The Temple Institute: Temple Talk: Tammuz 8, 5769/June 31, 2009

"Curse this People for Me"
(Numbers 22:6)

Man was created with the ability to communicate by speech and this is what distinguishes us from all other creation. With this gift of speech, however, come privileges and responsibilities. Our ability to speak, to verbalize our thoughts and communicate them to others, defines who we are. Speech is not merely a mechanical process of pushing air through our lips, speech requires a constant moral equation: with each word we formulate we are making choices of right vs wrong, good vs evil, holiness vs savagery. We can speak in such a way that increases holiness in the world and draws ourselves closer to G-d, or we can speak in such a way that defiles our world and increases the distance between ourselves and G-d. Speech is the highest expression of our individuality, of our freedom to choose.

A prophet is an individual through whom speaks the Divine will. The Hebrew prophets were all individuals who perfected their spirituality while also subjecting their own will to the will of G-d. The commandments communicated by Moses do not reflect Moses' will, but G-d's will. What we learn about Moses the man, we learn through observing his words and actions. We learn from the questions which Moses directed to G-d, and the debates with which he engaged G-d, that his own individuality and free will remained intact.

In this week's Torah reading we are introduced to a heathen prophet by the name of Balaam. Balaam, like other prophets, attained a degree of spiritual perfection, which enabled him to become a vehicle of prophecy. Yet Balaam's spiritual accomplishments were not accompanied by piety or holiness. He was vain, headstrong and self-serving. Our sages teach us that Balaam was a master of sorcery, an expert in witchcraft and the illicit arts. His prophetic prowess was one element in his nefarious "bag of tricks." It is clear from our story that G-d was "on to him." He strung Balaam along, creating for him numerous opportunities to repent of his evil intention to utter a curse on the nation of Israel. Yet, on each occasion that Balaam was confronted with the consequences of his decisions, he chose to continue along his ill conceived path. In this battle of wills, it was ultimately the will and the words of G-d that came forth from Balaam's mouth, as his intended curses and deprecations were turned into blessings and praises heaped upon the children of Israel. Balaam intended evil, G-d delivered good.

Unlike Moses, with whom G-d spoke "face to face," and who was able to seamlessly be both a prophet of G-d and the leader of his people, Balaam ultimately failed his test. True, G-d's words emerged from his lips, but they might as well have emerged from the lips of a dead man. By attempting to deny G-d's will, Balaam succeeded only in forfeiting his own free will, and with that, his humanity. Just as Pharaoh's persistent denial of G-d ultimately led to G-d hardening his heart, and thus closing the door on repentance, so did Balaam's behavior cause himself to be stripped of the most basic components of his own humanity - free will and repentance. After all, if G-d can move the mouth and open the eyes of a dumb beast, (Numbers 22:28), what merit can be assigned Balaam, who so steadfastly refused to rise above his own bestial nature?

The words spoken by Balaam are among the most beautiful utterances expressed in all Scripture. Had he only intended them, he could be counted among the righteous, as he himself desired: "May my soul die the death of the upright and let my end be like his." (Numbers 22:10) Extracted against his will, Balaam's description of the internal modesty and simplicity of the Israelites, has stood the test of time: "How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!" (Numbers 23:5) The world today is abound with Balaams, great and small, ready and willing to defame and blaspheme the "nation that dwells alone." (Numbers 22:9) May the nation of Israel, the nation whose glorious future has been foretold by the prophets of old, continue to fortify itself with modesty, faith and vision, repel the arrows aimed against her, and, when the the time comes, "raise herself up like a lion." (Numbers 22:4)

Tune in to the week's TEMPLE TALK as Rabbi Chaim Richman and Yitzchak Reuven discuss Moshe rabbenu - Moses our master, whose ability to grasp the true nature of the statute of the red heifer is proof of his unrivaled humility, and who "took a hit" on behalf of his people, by striking the rock and castigating the "rebels." While Moses struck a rock in order to save his people from a catastrophic fate, Balaam struck mercilessly the only friend he had, his she-donkey, thus revealing his true colors and sealing his own fate.

Part 1
Part 2