By Rabbi Sanford H. Shudnow
This week’s Torah portion is Balak, Numbers 22:2-25:9.
Ours is a beautiful, powerful, but confusing story. It is the age-old story of causeless hatred of the Jewish people by a powerful, ruthless enemy who will use any vehicle and ruse at his disposal to bring down the nation of Israel.
Our reading is filled with mystery and poetry. We never know what the Torah’s perspective is on the perceived villains and the heroes. We are confused.
Balak, the king of Moab, had a goal: to curse the people of Israel. His method was simple: to hire a professional pagan prophet, Balaam.
Balaam’s surprising response to the king was, “Wait here, I’ll give you God’s answer.”
Balaam receives a negative response from God. He says to the king’s messengers: “Go back to your land [Moab], for God has refused to let me go with you.” Balak’s men say to Balak: “Balaam has refused to go with us.”
Here is a perplexing fact: although Balaam was a pagan prophet, he perceived God.
Balak and his men on the other hand only perceived human action. Their behavior accords with the usual way humans function, not according to biblical prophecy.
Again and again they try to change his mind. Balaam says: “Even if Balak gives me his palace full of gold and silver, I cannot do anything good or bad on my own to violate God’s word” [Numbers 24:13].
Only God’s will be done. Even Balaam’s ritual of setting up seven altars is of no effect. In desperation, Balak, king of Moab, asks Balaam: “What has God said?”
The clear problem is one of perception. Balaam, the pagan wizard, sees the divine component in human action. Conversely, Balak sees only free will in human affairs. These are two possible extremes: pre-determination versus complete freedom of choice.
Rabbi Akiva expressed a third position: “All is foreseen, yet freedom of choice is given.” The Jewish view is expressed in the verse: “Behold today I place before you life and goodness, death and evil . . . choose life” [Deuteronomy 30:15-16].
Of course, this is a contradiction. Can it be both ways? Rabbi Shimon Duran (14th century Spain) wrote: “God foresees the future, but that foreknowledge does not coerce man. Although this is impossible according to human comprehension, God’s understanding is qualitatively different from our human understanding, with no similarity between them.”
The story is told of a man with two children; one righteous, the other wicked. He placed before his children a book and a sword. The father thought, this one will take the book and the other will take the sword. The father’s understanding in no way coerced the children in their choice. So it is with the Almighty, even though God knows the future actions of humankind, He does not force those actions, for humans are given freedom of choice.
Our goal is to perceive God’s will and act accordingly. Balaam may have truly desired to curse Israel as Balak had commissioned, but Balaam was somehow in tune with the will of God. Ultimately, it was God’s will to bless Israel and not to curse them. No pressure on earth can be brought to bear that will change the ultimate result of God’s will in our lives. Judaism, as usual, takes the middle course: “All is foreseen, yet freedom of choice is given.”
Rabbi Sanford H. Shudnow is a retired U.S. Navy chaplain.