The Indecisive God by Binyamin Jachter


In Parashat Balak, Bil’am is asked by Balak Melech Mo’av to come to Mo’av and curse Bnei Yisrael. A simple reading of the story poses many questions. At first, Bil’am asks Hashem if he can go and is told, “Lo Teileich Imahem,” “Do not go with them” (BeMidbar 22:12). However, the next day, after Bil’am was asked once again to go to Mo’av by a new set of messengers, Bil’am again requests permission from Hashem to go. In a complete reversal, Hashem replies, “Kum Leich Itam,” “Stand up and go with them” (22:20). Hashem’s permission to Bil’am, though, is given on condition that Bil’am speak only the words that Hashem instructs him to say. However, the obvious question is what caused Hashem to change his mind response to Bil’am?

Several insightful answers are given in Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s book, Unlocking the Torah Text. He quotes the Or HaChaim (ad loc. s.v. Im Likro Lecha Ba’u HaAnashim) who teaches us that Hashem never really changed His mind; rather, He had a different message for each time that Bil’am asked. The first time he asked, Hashem had rejected him, showing Hashem’s control over Bil’am. The second time Bil’am asked, although Hashem had already showed His great power to Bil’am, He needed to show His fearlessness. Hashem is trying to convey to Bil’am that He is not afraid of the curses Bil’am will attempt to bestow upon Bnei Yisrael. As a result, Hashem allows Bil’am to go, albeit under special conditions.

Another approach is that of Rambam. In Rabbi Goldin’s opinion, Rambam posits that the original problem is not Bil’am going to Moa’av, but rather, Bil’ams reason for going. By taking a closer look at the Pesukim, we can see the grammatical difference. The first night, Hashem uses the word “Imahem,” “with them.” This word connotes that Bil’am would be going with the messengers with the same mindset as them. Hashem understood that Bil’am would be going to Mo’av for the sole purpose of cursing the Jewish people. On the second night, though, Hashem said Bil’am can go “Itam.” This word means that Bil’am would be traveling with them, but for a different purpose. The word “Itam” connotes a second condition, so to speak: Bil’am can go with the messengers, but without the intention of cursing Bnei Yisrael. Bil’am should have realized Hashem’s purpose in allowing him travel to Mo’av.

Bil’am’s downfall eventually comes when he is influenced by the Mo’avim around him and nevertheless attempts to curse Bnei Yisrael against Hashem’s commandment. However, due to Hashem’s power, Bil’am was prevented from cursing Bnei Yisrael. Now that we are coming closer to Shiv’ah Asar BeTammuz, we must try and realize that once, long ago, we started to become influenced by the same ideals as the nations around us, but it eventually ended up in turmoil. Bil’am was stopped from being influenced by those around him and cursing the Jews due to Hashem’s intervention; similarly, we can be stopped from external pressures by using the Torah as our harness. We must learn from this the importance of continuously using our harness, our Torah, to combat the pressures from the world around us, avoiding the mistake of our ancestors and allowing for the Beit HaMikdash to be built once again.

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