Parashat Balak: Walking Humbly Before G-d
The Haftara, the selection from the Prophets, which we read on Shabbat Parashat Balak is taken from the Book of Micha. The prophet urges us to recall G-d’s kindness to us in foiling Balak and Bilam’s plan to annihilate Am Yisrael by placing a curse upon them (6:5). Then, the prophet tells us precisely what G-d wants from us in exchange for His kindness: "…what is it that G-d asks from you, other than performing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with your G-d" (6:8).
It seems clear from the prophet’s words that these three values – performing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly – are what we are to learn from Bilam’s negative example. Bilam represents the antithesis of the proper way to live, and thus on the Shabbat when we read the story of Bilam, we read the prophet’s admonition to learn from Bilam to act in the opposite manner.
The first thing we learn from Bilam is "performing justice." Bilam insisted on going to Moab to place a curse on Beneh Yisrael even though G-d made it very clear that He did not want him to. As long as G-d did not technically forbid him from going, Bilam insisted on going, despite knowing full well that this was not G-d’s will. This marks the antithesis of "Asot Mishpat," of doing the right, proper thing. Secondly, Bilam was cruel and malicious, bent on annihilating Beneh Yisrael for no reason. We are to embody the ideal of "Ahabat Hesed" – loving and cherishing kindness to others, the precise opposite of Bilam’s hostility.
The connection between Bilam and the third ideal – "Hasne’a Lechet Im Elokecha" ("walking humbly with your G-d"), however, is less clear. How exactly did Bilam embody the opposite of humility?
When Balak’s officials first came to Bilam and asked him to come place a curse on Beneh Yisrael, G-d appeared to Bilam in a dream and asked, "Who are these people who are with you?" (22:9). Bilam responded by explaining to G-d who these people were – men sent by Balak to ask Bilam to place a curse on Beneh Yisrael. The Midrash points to this incident as one of several times in Tanach when G-d posed a rhetorical question to somebody, and the person answered arrogantly, thinking that G-d was actually asking him for information. Bilam should have realized that G-d was expressing His disapproval of what these messengers wanted him to do. G-d did not need any information; He was telling Bilam that these people are asking him to do something deplorable. This was Bilam’s arrogance.
In our times, G-d does not speak to us directly, but He does communicate with us indirectly. When misfortune or hardship strikes, this is G-d’s way of asking us, as He asked Adam after his sin, "Where are you?" (Bereshit 3:9). He is calling out to us to look and see where we are perhaps falling short in performing our duties, where our conduct is in need of improvement. The arrogant response is to cast the blame on other people, or, as many people do, fear that there is something wrong the Mezuzah. The humble response is to lower our heads in submission, to acknowledge that we are not living the way we should, that there are Misvot we are neglecting, we have Middot (character traits) that are deficient, and that we need to work to be better. This is the ideal of "Hasne’a Lechet" that we learn from Bilam’s contrary example. We need to learn to lower our heads when G-d "speaks" to us, and to live with a humble recognition of what we are doing wrong and of what we need to do to improve.