We are a society geared toward the gifted. We have programs to enhance people’s natural endowments, special training and tutoring, early identification of people with talent or intelligence. Of course it makes sense; innovators and artists and thinkers should be given opportunities to grow their gifts. But moral education has to go hand in hand with ability; those who can make the greatest contribution need the greatest sensitivity to ethical issues.
The Torah teaches this with the story of Bilaam. He was a pagan, but according to the Rabbis, he was the most gifted prophet in the world. In a startling passage, they compare Bilaam’s abilities to Moses’, and Moses comes up short: “Moses did not know when God would speak with him. Bilaam knew. … Moses only spoke with God standing up — Bilaam spoke with God even lying down.”
You would think that the Torah would be the story of Bilaam, but he plays a very minor part. Moses used his gifts for goodness. His stature did not come from his capacities alone; it came from his passion for God, for the people and his unswerving determination for justice. It is good to be gifted when the gifted are good.
Rabbi David Wolpe is spiritual leader of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter: @RabbiWolpe. His latest book is “David: The Divided Heart” (Yale University Press).