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God give them wisdom that have it; and those that are fools, let them use their talents.
– Shakespeare, “Twelfth Night”
This week we read the story of Bilaam. It’s a very weird portion – surreal in some aspects, and shot through with low comedy. All the action takes place offstage, above the heads of the Israelites, who have not the slightest idea what’s going on. The main players: the king of Moab and the prophet Bilaam, go at one another at cross purposes throughout the story, then Bilaam abruptly leaves. God speaks with Bilaam, then so does Bilaam’s donkey, and Bilaam seems surprised by neither.
Here’s the story in brief. Balak, the king of Moab, has just seen his neighbors the Amorites defeated by the oncoming Israelites. Balak gets together with his other neighbors, the Midianites, and together they send to yet other neighbors to summon Bilaam, who is known as a prophet. Balak asks Bilaam to come to Moab and curse the Israelite people “because they are too powerful for me; but maybe I will be able to wage war and drive them out of the land, because I know that whomever you bless is blessed, and whomever you curse is cursed” (Num. 22:6).
At first, God speaks directly to Bilaam and tells him not to go. After Balak’s representatives deliver a second request, God allows Bilaam to proceed. En route to meet Balak, God sends an angel to block Bilaam’s way, but only Bilaam’s donkey sees the angel, leading to a shouting match between Bilaam and his she-ass. When Bilaam finally arrives, he tells Balak to build him a series of altars and offer up sacrifices. After each set of sacrifices, instead of cursing the Israelites, Bilaam lets loose a torrent of blessings, each one more powerful than the one preceding it, and Balak repeatedly freaks out and insists they do it over. After several rounds of this, Bilaam finally walks away.
Bilaam has a unique gift: God speaks to him directly. But Bilaam also has a flaw, which is that though he recounts the words God puts in his mouth, he doesn’t reflect on them. Although Bilaam acknowledges that God speaks to him; and though he says repeatedly that he can say only that which God tells him to say and that he cannot say anything other than that which God has told him to say; and although he scrupulously obeys God’s direct orders, Bilaam doesn’t have any relationship to God. Bilaam doesn’t acknowledge God as the ruler of the world, does not worship God, does not acknowledge God as the Creator, nor even expresses thanks for the unique gift he has been given.
At this point in the Torah’s narrative, people’s awareness of God in the world is still evolving. There are those, such as Moab and Midian, who are aware that the God of the Hebrews was the One who brought the Israelites out of Egypt, and that the God of the Hebrews seems pretty much to win all the battles. But at the same time, Balak enlists Bilaam to turn the God of the Hebrews against the Israelite people, so there is an expectation that, like the idols worshiped by the surrounding nations, God can somehow be convinced – perhaps bribed? – to turn away from the Chosen People, if only long enough for a military victory against them. How does that work?
Throughout the narrative, each time Bilaam is asked to try once again to curse the Israelites, words of blessing flow from his mouth. Oddly – comically – neither Balak nor Bilaam does anything to change the situation. Balak keeps stamping his foot in frustration and saying, “No! I told you to curse them, not bless them!” and Bilaam keeps saying, “I told you that I can say only the words God puts in my mouth!” The whole passage reads like slapstick.
It’s not just about Bilaam’s unique gift of prophecy. Every one of us has a unique gift. Maybe Bilaam’s problem is that he never bothered to look deep within himself. Maybe it never occurred to him to search or struggle to find his true calling, to find his unique gift. He never felt the need to seek out a teacher, a mentor, someone to help him, because for him life entailed no struggles. Like Esau, maybe Bilaam never wrestled with doubt. Bilaam is a prophetic idiot savant, largely indifferent to the fact that God speaks directly to him – and in this story, to him only. We each have a calling in life, but the calling requires two parties: the caller and the called.
The Hasidic masters explain that the greatness of Abraham was not that God chose him, but rather that Abraham chose God. God calls to Abraham and says, “Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you” (Gen. 12:1). Many readers interpret this to mean that God chose Abraham, a thought process that leads many to the notion of predestination, which is not a Jewish concept; we each have the opportunity and the responsibility at every moment to choose our course of action. The Hasidic approach is to realize that God is always exhorting us – each one of us, and at every moment – to Go Forth to our own particular destiny. Abraham responds to his call from God, and does so over and over.
Literary markers draw parallels between Bilaam and Abraham. They serve to differentiate between Abraham, the one who takes God seriously, and Bilaam, the one who takes God for granted. At times, the comparisons border on the farcical. Far from being grateful for his prophetic gift, Bilaam doesn’t even seem to be astonished by it. And when at the end of the story he goes home unsuccessful in his assignment to curse Israel, it is with a shrug that says, Oh well, can’t win ‘em all….
The problem with Bilaam is that he had the greatest gift a human could possibly have, and he took it completely for granted. He didn’t try to draw close to God; didn’t bother to ask God, as so many religious people fail to ask, “What can I do for You?” And he doesn’t try to convince others that their way is wrong, even when placed in a position to do so.
When God offers Abraham an inch, he immediately grabs a thousand miles and keeps going.
We all have gifts. Bilaam fails to use his for the good, and thus he fails to change the world. How many of our own most precious inner gifts do we utterly ignore or take for granted? How many ways has God given to each one of us to make ourselves better, to influence those around us for the good, to make the world a better place?
God is calling out, calling out to all humanity. Are we listening?