Parashat Balak

No & Maybe

We cannot slip into loopholes and forego responsibility.

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As we return to Balaam, we rewind the film and zoom in: Balaam, inviting the second royal entourage to stay the night, is not being hospitable, nor is he being a loyal servant of God. He knows that he is prohibited from performing the mission, yet he hopes that perhaps he misunderstood. He hopes that God's "no" is actually a "maybe."

God's anger at Balaam, then, is not prompted by Balaam following God's instructions, but rather because Bilaam continues to ask when the answer is already quite clear. Balaam here acts out a common pattern--even when we know we should do one thing, we instead do another; our mouths say no, our feet say yes.

Facing Ourselves

For my students, I can understand their deep desire for a moment of freedom. Yet when I ask them, "do you think it's right for you to go buy candy while the rest of us wait for the bus?" they inevitably come to the same decision I had originally given. Balaam, like all of us, knows that the right thing to do is not always convenient or profitable. 

We must say 'no' to that which we know is wrong and say 'yes' to our commitments. For if we do not, we slip into the loopholes that allow us to fall further and further from our values, and our students will continue to show us where we fail. We do not need a punishing blade or a talking donkey to remind us of how we have sinned. We need only look at the state of the world around us.

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Evan Wolkenstein is the Director of Experiential Education and a Tanach teacher at the Jewish Community High School of the Bay in San Francisco.