At the end of last week’s parsha, the Israelites had arrived at the steppes of Moab, prepared to enter the land of Canaan. And as we pick up the story this week, Balak, king of Moab, seeing the defeat of his neighboring kings, joins with his allies the Midianites to hire the non-Jewish prophet Balaam to curse the Israelites and ensure their defeat.
At first, Balaam appears to be an OK guy. When Balak’s emissaries arrive, he says, “Spend the night here, and I shall reply to you as the Lord may instruct me.” God appears to Balaam in a dream and says, “Do not go with them. You must not curse that people, for they are blessed.” At this point Balaam does the right thing — he tells the emissaries that God will not permit him to do as they have asked.
When Balak learns of Balaam’s refusal, he apparently believes that the problem is that he hadn’t offered enough money, so he sends another group of emissaries to offer a rich reward. And here is where Balaam makes his mistake. Instead of sending this second group away, saying, “I already told you, God said no,” he asks them to stay overnight so he can see what God has to say this time.
Balaam knows better. Although he travels to Moab to fulfill Balak’s commission, he is only permitted to speak the words God tells him to say. All his attempts to curse Israel are transformed into blessings. And when Balak upbraids him for failing to do what he was hired to do, Balaam responds, “God is not man to be capricious, or mortal to change his mind.”
God originally told Balaam he was not to go to Moab, for he was not permitted to curse the Israelites. Yet Balaam was weak — he wanted the money and prestige he was offered, so he asked God, “Did you really mean what you said the first time?” Of course God did, but He allowed Balaam to learn the hard way what even a she-ass had no trouble seeing.
One of the lessons the Torah teaches — one that is repeated over and over in later Jewish teaching — is that it’s not enough to resist temptation once and be done with it. We struggle every day to avoid what is wrong and to do what is right. So I’ve always like Rabbi Yehuda bar Ilai’s teaching in Sukkot:
“In the time to come, the Holy One will bring the yetzer hara (the impulse to evil) and slaughter it in the presence of both the righteous and the wicked. To the righteous it will have the appearance of a towering mountain; to the wicked, it will have the appearance of a strand of hair. These will weep and the others will weep. The righteous will weep saying, “How were we able to cope with such a towering mountain?” The wicked will weep saying, “How is it that we were unable to cope with a mere strand of hair.”
In Pirkei Avot, Ben Zoma asks, “Who is mighty? The person who conquers his yetzer (impulse to evil).” May each of us have the power to conquer the yetzer hara, in whatever form we may encounter it.