FREE CHOICE AND FREE ACTIONS

  • Rav Yaakov Beasley

INTRODUCTION TO PARASHAT HASHAVUA

 

 

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In memory of Yakov Yehuda ben Pinchas Wallach
and Miriam Wallach bat Tzvi Donner

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PARASHAT BALAK

 

 

FREE CHOICE AND FREE ACTIONS

 

By Rabbi Yaakov Beasley

 

A.        INTRODUCTION

 

Our parasha begins with the end.  The forty-year sentence that has hung over the Jewish People like the sword of Damocles is approaching its conclusion.  The people have fought and won wars against Sichon, king of the Amorites, and Og, king of Bashan, and they have finally arrived at the plains of Moav – modern day southern Jordan by the Dead Sea.  The proximity of the multitudes of the encampment concerns Balak, king of Moav: “Now will this multitude lick up all that is round about us, as the ox licks up the grass of the field.” He shares his distress with the elders of Midian. At this point, his language is reminiscent of the Egyptian reaction at the beginning of the book of Shemot.

 

Egypt: [Pharaoh] said to his people: "Behold, the Children of Israel are more numerous [rav] and powerful than we…" and [the Egyptians] felt a disgust at the Children of Israel.


Moav: And Moav was very fearful because of the people, because they were numerous [rav], and Moav felt a disgust at the Children of Israel.

 

In response to Balak’s concern, the elders of Midian and Moav travel to the sorcerer Bilaam, hoping to persuade him to curse the Jewish People.  Bilaam’s responses to the messengers appear to be appropriate, while Hashem’s responses to Bilaam’s inquiries are puzzling.  What did Hashem want Bilaam to do?

 

First, the emissaries arrive from Moav and Midian and state their mission - they want Bilaam to curse the Israelites. Bilaam's answer is a model of propriety: “Stay the night,” he says.  “I will consult with Hashem (and hopefully I will receive permission).”  However, Hashem's answer is unequivocal:

 

But God said to Bilaam, "Do not go with them. You must not put a curse on those people, because they are blessed."

 

Obediently, Bilaam refuses to go with the elders.  This causes Balak to redouble his efforts. Perhaps sending more distinguished messengers and hinting to significant reward would persuade Bilaam to change his mind. Yet Bilaam’s reply to the second set of emissaries is again exemplary: “Even if Balak gave me his palace filled with silver and gold, I could not do anything great or small to go beyond the command of Hashem my God.” However, here he adds a condition: “Now stay here tonight as the others did, and I will find out what else Hashem will tell me.”

 

The implication of the rider is clear – Hashem may change His mind. Isn’t this impossible? But to our surprise, that is exactly what Hashem seems to do:

 

That night, God came to Bilaam and said, “Since these men have come to summon you, go with them, but do only what I tell you.”

 

First, Hashem said, “Do not go,” and now He says, “Go!” If this is not problematic enough, what occurs afterwards only strengthens our question:

 

Bilaam got up in the morning, saddled his donkey, and went with the princes of Moav. But God was very angry when he went, and the angel of Hashem stood in the road to oppose him.

 

Hashem says, “Go,” and Bilaam goes. Then Hashem gets angry because he goes. What is going on here?  Does Hashem change His mind – not once but twice in the course of a single narrative? What was Bilaam supposed to do? Instead of providing an explanation, the narrative shifts to the famous yet mysterious scene of Bilaam’s ass:

 

Bilaam was riding on his donkey, and his two servants were with him. When the donkey saw the angel of Hashem standing in the road with a drawn sword in his hand, it turned off the road into a field. Bilaam beat it to get it back on the road.

Then the angel of Hashem stood in a narrow path between two vineyards, with walls on both sides. When the donkey saw the angel of Hashem, it pressed close to the wall, crushing Bilaam’s foot against it. So he beat it again.
Then the angel of Hashem moved on ahead and stood in a narrow place where there was no room to turn, neither to the right nor to the left. When the donkey saw the angel of Hashem, it lay down under Bilaam, and he was angry and beat it with his staff. Then Hashem opened the donkey’s mouth, and it said to Bilaam, “What have I done to you to make you beat me these three times?”

Bilaam answered the donkey, “You have made a fool of me! If I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you right now.”
The donkey said to Bilaam, “Am I not your own donkey, which you have always ridden, to this day? Have I been in the habit of doing this to you?” “No,” he said.

Then Hashem opened Bilaam’s eyes and he saw the angel of Hashem standing in the road with his sword drawn. So he bowed low and fell facedown…

 

After this incident, what does Hashem do with the ostensibly rebellious seer?  He does not turn him back, but rather sends him on his way, with a new provision:

 

“Go with the men; but only the word that I shall speak unto you, that you shall speak.”  

 

We find ourselves staggering underneath the apparent contradictions.  What does Hashem want?  What did He want to tell Bilaam through this strange event? If he wanted to tell Bilaam that the message had to be pre-approved by Hashem, that was stated already the night before:

 

“If the men came to call you, rise up, go with them; but only the word which I speak unto you, that shall you do.”

 

What, then, did Hashem want from Bilaam?

 

B.        MAN CHOOSES HIS OWN PATH

 

Two nineteenth-century commentators, the Malbim and R. Zvi Hirsch Mecklenberg (author of Ha-Ketav Ve-Ha-Kabbala), suggest the following explanation of Hashem’s contradictory messages based on close textual analysis. The Hebrew text uses two different words to mean “with them” in the first and second Divine replies. After Bilaam’s initial query, Hashem says, “Don’t go with them (imahem).” After Bilaam’s second question, Hashem says “Go with them (itam).” The two prepositions have subtly different meanings. Imahem means “with them mentally as well as physically,” implying going along with their plans. Itam means “with them physically, but not mentally;” in other words, Bilaam could accompany them but not share their purpose or intention. Hashem is angry when Bilaam goes because, as the text states, he went imahem. His accompanying the messengers signified that he identified with their mission.

 

This interpretation is ingenious, but there remains a difficulty in verse 35, in which the angel of Hashem, having opened Bilaam’s eyes, finally tells Bilaam, “Go with (im) the men.” According to the Malbim and R. Mecklenberg, this is precisely what Hashem did not want Bilaam to do.

 

We therefore prefer the following suggestion of the Ramban:

 

In my view, Hashem had stopped him at the beginning from going with the people, for they were blessed.  Why should he go with them if he wasn’t going to curse them anyways, for they were interested in no other course of action… Of course, Bilaam informed them of the Divine message, causing Balak to send another mission to him, for he did not believe what he was told.  He added more honor to him and sent more distinguished princes than the previous time and promised to reward him even more munificently.  However, Bilaam answered them once again that it did not depend on money or his honor, but only on God, and that he would consult Him once again.  In saying this, Bilaam behaved correctly, for what could he know of Hashem’s intentions? …

Now Hashem told him, I have already informed you that the people are blessed and you cannot curse them, and the emissaries have just come back again.  The text “if the men have come to call you” implies “if they have come solely for the purpose of inviting you, and will be content if you accompany them on condition that you do not curse the people, as I forewarned you” then “rise up, go with them, but only the word which I speak unto you, that you shall do” … for it was Hashem’s wish that the Jewish People should be blessed by a prophet of the nations.

Bilaam should have stated this to the emissaries, telling them, “Hashem has permitted me to accede to your invitation to go with you, but on condition not to curse the people but to bless them, if He should so command me.”  If they would not agree to this, then they would leave him…

Now Bilaam, out of his eagerness to accompany them, did not tell them this; he said nothing to them, but “rose early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and went with the princes of Moav” as if he was willing to do just what they wanted.  Therefore, Hashem was angry at his going.  Moreover, this was a profanation of the Divine name – chillul Hashem – since Bilaam’s going, without specifying the conditions above, might be interpreted to mean hat Hashem had given him permission to curse the people, contradicting the original message... and far be it from Hashem to do such a thing, for the Eternity of Israel will not lie nor change His mind.

 

In summary, Hashem did not change his mind.  Instead, it is Bilaam who acted against the Divine command, rushing to violate it. 

 

C.        RAV MEDAN’S APPROACH

 

Rav Yaakov Medan shlita, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion, recently suggested one final approach at the Yemei Iyun on Tanach sponsored every year in Alon Shevut by the Machon Michlelet Yaakov Herzog.  In his address, Rav Medan argued that the question only arises because we tend to assume that the portrayal of the events in our parsha follows a strict chronological order.  While this makes sense for chapters 22 to 24, at what point in time does chapter 25 take place?  Let us review quickly the events of that chapter:

 

(1) And Israel dwelled in Shittim and the people began to stray after Moavite women.  (2) And they called the people to the sacrifices of their gods; and the people ate, and they prostrated themselves before their gods.  (3) And Israel was joined to Ba'al Pe'or, and Hashem's anger burned against Israel.  (4) And Hashem said to Moshe: "Take all the heads of the people and hang them for God, facing the sun, so that Hashem's anger may be turned away from Israel." (5) So Moshe said to the judges of Israel: "Let every man slay his men who are joined to Ba'al Pe'or." (6) But behold – a man of the Israelites came and brought before his brethren a Midianite woman, in the sight of Moshe and in the sight of the entire congregation of the Israelites, who were weeping at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting.  (7) And Pinchas, son of Elazar, son of Aharon the Kohen, saw it, and he rose up from amongst the congregation and he took a spear in his hand.  (8) And he followed the man of Israel into the chamber, and he stabbed both of them through – the man of Israel and the woman, through her belly; and the plague was halted from upon the Israelites.  (9) And those that died in the plague were twenty-four thousand.

 

Did the horrific events of chapter 25 take place immediately after Bilaam praised and blessed the Jewish people’s sense of modesty, their virtue of chastity?  Rav Medan suggests that our questions regarding Hashem’s apparent mind-changes disappear if we read the narratives of chapters 22 and 25 as occurring simultaneously, as laid out below:

 

CHAPTER 22:

CHAPTER 25:

1 And the children of Israel journeyed, and pitched in the plains of Moav beyond the Jordan at Jericho.   2 And Balak the son of Tzippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites.  3 And Moav was sore afraid of the people …

5 And he [Balak] sent messengers unto Bilaam the son of Beor… saying: “Behold, there is a people come out from Egypt6 Come now therefore, I pray you, curse for me this people…

 

12 And Hashem said unto Bilaam: “You shall not go with them. You shall not curse the people, for they are blessed”…

 

 

1 And Israel dwelled in Shittim, and the people began to stray after Moabite women.  2 And they called the people to the sacrifices of their gods; and the people ate, and they prostrated themselves before their gods. 3 And Israel was joined to Ba'al Pe'or, and Hashem's anger burned against Israel. 

15 And Balak sent yet again princes, more and more honorable than they18 And Bilaam answered and said unto the servants of Balak: “If Balak would give me his house full of silver and gold, I cannot go beyond the word of Hashem my God to do any thing, small or great. 19 Now, therefore, I pray you, tarry you also here this night that I may know what Hashem will speak unto me more.”

20 And God came unto Bilaam at night, and said unto him: “If the men have come to call you, rise up, go with them; but only the word which I speak unto you, that shall you do.”

21 And Bilaam rose up in the morning, saddled his ass, and went with the princes of Moav.

 

 

7 And Pinchas, son of Elazar, son of Aharon the Kohen saw it, and he rose up from amongst the congregation and he took a spear in his hand.  8 And he followed the man of Israel into the chamber, and he stabbed both of them through – the man of Israel and the woman, through her belly; and the plague was halted from upon the Israelites.  9 And those that died in the plague were twenty-four thousand.

22 And God's anger was kindled because he went; and the angel of Hashem placed himself in the way for an adversary against him. Now he was riding upon his ass, and his two servants were with him….

 

 

The advantage of Rav Medan’s creative restructuring of the narrative is that is removes the question of why Hashem changing his mind.  Bilaam is granted or denied permission to go based on the spiritual level of the Jewish People. When they sin at Baal Pe’or, they become vulnerable, and Bilam is granted the permission denied previously.  Pinchas’s dramatic actions to rectify the situation not only stop the plague - they cause the angel to interfere in Bilaam’s path, even though he possessed what he thought was Divine approval. As long as the people maintain the spiritual status required of Hashem’s earthly representatives, no one can harm them.  When they falter, however, they expose themselves to danger.