Every Parashat Balak, I revisit an experience which was truly life-altering. While working as a dorm counselor in a Yeshiva in Israel, I was in charge of waking the students in the morning and learning with them at night. There was one specific student whose sincerity and realism affected my life forever. I remember staying up to all hours of the night debating and inquiring together on the various Jewish issues which bothered this student. One of the main questions which troubled him and me was: If Judaism is the correct way to live, why haven’t the great geniuses and intellectuals of the rest of the world recognized it? How could I possibly embrace a reality that people much brighter and wiser than I did not? We brought our dilemma to a truly wise Rav, with whom I still speak consistently, and his response took me aback. He told me that although I would like his answers to this and other related questions, my friend, the student, would not. I asked him how he could make such a bold statement without even knowing either of us. His answer was, "You (referring to me) came to get answers, and you (my friend) came to ask questions.” The Rav then went on to answer our question. However, my friend was changed from that day on. He told me in tears, “You know, my whole life I've lived a certain way in belief that I was in the right, but I never really realized that I never really did care about the answers. It was always about asking a question that I never would allow to be answered, and finally someone made me see through it.”
This story is significant because it explains so much of the answer to our question. My friend simply would not allow his questions to be answered. Psychologists call this phenomenon cognitive dissonance. When people feel that what they want, what they are capable of or what they are is different from what is true, they will bend the truth or call it relative or subjective in order to make themselves feel better and remove their dissonance or anxiety. In his book Intellectuals, historian Paul Johnson writes of many famed and even revered intellectual giants who lived their lives in the most unethical ways. One such person confessed:
I had motives for not wanting the world to have meaning; consequently assumed it had none, and was able without any difficulty to find satisfying reasons for this assumption. The philosopher who finds no meaning in the world is not concerned exclusively with a problem in pure metaphysics; he is also concerned to prove there is no valid reason why he personally should not do as he wants to do... For myself, as no doubt for most of my contemporaries, the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation. The liberation we desired was simultaneously liberation from a certain political and economic system and liberation from a certain system of morality. We objected to the morality because it interfered with our sexual freedom.
-- Aldous Huxley, "Confessions of a Professed Atheist," Report: Perspective on the News, Vol. 3, June, 1966, p.19. [Grandson of evolutionist Thomas Huxley, Aldous Huxley was one of the most influential writers and philosophers of the 20th century.]
Aldous Huxley honestly explains the capacity for the intellectual giants to be ethical or moral midgets. I realized that we all have our desires, and greater intellect does not always (and often does not) lead to greater moral character. Rebbe Nachman once told a story of a sophisticate and a simpleton. The sophisticate is much smarter than the simpleton, and he wants the world to know it. The simpleton has no such desire and is content with being simple. The sophisticate feels bad for the simpleton who will always be mediocre. The simpleton is very happy for the sophisticate and only wishes him well. The sophisticate travels around the world lecturing and amassing great wealth and fame. When he returns as an older man to the town in which he grew up, he finds his old friend the simpleton in a mediocre size house with mediocre possessions yet greatly beloved by his large family and the town as a whole for his acts of kindness. We see from here that great intellectual capacity or greatness in anything is as much a handicap as a blessing. Greatness very often comes with a great ego; along with simplicity come simple pleasures and happiness. Wealth of any kind is not always what is seems to be.
In Parashat Balak, Balak sends messengers to Bilam asking him to curse the Jewish people. Bilam responds that he must first ask Hashem. Hashem tells Bilam three things: “Do not go with them, do not curse the nation, for it is a blessed people” (BeMidbar 22:12). Bilam told Balak’s officers, “Hashem will not let me go with you” (22:13). Balak took Bilam's hint and sent even higher-ranking officers to ask Bilam again. After again asking Hashem, he is told that he may go on condition that he say exactly what Hashem instructs him. We know that Hashem is actually very angry at Bilam and is going to send a Malach to harass him on the road. Clearly, even Bilam, who was a prophet, could recreate what Hashem wanted and what was true in order to fit his own agenda. Why did Balak send higher-ranking and officers? Because of Bilam's arrogant response, “I cannot go with you.” Bilam considered himself very important and completely ignored the second and third statements of Hashem. When Balak saw that Bilam’s ego needed to be rubbed, he responded accordingly.
All people have flaws, and it's very hard to be honest with ourselves about them. We are much better served recognizing and accepting that we are human than recreating a world of illusion that will eventually lead us astray.