1-6); Bilaam’s first prophecy (23:7-10);
New cursing arrangements (23:11-17); Bilaam’s second
prophecy (23:18-24); Remonstrations and new cursing
preparations (23:25-24:2); Bilaam’s 3rd prophecy (24:3-9);
Balak’s anger (24:10-14); Oracles concerning the nations
73 The sin of Ba’al-Peor (25:1-9)
Taken from, ‘Torah for Everyone’ by Rabbi Dr Raphael Zarum, Dean of LSJS