Doing it my way

Doing it my way

Balak | Numbers 22:2-25:9

Most of us have had occasions in our lives when we acted as supervisors over others. There were certainly those who rejected my instructions, sometimes passively, sometimes defiantly. I have also experienced numerous occasions when my suggestions or commands were carried out to the letter. But there is also a middle category. The response is, “Yes, but!” — “I will listen to what you say,” they respond, “but I will do it my way!”

When I received responses in this category, I found myself in a quandary. On the one hand, I wanted my orders obeyed, but on the other, I didn’t want to squelch the initiative and self-reliance of the person to whom I was assigning the task. I may have preferred total commitment, but I compromised. I allowed concession.

It is from these personal reflections that I can better understand the interaction between the major character of this week’s Torah portion, Balaam, and the Almighty.

Read the opening paragraphs carefully. Balaam begins as a very pious individual who dares not make a move without the Lord’s permission. He asks God whether he can accept the request he has received to curse the Israelites. God answers, “Do not go with them! You must not curse that people, for they are blessed.” Balaam accepts this response with commitment. He tells Balak’s dignitaries, “I cannot go with you.” 

But then Balak ups the ante and sends more numerous and distinguished dignitaries to Balaam. Again, Balaam consults the Almighty. But this time, He responds, “You may go with them, but whatever I command you, you shall do.” How do we understand this shift in the divine instructions?

Drawing upon our own personal human experiences in giving instructions to others, we can begin to understand this shift. At first, Balaam responds with commitment. In his second consultation with the Lord, that resolve has been weakened by the second delegation of dignitaries. So God, so to speak, has to adapt to Balaam’s “Yes, but!,” and offers a concession: “Obey me, but do it your way.”

Our sages describe this concession with this adage: “On the road which man wishes to pursue, upon that road he is led.” Our free will is so important to God that He concedes to our wishes, and allows us to “do it our way.”

Of course, He prefers commitment, but grants concession, hoping that we will ultimately obey Him and conform, albeit imperfectly, to His will.

This approach to understanding one of the ways in which the Almighty deals with human weakness allows us to understand many other examples in the Bible of God’s concessions to human willfulness.

Just a few short weeks ago, for example, we read in Numbers 13 of God’s command to Moses to send spies, meraglim, to scout out the Promised Land. The commentaries struggle with the account in Deuteronomy 1 in which it is clear that it was the people’s idea that spies be sent, and not God’s command. The rabbis resolved the problem of the differing texts by suggesting that God Himself did not think spies were necessary. He originally depended upon the people’s commitment to rely unquestioningly upon His promise of the land to them. But the people wanted to “do it their way” by sending spies. God, as it were, relented, conceded — a concession He felt was necessary to grant in the absence of commitment.

This concept is particularly useful to apply to our own lives. Ideally, we all should act out of perfect commitment. But human nature often insists that we do it our way. The compassionate Lord of the universe “cuts us a bit of slack” and gives us some flexibility, but relies upon us not to veer too far from His expectations.

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