[Thirteen years ago I wrote this musing for parashat Balak called “Bad Habits.” Now here it is thirteen years later and I am still dealing with the same demons. So forgive me for being selfish, and revisiting and revising this musing for my own purposes, and hopefully help me to learn a lesson I seem to still have not yet learned.]
I have a bad habit. Really, it’s true! (Well, truth be told, I have a plethora of bad habits. But we’ll save the rest of them for other musings and just focus one this one really bad habit.)
So what is this dark, troubling secret of a bad habit I’m going to reveal. Here I go. Ready? Ok, here we go. (Have I built up enough suspense yet?) My bad habit is…
I often respond too hastily to e-mail messages.
There. I’ve admitted it.That’s the first step on the road to correcting a bad habit. [Or so I thought 13 years ago. Seems this road has had an unusually high number of detours..]
Technology is, or can be a really wonderful tool. It has brought many blessings. In fact, technology is a blessing. It also is, or can be, a curse. E-mail is a case in point. Sometimes, when you intend to send a blessing, it comes out a curse. And sometimes our e-mails intended as curses come out blessings instead.
All this was on my mind as I re-read the familiar words of parashat Balak this week. And this surely influenced the message I took away from this encounter with Torah, as you will see. [Here in 2017, I seek to understand why, after that first attempt to improve myself thirteen years ago, I’m still struck by the story of Balak vis a vis my own habits in the same way. You’d think I would have learned].
When the elders of Moab and Midian delivered the message/invitation from King Balak to Bilam, asking Bilam to come and curse the Israelites, Bilam does not respond immediately. Bilam asks the messengers to spend the night, allowing him the time to “consult” with G”d and formulate the appropriate reply to Balak’s request. [And boom, there it is, the very first hint that this story has something to teach us about taking a moment before we respond to anything. Rashi argues that G”d only visited Bilam and other non-Jewish prophets at night. Hmmm. The scholars and commentators dispute whether Bilam was seeking G”d’s permission or G”d’s advice on whether to string things along and await an even greater or more important set of emissaries before he agreed to go. I’m not sure that Bilam needed G”ds help or advice in that regard – I suspect Bilam was well-practiced in his craft and knew how to turn things to his best advantage. The Torah, however, has other ideas. The text is rather explicit.When Bilam explains what he was asked to do, G”d says no way, Jose. These people are blessed, you may not go and curse them. ]
King Balak persists – sending emissaries of greater and greater prestige. The Torah is vague about how many groups. Balak sends yet another, more important group of dignitaries as messengers to implore Bilam to come and curse the Israelites, Bilam again takes a night to consult with G”d before responding.
Sometimes, even a night and a quick consultation with G”d isn’t enough time to ponder and formulate a response that’s appropriate. Though, during their consultation, G”d permits Balaam to accompany the Moabite and Midianite dignitaries, the ensuing and well-known incident with Bilam and his ass demonstrates, perhaps, that Bilam may still have been too hasty in his “reply,” that is, his decision to go with the messengers to see King Balak. Apparently, that’s not what G”d wanted (expected?)
Another cautionary note can be drawn from the Torah’s tale of Balak and Bilam. Bilam did, indeed, take some time and consult with G”d before replying to Balak’s requests. Still, even with this effort to carefully craft and phrase replies in just the right words, the message wasn’t understood as intended. King Balak didn’t “get” the meaning/intent of Bilam’s (and, in reality, G”d’s) words. King Balak doesn’t understand that it’s not about money, reward, flattery, respect or anything of that nature. Bilam is saying that, even paid for his services, Balaam can and will only say what Gd has told him to say. King Balak clearly believes that every seer has his price.
Thus, there are valuable lessons for me, and, I hope, for you, dear readers, all throughout parashat Balak to remind us to not be hasty or trigger- (or send-key-) happy. We can take the time we need to allow G”d’s voice to influence and inform our replies. Amidst the noise, hubbub, and rush of modern life, it’s not always easy to discern that still, small voice. Yet it is so crucial to harmonious, loving human discourse that G”d, Torah, and Judaism inform all that we do and say (or write, “keyboard,” “graffiti.”)
[“Graffiti?” OMG that’s a dated reference. How many of you remember that early attempt at drawing characters in the “Graffiti” language on a Palm OS based PDA that would be recognized and turned into actual text? Want some nostalgia – you can get a Graffiti app for Android: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.access_company.graffiti_pro&hl=en ]
When we fail to heed the cautionary reminders of parashat Balak, we may well end up needlessly flaying our own asses, and having them cry out to us, wondering what they have done or said that we are treating them so ill. We might find our blessings turned into curses. If we allow ourselves a little time to let G”d, Torah, and Judaism inform what we do and say, we may yet see our curses turned into blessings. Ken y’hi ratson. Ken y’hi ratsoneinu.
[Or so I ended thirteen years ago. I’m still not heeding my on advice. I’m quick to criticize others for being reactive, yet I remain consistently guilty of being so myself. I wish I had Bilam’s excuse of only speaking (or writing) the words which G”d puts in my mouth. Perhaps I have chosen the wrong story to inspire me. After all, Bilam taking his time to respond is but a small part of a much larger story, which has very different and broader themes. There are many other places in Torah that could serve to remind me to think before I act. Imagine if Moshe had counted to ten and then spoken to the rock instead of hitting it. I also think I can use words of Torah to help me forgive myself for sometimes not thinking before acting G”d is certainly guilty of that on a few occasions! But I digress.
C’mon Adrian, get it together. Be honest, and admit there was a little woo-woo going on here. Parashat Balak comes up, you’re reviewing what you’ve written about it before, you read this musing from thirteen years back and realize you had just recently engaged in that same old bad habit. Don;t be stubborn, Adrian. You;re being hit on the head. You’re getting the “…but I sent you a boats and a helicopter…” treatment. Pay attention!
OK. I’ll try. I’ll think before responding.I won’t be rash, I’ll be thoughtful. Wait a minute, what’s the email you just received say? Are they kidding? Excuse me, I have to go and respond to those idiots and set them straight right this moment…
©2017 (portions ©2004) by Adrian A. Durlester
Other musings on this parasha:
Balak 5775 – Stymied
Balak 5774 – Ball’s In Your Court
Balak 5772 – Unvelievable
Balak 5771-Imperfect Justice is No Excuse
Balak 5770 – Beating Our Donkeys II (Revised and Updated 5758)
Balak 5764 – Bad Habits
Balak 5758/5761-Beating Our Donkeys