Parshat Balak

Man riding a donkey toward some mountains
In this parashah, the developing conquest of Canaan occupies the narrative, as the generation of the Wilderness replaces the generation of Egyptian bondage. Disobedience still happens, but it takes a new form: it is the seductiveness of Canaanite culture rather than nostalgia for Egypt that diverts the people from the path.

Balaam’s blessing is the centerpiece of the parshah. Balaam, a non-Israelite religious figure, is hired by the king of the Moabites to curse the Israelites. Through a series of divine interventions Balaam is driven to bless rather than curse the Israelites.

Bamidbar 22:21-22
When he arose in the morning, Balaam saddled his ass and departed with the Moabite dignitaries. But God was incensed at his going; so an angel of the LORD placed himself in his way as an adversary.

Sanhedrin 105b:11
It is stated: “And Balaam rose in the morning and saddled his donkey” (Numbers 22:21) It was taught in a baraita in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar: Love negates the standard conduct of those of prominence. This is derived from Abraham, as it is written: “And Abraham rose early in the morning and saddled his donkey” (Genesis 22:3) Atypically, he saddled the donkey himself and he did not wait for his servants. Likewise, hatred negates the standard conduct of those of prominence. This is derived from Balaam, as it is stated: “And Balaam rose early in the morning and saddled his donkey” (Numbers 22:21).

How are the sages connecting two different verses to develop an idea? What does “standard conduct of those of prominence” mean?

And saddled his she-donkey: From here we see that hatred disrupts the correct order of things, i.e. people deviate from their normal behavior when acting out of hatred, for he himself did the saddling.

Rashi is both using and shifting the meaning of the talmudic insight. Does it clarify the meaning for you? Do you agree that extreme emotions result in unusual behavior?

Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe
Any intense desire has the strength to overpower one’s normally rational thought process. … The root of ratzon (desire) is ratz (run), because one runs to where he truly desires to be.

Rabbi Wolbe notes that both good and bad desires can make one run, literally and figuratively.

If we run to where we truly desire to be, what might that reveal about our inner motivations?

He further states that “running” or acting with alacrity can ignite good desire — what might this suggest as ways of triggering good desires? Do these really work? Previously we’ve seen that the Mussar masters counseled us to develop our rational capabilities, our sechel. But here Rabbi Wolbe is advising us to find ways of triggering emotions, although for good purposes. How can we reconcile these two ideas?

Bamidbar 25:3
Thus Israel attached itself to Baal-Peor, and the LORD was incensed with Israel.

Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe
Rav Yitzchak Hutner explained that [the] ideology [Baal Peor] is a manifestation of pessimism. It was the worshipers’ way of declaring that actions have no real purpose; at the end of the day, everything is worthless. Such an outlook is diametrically opposed to the Torah. The Torah teaches us that every action has the ability to build, and nothing goes to waste. … kedushah (holiness) is the ability to transform the mundane into the spiritual.

How is pessimism the opposite of holiness?

Here we see another definition of holiness. Previously we spoke of holiness as a “constellation of sensitivity, emotional intelligence, practical knowledge, self-insight and the ability to seek meaning that enables someone ‘to love your neighbor as yourself.'” How is the ability to transform the mundane into the spiritual related? How is optimism holy? Practically, how does “transforming the mundane” enable you to love your neighbor?