“My message was to bless: when He blesses, I cannot reverse it.” (Numbers 23:20)
Parashat Balak is mostly taken up with the story of Bilam, the prophet sent to curse the Israelites who instead blesses them. Many commentators consider this episode an independent composition inserted into the Torah because it is completely disconnected from the narrative that comes before or after it. Yet, it is the source of one of the most ongoing discussions in Jewish thought: the nature of free will.
Balak, King of Moab, wants to hire Bilam to curse the Israelites. Bilam dreams and God denies permission. Balak increases his offer, Bilam dreams again, and this time, God grants permission. Since God has said both no and yes, it’s up to Bilam to decide so off he goes on his famous talking donkey. This makes God angry (Numbers 22:22), which hardly seems fair.
Jewish thought is mixed when it comes to Bilam. Some sources focus on his unconditional submission to God’s will and consider him a saint (Micah 6:5; Exodus Rabbah 3:1). Most sources, though, consider Bilam a scoundrel (Babylonian Talmud Avot 5:19; Sanhedrin 105a). In the end, the rabbis use this story as a basis for human responsibility and free will because Bilam is given a choice and he chooses. “If one comes to defile himself, he is given an opening.” (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 104a) Each of us faces this same dilemma each time we read the Torah: how do we choose to interpret its words and how do we choose to act upon them? Saint or scoundrel, it’s our choice.
Good Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom,