“Influencing the Will of G-d”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Balak, we learn that the Moabite king, Balak, the son of Zippor, is overwhelmed with fear as a result of what he had seen Israel do to the Amorites, crushing them in battle. Although the Moabites and Midianites were long-term enemies, they now joined together in order to defend themselves from the threat of the Children of Israel.

Recognizing that he could not vanquish the Israelites in a military battle, Balak decides to call upon Balaam, the famed gentile prophet, to curse Israel. The Moabite king initially sends elders of Moab and Midian to the prophet Balaam, to convince him to come and curse the Children of Israel. After consulting with G-d, Balaam is informed, Numbers 22:12, לֹא תֵלֵךְ עִמָּהֶם, לֹא תָאֹר אֶת הָעָם, כִּי בָרוּךְ הוּא , “You shall not go with them! You shall not invoke curse upon the people, for they are blessed!”

Balak sends a second delegation of even higher ranking officers, promising Balaam much honor and riches if he would curse the Jewish people. Balaam again declines, saying that even if Balak would give him a household of gold and silver, he is unable to transgress the word of G-d, to do anything small or great.
Balaam, however, is reluctant to give up. He requests that the emissaries stay the night, so that he can once again “consult” with G-d. In Numbers 22:20, G-d says to Balaam, אִם לִקְרֹא לְךָ בָּאוּ הָאֲנָשִׁים, קוּם לֵךְ אִתָּם, וְאַךְ אֶת הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר אֲדַבֵּר אֵלֶיךָ, אֹתוֹ תַעֲשֶׂה , “If the men came to summon you, arise and go with them, but the thing that I shall speak to you that is what you shall do.”

Balaam, who despite G-d’s warning, is eager to do harm to the Israelites, arises early the next morning, saddles his own donkey and begins to make his way to meet Balak. Even though G-d has given him permission to go, G-d is angry at Balaam, seeing his enthusiasm, and places an angel on the road to stop Balaam. Although the great prophet Balaam is unaware of the angel, the lowly donkey sees the Divine emissary and refuses to travel further. After hitting his donkey several times, the donkey speaks up, and Balaam finally sees the angel. The angel of G-d gives Balaam one last warning, saying, Numbers 22:35, לֵךְ עִם הָאֲנָשִׁים, וְאֶפֶס אֶת הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר אֲדַבֵּר אֵלֶיךָ, אֹתוֹ תְדַבֵּר , “Go with the men, but only the word that I shall speak to you, that shall you speak!”

Many commentators are troubled by the fact that at first G-d firmly tells Balaam not to go. He then gives Balaam some sort of ambiguous permission, but restricts his ability to curse the Jewish people. Has Balaam successfully influenced the will of G-d?

According to Rabbi Chaim Dov Rabinowitz the author of Da’at Sofrim, this portion teaches much about the principles of Divine Providence and of free will that is accorded to all human beings.

Rashi  picks up on G-d’s words to Balaam in Numbers 22:20, אִם לִקְרֹא לְךָ בָּאוּ הָאֲנָשִׁים, קוּם לֵךְ אִתָּם , “If the men came to summon you, arise and go with them.” Rashi derives from the word לְךָ “to you,” the connotation “for your benefit.” Meaning, if it would be to Balaam’s financial advantage to go, he was free to do so.

Although not commenting directly on Rashi, Rabbi Rabinowitz explains that despite all the commandments, including the many restrictions that G-d has given, human beings still have free will to violate those restrictions, even if only for personal financial gain. Rabbi Rabinowitz cites the pithy statement of the sages (Talmud Makot 10b), בְּדֶרֶך שֶׁאָדָם רוֹצֶה לֵילֵךְ בָּהּ מוֹלִיכִין אוֹתוֹ , Heaven directs a person in the path that he wishes to take.
When G-d informed Balaam on the first night that he should not go, the will of G-d should have been clear to Balaam. Even if G-d subsequently gave him permission to go, he should have at least asked, as did the prophet Samuel (Samuel I 16:2) when he was sent to anoint King David, אֵיךְ אֵלֵךְ? “How can I go?” Balaam did not do that, because he was determined to curse the Jewish people, despite G-d’s admonishments.

Even though Balaam himself acknowledges that, Numbers 23:19, לֹא אִישׁ אֵ-ל וִיכַזֵּב, וּבֶן אָדָם וְיִתְנֶחָם , that G-d is not like a human being who changes His mind, Balaam knows well that humans are accorded free will, and hopes that perhaps through prayer and petition he can eventually change G-d’s mind.

Balaam then resorts to sorcery in order to overcome G-d’s decree forbidding him to curse the people of Israel. Each time he is about to deliver another one of his prophetic messages, both Balaam and Balak move further away from the People of Israel, hoping that the peoples’ G-dly influence would be diminished as he and Balak distance themselves from the people. The reduced presence of sanctity would somehow allow Balaam to curse the Jewish people despite G-d’s unequivocal decree otherwise.

Balaam learns the hard way that he cannot outfox the Al-mighty, and that although there is free will in the world, G-d has the right to limit that free will, under certain extraordinary circumstances.

It is only when Balaam realizes that he is unable to curse the Jewish people that he resorts to a reliable method of harming the Jewish people–seducing the Israelite men with gentile women. As a result of Balaam’s plot (Numbers 25:9), 24,000 Israelites are killed in a plague as retribution for the Jewish men consorting with the Midianite women.

Balaam is able to defy G-d, and go with Balak to curse the Jews in order to benefit himself and enhance his own wealth. However, he is unable to change G-d’s will when it impacts on others. Thus, he cannot curse Israel.

Balaam tries to bend the rules, but ultimately he is cooked in his own stew.

May you be blessed.