Parshas Balak (5773)
By Rabbi Elchanan Shoff
So then Balak said to him, come along with me to another place… and try cursing them from there” (Bamidbar 23:13)
Bilaam the sorcerer sought to curse the Jewish people, and bring about their destruction. When he first opened his mouth to curse them, the Torah tells of how God placed other words in his mouth, and a blessing escaped his lips, rather than a curse. When this was not successful, he then sought a new place from which to curse them. Our sages teach us “He who establishes a set place for his prayers will be assisted by the God of Abraham.” When Abraham prayed for the city of Sodom to be saved, and it was nevertheless destroyed, the Torah records that “Abraham got up the next morning and stood [in prayer] in the same place that he has previously stood.” Thus, one who prays in the same seat; from the same place; will achieve an Abraham-style connection to God. What is this all about? Why the focus on location? Are prayers not answered regardless of where a person finds himself?
There was a fundamental difference between Abrahams approach to rejection and the approach of Bilaam. When Bilaam was unsuccessful in his attempt to curse the Jewish people, it did not occur to him that he was the problem, or that his actions were improper. His diagnosis was simple – it was the place that he was standing that was bad! So he changed his place. Abraham, who was always the one to take responsibility for the world; fighting lonely battles against vicious dictators and polytheistic cults; he understood the proper way to address a fruitless endeavor. He looked to himself. He went back to the same place – and instead adapted his own effort and altered his methods.
“In front of the face of the understanding man is wisdom, while the fool’s eyes are trained on the edges of the earth,” (Proverbs 17:24). Rabenu Yonah explains, the fool “will not learn from those in his town who are wise. Instead, he will think to himself, if only I could go to that other place; there are some wise and intelligent people there, and it is there where I can learn Torah, from those people. He may never make it there, and he will then remain entirely empty of all wisdom.” It is always so tempting to see the benefits of every situation other than the one we are currently in. Even the greatest prophet of all, Moshe, would never have been appreciated by his community had he been familiar to them all his life. Ibn Ezra writes that for this reason Moshe was raised in Pharaoh’s place rather than among his people. Had they known him all his life, they never would have respected him enough to consider him anything more than one of their buddies. It is very tempting to only look at what is on the other side of the planet, and see the beauty there, and miss what is going on in your own back yard. So often, we hear of the amazing beauty of some foreign place, and how they have it all right, and we have it all wrong. There is definitely so much to admire about other people, and their lifestyles. But we must not be the fools who simply look to the edges of the earth to find beauty. Find it in your own town, your own family, and your own heart. Instead of concluding that we have it all wrong, see the beauty of that distant land for what it is, but don’t let that distract you from what is right in front of you.
The parent whose child cries in the middle of the night, can think to himself, as he rocks his little one as the clock strikes 3 a.m., “what a pain, I will be exhausted all day tomorrow.” He is surely right, but he is looking at all the “what if’s” instead of realizing that the response the he makes is all that matters. Sure it would have been nice had his child not woken up. But if while rocking his baby, he thinks to himself “someday, my little princess will walk down to aisle to a new exciting life, and I will wish that I had one last chance to hold her and rock here in the middle of the night,” he will have learned that how we react is all that matters. We can always spend our time wishing that things were different, and trying to magically wish things away, as Bilaam did. But that is a cursed life. The blessed life is one of seeing challenge after challenge, “Abraham was tested ten times… to show you how much Hashem loved him.” Seeing the things along your path as challenges built just for you is the path that Abraham forged for us.
We are constantly faced with challenges in our attempt to lead noble good lives. The way to respond to challenge like our forefather Abraham is to avoid blaming our situations, our office, our school or our spouse. We instead learn that the solution is to go back to the very same place, and to make the changes in ourselves. The sorcerer who blames others for the failure of his magical spells – will in the grand scheme of things fool no one more than himself.