Parashat Balak 5776

Rabbi Monique Mayer, 15 July 2016


A few years ago I made attempts to drive at home in Wales. Driving in the UK was a step outside my comfort zone, having grown up in the United States where I learned to drive on the right side—right-hand side—of the road. I lived in perpetual fear of entering English roundabouts the wrong way round, inflicting terror on the local population.

Unfortunately, my first attempts at driving on this side of the pond resulted in an accident. My husband, Nigel, asked me to take the car and go looking for one of our dogs at the holiday centre where we live and Nigel works. I was really too tired, but said I would—my mistake. Trying to manoeuvre through a gate, I misjudged the distance between our car and the pole terminating the fence and the car stopped moving. The engine was running, it appeared I had a good 4-6 inches of clearance, yet the car would not move. I reversed a bit, stared at the pole (while staying inside the car), and then tried again. The same thing happened. I backed up, directed the car a bit more to the right, and encountered resistance. Not seeing anything in the way, I pressed the accelerator and heard an awful scraping noise. “Why are you doing that?” I shouted at the car, which answered me with silence. At this point, either reversing or going forward would adversely affect my car, so I chose to accelerate forward, cringing as the scraping sound resumed until I cleared the pole. It was then and only then that I got out of the car. What I had failed to notice before was the heavy chain wrapped around the pole. That’s what stopped the car the first two times and scraped the side at the third. I hadn’t taken time to stop and think; I hadn’t stepped outside the situation to see what was actually going on.

We see something similar in Balam’s interaction with the donkey. Balam is a man who has a relationship with God. He talks to God and even says he’ll consult him before making an agreement to curse the Israelites. God talks to Balam and tells him that if the princes of Moab come calling, then and only then is Balam to go with them and follow God’s instructions. God is Balam’s moral compass—through Balam’s dreams, God is the inner voice directing him to do the right thing. But then Balam gets into trouble. He disregards what his Divine guide instructs him to do, just as I ignored the voice in my head which told me “you’re too tired, let Nigel drive”. Balam goes with the princes straight away instead of waiting until they call on him. God, needless to say, is furious and puts a very threatening angel in Balam’s path which is only visible to his donkey. The donkey veers away and gets a beating. Three times this happens, and each time Balam assumes the problem is, of course, the donkey, just as I thought the problem was my car. Only after Balam strikes the donkey a third time does she speak and tell Balam what he was too hard-headed to realise. Balam has a revelation and his eyes are opened to God’s angel who makes him see the error of his ways.

How often are we like Balam, failing to step back from the situation in front of us so we can see the whole picture, instead of blindly and stubbornly imposing our will? How many times does the Divine compass within us indicate the right path, a different path from the one we are on, but we ignore it? Rabbi Leo Baeck said in a lecture he gave in Thereseinstadt, 15 June 1944, that life does not merely imply an aimless vegetating, a state of random movement swinging vaguely to and fro at the will of external impulses, but an existence that has become aware of itself, conscious of its yesterdays and tomorrows, of the paths leading up and those leading away from it, conscious of what has gone before and what is still to come, conscious of its course and destiny (Friedlander, p. 214).

We struggle with situations in which God’s voice may be ambiguous or silent, whether or dilemmas are communally-, nationally-, or globally-based, or of a more personal nature. The story of Balam and the donkey teaches us that aligning or not aligning with the Divine compass can have profound affects.

In my third year of rabbinic school at Leo Baeck College, I pushed myself with fierce determination to finish the Autumn semester in spite of deteriorating health. I easily fell into the trap of expectations and demands that others placed on me, combined with my desire to stay with my year group, instead of following the Divine compass which was telling me something had to change. The ambiguity for me was in what that meant. I forgot that the Divine compass does not only govern behaviour toward others; it also–and more importantly–guides and compels one to act compassionately toward oneself. Being absolutely exhausted, I finally took a hard look at the compass and heard the inner voice commanding “YOU SHALL STOP”. The decision was not an easy on to make, but it was absolutely the right one. I took a break from my studies and eventually returned with renewed enthusiasm, going on to receive my ordination in health and deep gratitude.

Leo Baeck believed, sanctification evolves from moral action. If this is true, moral action cannot be extended only toward others; we must honour and respect ourselves. Maintaining who we are…our integrity as men, as women, and as Jews…is critical if we are to serve as a model for others to follow their own Divine guidance system, enabling them to navigate personal, communal and more global challenges. As Baeck said, “A difficult task was assigned this people in history. It is so easy to listen to voices of idols, and it is so hard receive the word of the One God into oneself. It is so easy to remain a slave, and it is so difficult to become a free human being, free of the “will of external impulses”, free of demands we accept without conscious choice. But this people can only exist in the full seriousness of its task. It can only exist in this freedom which reaches beyond all other freedoms” (Adapted from text in Forms of Prayer, 1977, p. 401.

In light of our task, we need to keep three things in mind: Know where we want to go, whether personally or professionally; maintain awareness so we can negotiate the poles and the donkeys and keep our perspective; and lastly, remember remember to make use of our DPS—Divine Positioning System—relying on the Divine compass that can inform our lives and our deeds as we go out into the world.

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