How to Avoid Getting Stuck in Balak’s Trap

Balak, Numbers 22:2−25:9

D'Var Torah By: Dr. Ruhama Weiss, Ph.D.

Woman playing cat's cradleAbout Balak's trap

In Parashat Balak, King Balak and the people of Moab, central characters in the weekly Torah portion, are afraid of the Children of Israel. Balak tries to recruit the prophet Balaam to curse the Children of Israel in order to weaken them and save Moab from impending defeat. King Balak sends for his prophet twice and Balaam barely responds. Three times Balak attempts to force a curse on Israel out of Balaam's mouth and three times he fails. It is fascinating to try to understand what causes a king to attempt the same solution, and fail again and again, and despite this, to not change his strategy.

Was one attempt to achieve cooperation with Balaam not enough? Was it not enough for one curse to become a blessing, as Balaam says, Mah tovu ohalecha Yaakov... , “How fair are your tents, O Jacob, ...” (Num. 24:5). It seems that only one solution was seared into Balak's mind to resolve the distress afflicting his people. Sometimes fear blocks creative thinking, and the ability to think outside the box.

“As a dog that returns to his vomit, so is a fool that repeats his folly." (Prov. 26:11)

We know Balak's trap well. Weight loss programs, for example, make good money exploiting it. A thousand times we start diets: a thousand times we fail. Each failure adds a few more pounds (at least) to our weight: nevertheless, for some inexplicable reason we continue to believe in a system that produces failures.

If diet plans really worked, there wouldn't be so many different weight loss programs. If wrinkle-removing creams really worked, they would not succeed at selling themselves under so many different names, prices, and packaging. Successes lead to solutions: Therefore, if you see a way of going about something repeatedly proposed for sale, chances are that it is not successful. 

Since the outbreak of the first Intifada (1988), if not earlier, we have tried the same political and military solutions to resolve the situation. This is the "Balak syndrome." With the absence of worthy leadership capable of creatively thinking about the conflict, the responsibility falls on each and every one of us to do something. What is demanded of us, ordinary people, is that we begin speaking with each other so that we can escape Balak's trap. Through this process, we will come to demand that our leaders implement new possible solutions.

I want to emigrate from this reality

I remember how my computer screen glared at me with a reproachful stare for hours, demanding my fingers to immediately release the keypad. But I, in some sort of childish protest, imagined how I would shatter it on the corner of my writing desk, striking a protest against words.

This was on a weekend when my daughter went to visit her Savtah (Grandma) in Ashkelon and was exposed to long and terrifying missile attacks from Gaza. I could not go to get her, and she could not leave Savtah's home and come back to Jerusalem.

I wrote this column in May 2019 knowing that my daughter would probably be home the next day, plenty of time before you read this article. Unfortunately, I also know that at the time that this article will be published nothing will be better, and missiles will continue to be launched between Gaza and Israel.

I cast my supplications before the Master of the Universe for release and protection, and maybe just for time away from this planet drowning in rivers of hate and murder: a planet where children do not evoke compassion and where a person succeeds at killing his friend. Dear God, send me to a parallel universe, where your creations do not take pleasure in hate.

 Not just victimhood

God will not send me (so it seems) to the planet of justice and peace. God never signed a contract with me stating that He/She will supply me with pleasure and peace in return for which I will be, let's say, pleasant.

It seems that we are not born into this world to enjoy. We are born into this world to be tested. I believe that the test is to preserve the image of God, even under extremely difficult conditions.

 I have no other planet

The responsibility for the violence and destruction is mine, ours, each person as an individual, and all of us as a community. We must write, we must speak out, and we must demonstrate love and human solidarity in our public squares and our private homes.

So many children have already been killed on every possible side of the barricade of hate. So much blood has already been spilled. This barren land has been flooded by overflowing rivers of parental tears.

This blood has been spilled by all of us, and no one can claim that her hands are clean.

On one condition, that I can look at myself in the mirror

I want to be creative and discover that wise and beautiful plan somewhere that has not yet been articulated.

There is however, one thing which I will not be willing to compromise, and that is protecting the image of God in all people. I will not be able to accept a solution that will cause me to be ashamed of my actions when the time will come for my soul to give an accounting for before the heavenly court.

(This article was translated with the help of Uzi Bar Pinchas.) 

Dr. Ruhama Weiss, Ph.D., is the director of the Blaustein Center for Pastoral Counseling at HUC-JIR in Jerusalem.

When We Fail to Learn from Our Mistakes

Daver Acher By: Rabbi Ben Zeidman

Sign that says, "Oops"

As I reflect on Dr. Ruhama Weiss’s words about Parashat Balak, I can’t help but think of this quote from Raising Self-Reliant Children in a Self-Indulgent World:

“Flexibility is the ability to bend when we find ourselves in unworkable positions. A universal characteristic of insanity is inflexibly doing the same thing over and over while hoping for different results. Flexibility in the face of changing circumstances, by contrast, is a hallmark of mental health” (H. Stephen Glenn and Jane Nelsen [Rocklin, CA: 1988: Prima Publishing & Communications], p. 174).

That Balak insists on pursuing the same course of action despite the repeated outcomes indicates his refusal to bend to reality. He forces Balaam to uproot himself despite evidence that failure is certain. He requires the mighty magician to curse the Israelite people even after cursing us does not work. By living in opposition to reality he butts his head against the wall again and again insisting on the impossible.

If only Balak, and people he represents today, would recognize that success comes by learning from our mistakes; that falling is only failing if we refuse to learn the lesson and change our behavior. The first thing we need to do after we fall down and get back up is to reflect on why we fell in the first place. John C. Maxwell’s famous book entitled: Failing Forward: Turning Mistakes into Stepping Stones for Success suggests that failure can be a valuable when we take the time and expend the energy to reflect so that we might be propelled forward (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Inc., 2000). Balak was given plenty of opportunities to change, and yet he continues to insist that Balaam try to curse our ancestors. It is the third attempted curse when he famously blesses them: Mah tovu ohalecha Yaakov, “How fair are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel!” (Num. 24:5).

While the repetition of mistakes that Dr. Weiss writes about happens in the State of Israel in violent and devastating ways, this behavior is becoming more and more prominent in America as well. So many of us are so locked into our own ways of thinking, and our insistence that we are right, that we refuse to engage with people who have different opinions. We fear failure so much, especially failure in our own thinking, that we refuse to acknowledge when we might be wrong. Our Torah portion, Balak, is instructive.

Balaam tries to curse our ancestors and fails. So, he blesses them instead. He learns from past failures and allows the will of God to guide him as he opens his mouth while looking upon our ancestors’ encampment. Instead of doing what Balak insists, Balaam fails forward. He refuses to curse a people who cannot be cursed. He surveys his options takes a different path (either by his own will or by God’s inspiration). Can we learn and grow from our mistakes? Or are we doomed to repeat them? Our Torah inspires us to reach for a higher standard. Our Torah demands that we insist our leaders do the same.

Rabbi Ben Zeidman is the spiritual leader at Temple Mount Sinai in El Paso, TX.

Reference Materials

Balak, Numbers 22:2−25:9
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,173−1,194; Revised Edition, pp. 1,047−1,067
The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, pp. 937–960
Haftarah, Micah 5:6−6:8;
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,272−1,274; Revised Edition, pp. 1,069−1,071

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