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The Systems of the Jewish Year

What Makes You Tick? (Balak)

By Rabbi Sender Haber

The story of Bilaam is very puzzling. Bilaam was a prophet, a wise man, and a teller of the future, yet he is seems to be the most clueless character in this week’s parsha.

From the beginning of the Parsha, when Balak asked Bilaam to to curse the Jews, it seems clear that Hashem will not allow the curse to take place.  Bilaam doesn’t get this. We find him speaking with Hashem that night patiently and clearly explaining the purpose of the visit to Hashem and hoping that it will work out. When Hashem finally allows Bilaam to go forth with Balak’s men, he still thought that the Jew’s would be cursed. His donkey knew that wouldn’t happen, Balak ecentually realized that it wouldn’t happen, but Bilaam remained oblivious. What happened to the man who claimed to “know the thoughts of Hashem”?

At one point in the parsha, Bilaam goes outside and saddles his donkey. The Medrash (Bereishis Rabbah 55:8) points out that this was very unusual. People of Bilaam’s stature did not usually saddle their own donkeys. It was only because Bilaam was so enthusiastic about cursing the Jewish people that he went out and did it himself. The Medrash brings this to illustrate that hatred has the ability to warp one’s mind. Bilaam saw all of the same things we did – maybe more - but he was unable to perceive them because of his strong hatred. He was blind to reality.

Pirkei Avos tells us that Jealousy, Lust, and honor remove a person from the world. They have the power to completely distract us and blind us to everything going on around us.

Even when it was clear that he would fail, Bilaam kept on trying new places, new strategies and new subjects.

Bilaam was not completely crazy. In the Haftorah we mention that the Jews deserved to be cursed. His hatred and enthusiasm actually did have the power and potential to ruin us as a people. The only thing that saved us was our own love and enthusiasm for the will of Hashem. Many years before Bilaam got up early to saddle his donkey, our grandfather Avraham got up early to saddle his. The Medrash explains that it was Avraham’s love and enthusiasm for the will of Hashem that was able to outshine the Bilaam’s enthusiastic hatred.

Bilaam himself attested to this when he said “Behold a nation rises like a lion cub”. The Targum explains that this refers to the Jewish people rising to say shema and put on tefillin and tzitzis and to do the will of Hashem.

It is very important that we, as people, take a step back and figure out what gets us excited and what makes us tick. If we are motivated by something impure we are in danger of becoming completely oblivious to the world around us examine our true motivations and intentions.

On the other hand, if we are motivated by that which is right and by the desire to help others, to become better people, and to fulfill Hashem’s will we will be successful. Hashem guides a person in the way that he truly wishes to travel.

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