FRIDAY, June 29th
In this week’s parsha, we read about how the non-Jewish prophet, Bilam, is hired by King Balak of Moav to curse the Jewish people. At God’s instruction, Bilam had initially rebuffed Balak’s overtures, but when Balak sent a second group of emissaries, God gave Bilam permission to go with them, though with the exhortation that he must do whatever God commands (Bemidbar 22:20). Strangely, only two verses later (22:22), we read that God became angry at Bilam’s going and sent an angel to interfere with him. How is it that God could become angry at Bilam for going, when God had given him permission?
A number of commentators have responded to these questions. Rashi says “רָאָה שֶׁהַדָּבָר רַע בְּעֵינֵי הַמָּקוֹם וְנִתְאַוָּה לֵילֵךְ: He saw that the matter was evil in the eyes of the Omnipresent, yet he desired to go,” seeming to suggest that although God gave him permission to go, he could nontheless see that it was not what God wanted. This answers the question of why God became angry at Bilam, but raises another question: why would God give Bilam permission to do something that He didn’t actually want him to do?
I think this is showing us something about the nature of God’s commandments: God doesn’t express all of His will (ratzon) in the form of commandments. As difficult as it is to fulfill all of the 613 commandments God has given us, it would be possible to fulfill them all and still not be doing God’s will. The Ramban describes a person who is Naval birshut Hatorah—who is disgusting “with the permission of the Torah” by overindulging in otherwise permissible pleasures such as food, wine, and sex. Similarly, it’s possible to be unpleasant and unkind to other people without ever violating a single mitzvah. Thus, simply asking “is this permitted” or “is this forbidden” is not enough to ensure that we are fulfilling God’s will, that we are living up to what God wants from us. Bilam only did what God had permitted, and yet he provoked God’s anger because he did something that he knew was displeasing in the eyes of God.
As religious people, I hope that we aspire to do more than simply follow the law, important as that is; I hope that we aspire to fulfill God’s will. If that is so, then before we act, we must ask ourselves not only “is this permitted,” but also, “is this what God wants from me?” Are my actions those of the kind of person God wants me to be? Are my actions contributing to a world of justice, kindness, truth and peace? If not, how can I bring my actions more in line with God’s will? How can I act in a way that is more pleasing to God?
May we each merit to live our lives in accordance with the Torah, and even more so, in accordance with God’s will.
Rabbi Garth Silberstein