Going Your Own Way
God is not pleased with the prophet Bil’am. When Bil’am plans to curse the Jewish people at the behest of Moav and Midian,1 God states unequivocally that He will not allow it:
וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹקים אֶל בִּלְעָם לֹא תֵלֵךְ עִמָּהֶם לֹא תָאֹר אֶת הָעָם כִּי בָרוּךְ הוּא:
God said to Bil’am, “Do not go with them. Do not curse the people, for it is inherently blessed.”
But Balak, the king of Moav, isn’t content with this answer. He exerts pressure on Bil’am and tempts him with the possibility of receiving even more wealth and honor. So Bil’am goes back to God and asks again. This time, Bil’am receives a different reply:
וַיָּבֹא אֱלֹהִים אֶל בִּלְעָם לַיְלָה וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ אִם לִקְרֹא לְךָ בָּאוּ הָאֲנָשִׁים קוּם לֵךְ אִתָּם וְאַךְ אֶת הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר אֲדַבֵּר אֵלֶיךָ אֹתוֹ תַעֲשֶׂה:
God came to Bil’am at night and said to him, “If these people have come to summon you, get up and go with them, but you may only do what I tell you to.”
Why does God change His response here? If God does not want Bil’am to curse the people, then why does He not repeat His earlier response of a clear “no”? And if God is willing to let Bil’am try his hand at achieving his aim, then why does God later try to stop Bil’am on the way by sending an angel to block his path?2 It is evident to the reader—and even to Bil’am—that God does not really want him to go, so why doesn’t God just forbid the journey entirely in response to Bil’am’s second request?
God is trying to teach Bil’am a lesson, and through Bil’am’s lesson, the Torah is trying to educate us. In our parashah, God gives Bil’am the latitude to learn for himself. By paying attention to God’s process here, we can come to understand the true value of giving others and ourselves the space to make mistakes, and the way in which the freedom to make and experience our own errors encourages us to be better than we would have been if we had never been allowed to stray.
Rashi also wants to know why God and the angel3 He sends seem to be sending mixed messages about Bil’am’s journey. He explains that while God is clear about not wanting Bil’am to go, Bil’am himself is quite clear that he does want to go.4 So Rashi explains that God is not at all ambivalent or dissembling; rather, God is choosing to accommodate Bil’am’s will and desire. Rashi quotes the Talmud’s explanation of God’s decision:
תלמוד בבלי מכות י:
אמר רבה בר רב הונא אמר רב הונא ואמרי לה אמר רב הונא א"ר אלעזר - מן התורה ומן הנביאים ומן הכתובים בדרך שאדם רוצה לילך בה מוליכין אותו. מן התורה דכתיב (במדבר כב:יב) לא תלך עמהם וכתיב (במדבר כב:כ) קום לך אתם. הנביאים דכתיב (ישעיה מח:יז) אני ה' אלהיך מלמדך להועיל מדריכך בדרך תלך. מן הכתובים דכתיב (משלי ג:לד) אם ללצים הוא יליץ ולענוים5 יתן חן.
Talmud Bavli Makkot 10b
Rabbah bar Rav Huna said that Rav Huna said, or maybe Rav Huna said in the name of R. Elazar: It is testified to in the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings that a person is walked down the path that they want to walk. In the Torah it is written, Do not go with them (BeMidbar 22:12), and then it is written, Get up and go with them (BeMidbar 22:20). In the Prophets it is written, I am God who teaches you well, guides you in the path that you should walk (Yeshayahu 48:17). And in the Writings it is written, Though God mocks the scoffers, He acts graciously to the humble (Mishlei 3:34).
According to the Talmud, Bil’am is being told that he may go only because God already knows that this is where he wants to go and is guiding Bil’am down his chosen path. However, there are two ways to understand what it means to say that “a person is walked down the path that they want to walk.” If we read this adage through the lens of the verse in Mishlei, it seems that this strategy is essentially punitive: God is mocking the scoffers and washing His hands, as it were, of their behavior. The statement is essentially sarcastic: “If that’s where you want to go, fine! See if I care. In fact, I’ll help you get there!”6 However, when we read this adage through the verse in Yeshayahu, the goal seems to be pedagogical: God wants to walk the person down their own path as an expression of His commitment to being the God who teaches you well. Yet how does God’s choice to invite Bil’am to go with Balak’s retinue have educational value to Bil’am? Why is this more educational than simply refusing to let him go?
One theme that repeats itself throughout the story is that Bil’am does not really have any ability to curse the descendants of Avraham. God promised Avraham, וַאֲבָרְכָה מְבָרֲכֶיךָ וּמְקַלֶּלְךָ אָאֹר וְנִבְרְכוּ בְךָ כֹּל מִשְׁפְּחֹת הָאֲדָמָה, I will bless those who bless you and those who curse you I will curse, and all of the clans of the earth will be blessed through you (Bereishit 12:3). In a reflection of this promise, God tells Bil’am at the outset that he will not succeed in cursing the people, saying לֹא תָאֹר אֶת הָעָם כִּי בָרוּךְ הוּא, you will not curse the people because they are blessed. Bil’am is doomed to fail at the outset. He has been hired to harm Avraham’s children, but he will not succeed. In light of this information, we see that God is faced with two options: to let Bil’am go or to prevent him from going. There is no risk to letting Bil’am try his hand at cursing Benei Yisrael—God is protecting them, so there is no loss to letting Bil’am go. And if God does choose to let Bil’am make his attempt, then God creates the ability to teach Bil’am a critical lesson. God isn’t setting Bil’am up to sin; God is setting Bil’am up to learn.
One of Jewish tradition’s most insightful and loving educators is R. Kalonymous Kalman Shapiro,7 the Piazecno Rebbe, author of the Hovat HaTalmidim (“The Students’ Obligation”). Hovat HaTalmidim is a book written for middle-school-aged students who are just beginning to understand what it means to be a student of the Torah, but its introduction is designed for parents and educators, instructing them in how to understand their children and students and training them in how to teach both strategically and effectively. He characterizes the attitude of the youth of his time and shows those who need to raise these young children how to respond appropriately:
הנה עד במה שיודע בכל אב וכל מלמד שבניהם ותלמידיהם הקטנים אשר לפניהם לא ישארו בקטנותם, רק יגדלו ויהיו לאנשים גדולים בשנים, אפשר גם גדולים בתורה ועבודה מ״מ ישנם אשר תכליתם רק מה שנגד עיניהם,
וכיון שרק נערים נגדם, לכן רק לחנך אותם לנערים טובים מטרתם, ותורה ויראה רק בערך ילדותם רצונם להכניס אל קרבם ודי להם, אבל מלמד ואב כזה חוטא הוא נגד ד׳ ועמו. צריך המלמד והאב לדעת שאת בני ד׳ וגדולי ישראל עליהם לחנך ולגלות, ואת הנערים אשר לפניהם יראו לנשמות גדולות אשר עודן באבן, ועליהם להצמיחן ולהפריחן. כגנן הוא בגן ד׳ לעבדה ולשמרה, ואף אם יראה בהם נערים אשר לפי הכרתו מרי נפש הם ומדות רעות להם, ידע שזה טבע של גרעיגי הנשמות ובוסר המלאכים, מרים הם בחניטתם ומלאים עסיס בגדלותם.
אין מדה וטבע רע בהחלט בילד ישראל הורונו קדושי ישראל הבעש״ט ותלמידיו אחריו זצ״ל, רק שצריכים לדעת איך לשמש בהם ולגדלם. למשל אם יש לפניו תלמיד במדת עקשנות שהיא רעה, וסובל המלמד ממנו הרבה, יתבונן והי׳ כאשר יגדל וייקבל עול תורה ועבודת ד' כמה תהי׳ כל עבודתו בעקשנות ובמסירות נפש, לא קל ולא הפכפך יהיה
Every parent and teacher knows that their children and young students who sit before them won’t remain young forever. They will grow up and become adults8 and they might also grow to be great in Torah and Divine Service. Nevertheless, there are those whose aim is only what is in front of them and, since they have children before them, they only aim to train them to be good children. They only want to inculcate Torah and Fear of God in them in a childish way, thinking that this is enough!
But a teacher or parent like this sins against God and His people. The parent or teacher needs to know that it is incumbent upon them to train and develop9 the children of God and the future great ones of Israel. They should look at the children in front of them as great souls which are just beginning to blossom, and it is up to them to make sure that they flower and grow. [The educator] is like a gardener in the garden of God who is obligated to work and keep it. So even if he sees [among his students] children who seem to be embittered and have poor character traits, [the educator] has to know that this is the nature of the seeds of great souls and unripe angels. They are bitter in their first flowering and full of sweet juice in their maturity.
The Ba’al Shem Tov and his students have taught that no Jewish child has a definitively bitter or evil character; one merely has to know how to tend and grow them. For example, you might have a student before you who is very stubborn, which is a bad quality, and the educator really suffers on account of this student. [The educator] should focus on the fact that, when this child grows and accepts upon himself the yoke of Torah and Divine Service, how steadfast he will be in his service of God! How much he will give of himself! He won’t treat it lightly and won’t waver at all.
The Hovat HaTalmidim understands and empathizes with the teachers of so-called “bad” kids, those who are resistant and disobedient, but he disagrees with the way that these teachers approach them. He urges the educators not to look at who the child is now, but at what kind of adult that child could be, to abandon the one-size-fits-all approach of trying to cultivate sweet, quiet, and obedient children in favor of recognizing how a strong, willful personality, which is difficult to manage and often inappropriate in a child, can be channeled. As an adult, it can be important to be headstrong, to be willful, and even to be disobedient.
The Hovat HaTalmidim recognizes the value of allowing and encouraging these students to be themselves, even if they are not currently their best selves. What he understands is that the inclination of the teacher to put an immediate stop to the bad behavior, and to mold all of the children with the same model, needs to be curbed. The risk of “allowing” a poor character trait is actually very low, because character and personality are not something that a teacher teaches and are not something that a teacher can successfully uproot. So the educator is left with two choices: to accommodate difference or to futilely resist it. If the teacher allows the students to express themselves, then they can teach the children how to channel their personalities appropriately and capitalize on their strengths. But if a teacher resists their students’ natures, then they will lose any ability to have an effect, as the student will likely resist the teacher and reject all of their guidance.
The Hovat HaTalmidim asks these parents and educators to educate their children with the recognition that the children are baderekh, on the way. On the one hand, children are malleable. They are still on the way to becoming who they are; they are not finished products, they are only seeds. But on the other hand, the children do have definite tendencies—you can’t plant an apple seed and harvest an etrog. The teacher needs to cultivate the garden using this expertise.
According to the Talmud, God is treating Bil’am according to the dictum, “בדרך שאדם רוצה לילך בה, מוליכין אותו a person is walked down the path that they want to walk.” However, this policy can be understood in light of the famous proverb, חֲנֹךְ לַנַּעַר עַל פִּי דַרְכּוֹ גַּם כִּי יַזְקִין לֹא יָסוּר מִמֶּנָּה, educate a child according to his path and even when he ages he will not err from it (Mishlei 22:6).
And we see the fruits of God’s educational strategy as we proceed through the parashah. At first, Bil’am is resistant to God’s refusal to let him go and he is susceptible to the pressure of the king, his servants, and his gifts. Then, Bil’am goes to curse the people, but when he opens his mouth he finds that he is a puppet, only speaking the words of blessing that God has placed in his mouth.10 However, at the end of the story, Bil’am decides to bless the people of his own accord.
וַיַּרְא בִּלְעָם כִּי טוֹב בְּעֵינֵי ה' לְבָרֵךְ אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל וְלֹא הָלַךְ כְּפַעַם בְּפַעַם לִקְרַאת נְחָשִׁים וַיָּשֶׁת אֶל הַמִּדְבָּר פָּנָיו:... וַיִּשָּׂא מְשָׁלוֹ וַיֹּאמַר נְאֻם בִּלְעָם בְּנוֹ בְעֹר וּנְאֻם הַגֶּבֶר שְׁתֻם הָעָיִן:... מַה טֹּבוּ אֹהָלֶיךָ יַעֲקֹב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל:
BeMidbar 24:1, 3, 5
Bil’am saw that it pleased God to bless Israel, so he did not go, as at other times, to look for omens, but set his face toward the wilderness… and he uttered his oracle, saying: “The oracle of Bil’am son of Beor, the oracle of the man whose eye is clear… How fine are your tents, Ya’akov, your encampments, Israel!”11
This educational principle is relevant not only to parents and children, educators and students, God and His prophets—it is also relevant to each and every one of us. As adults, we are obligated to train and develop ourselves into the great souls that we can become. And the lesson here is that, as we try to improve ourselves, we need to recognize what our innate traits are. We should be cultivating and directing ourselves, rather than trying to fit an abstract model of what goodness looks like. We should be educating ourselves to capitalize not only on our strengths but also on our weaknesses, channeling them in a way that serves the greater good.
1 Though the idea to curse the people appears to come from Balak, the king of Moav, in BeMidbar 22:4 he consults on this plan with the leadership of Midian.
2 See BeMidbar 22:22.
3 Just like God first says to Bil’am that he cannot go and then tells him that he may, so too the angel that is sent to stop Bil’am eventually steps aside and lets him go. See BeMidbar 22:35.
4 See Rashi to BeMidbar 22:22.
5 Our version of the verse reads slightly differently: לעניים.
6 This first explanation is most likely the view that Rashi himself has.
7 1889-1943, Warsaw.
8 In the Hebrew, R. Shapiro is making a play on words. The term that he uses for older is “great in years,” which he then compares to other types of greatness.
9 Lit. reveal.
10 BeMidbar 22:20, 23:5, 23:12.
11 Trans. NRSV, emended.