It’s a funny thing. Sometimes, one gets so wrapped up in wanting to share one’s thoughts, ideas, and revelations with others, and completely fails to see and heed the value in their own thoughts for their selves. A case in point is a musing for parashat Balak that I wrote twelve years ago, at a time when, coincidentally, I was working as media specialist at OSRUI, as I am again doing this summer. As I was perusing previous musings on Balak and read this one, I discovered it offered and important and powerful lesson for me – and it has a message I need to heed.
Random Musings Before Shabbat-Balak 5758 – Updated and Revised for 5770
How many times must we "beat our donkeys" before our eyes are opened and we see the truth that our own blindness and stubbornness are the real impediments? Too often we really can’t see past the ends of our noses – individually, and collectively.
In the incident with Bilaam, the ass and G"d’s angel, we have the first example of "doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results." It’s a concept oft referred to in Twelve-Step programs. Addiction is often the cause of such behavior. Yet one need not be an addict to anything (except perhaps one’s own ego) to exhibit the same follish behavior.
Three times, Bilaam hits his donkey. When he didn’t get the expected result the first time, Bilaam could have learned the lesson and moved on to another tactic. But no, he repeats himself, and expects his mount to respond differently. Of course it doesn’t.
Then yet a third attempt. I can just hear G"d sighing "Oy! What a shlemiel!" Obviously frustrated by Bilaam’s refusal to learn, G"d gives voice to the donkey. What the donkey effectively says is "Look, this obviously isn’t working. Shouldn’t you be looking for another cause of your problems?" Obviously the light finally dawns for Bilaam and he can see at last the angel that G"d has sent to block his way. An effective tec hnique for attention-getting, wouldn’t you say?
[A brief digression. while there is clearly a lesson for Bilaam in all this, there’s also a lesson for G"d and for us of a different sort. Sometimes, a message or sign that may seem obvious to us might not be so obvious to the person with whom we are trying to communicate. Bilaam didn’t get it, at first. While it’d true that a message might be more effective the harder someone has to work to receive it, that’s not always the best scenario. I always think of the "give him the seda-give" game of charades that plays out in Mel Brook’s "Young Frankenstein." There are times when it is better to be direct and not play charades. There are times when making the other party work for the answer is appropriate. It’s difficult to know which approach is best. In this case, perhaps G"d had an ulterior motive. Or G"d realized that Bilaam had to open his eyes to possibilities before true communication is possible. Powerful lesson, no matter how you look at it.]
We get wrapped up in our paradigms, develop tunnel vision, and sometimes just cannot see what is really there, blinded by our own desires and prejudices. How many times have you walked into a room, looking for something which was right there in front of you, yet in your harried state, did not see? I am sure we have all experienced such moments. [Note from 5770 – when I first wrote this next words in 5758, and then repeated them a few years later in 5761, they were timely and fit actual circumstances, Here it is, years later, and they fit equally as well yet again. Ah, the frustration of realizing we’re not always learning, growing and maturing as well as we think we are!] I, myself, experienced some of that this week. Instead of looking for root causes of problems within myself and my own behaviors, I sought to blame other circumstances, other people for my problems, my roadblocks. I repeated old, learned patterns of behavior and blinded myself to the truths. But then, like Bilaam, my eyes were opened. I won’t go into the story here, but suffice it to say that from now on, I must remember to look outside my prejudices, my paradigms.
In this story is also another lesson to be learned. That of recognizing intentions. And it is another lesson tied in with the story of Bilaam. Why couldn’t Bilaam curse Israel? Because Gd wouldn’t let him, or because Bilaam himself could not? I think the latter. Because Bilaam’s intentions were good. To speak the truth that Gd had told to him.
Bilaam was charged with a difficult task-to speak the truth. Truth speakers often have a hard time relating to people, because sometimes their words and messages are hurtful to those hearing them. But what I have learned is that, hurtful or not, the truth is the truth, and must be recognized and accepted for what it is. We can rail against the truth, but when we do so, we only hurt ourselves. Better we should embrace the truth, make it part of ourselves, and grow from learning it.
[Note from 5770: I love contradicting myself. Looking back at what I wrote, I find myself a little less comfortable with the brash approach to truth telling. I have learned, as I hope we all have, to temper how we says things. Yes, there are times when blatant, un-varnished truth is best, but you’d best be darn sure that’s the case. Even when it comes to ourselves, tempering how we reveal our own truths can be wise. It’s too easy to fall into the trap of thinking you’ve figured yourself out, when the reality is quite different. It’s a common for the exhilaration of self-discovery to lead to even more self-delusion!]
Knowing that Israel was blessed and his people would be defeated, Prince Balak could have found a way to embrace the truth-and perhaps save his people from destruction. But he chose to ignore the truth and his people paid the price. When we ignore the truths around us, we pay the price too.
This Shabbat, let us all learn to see the obstacles that are really blocking our way-putting aside our blinders, and opening ourselves to the truths around us. Tempered, as needed, to fit the circumstances.
© 2010, portions © 1998, 2001 by Adrian A. Durlester