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It Happens: Thoughts on Balak (5771)

“It just happened” is a phrase we hear a lot in a variety of forms. Have you ever noticed that politicians rarely acknowledge that they actually did something wrong? Pronouncements like these usually come in a variation of “something happened.” My personal favorite? “Mistakes were made.” Even we non-politician types, especially but not limited to children, resort to this kind of “non” experience: we didn’t break the cookie jar - the cookie jar broke. This morning’s parashah teaches us that a life well lived is a life in which we both are called by God and we respond.

Towards the middle of parashat Balak (Num. 23:3-5), we read that 3 God appeared to Bilam. 'I have set up seven altars,' said [Bilam] to [God], 'and I have sacrificed a bull and ram as a burnt offering on each altar.' 4 God manifested Himself to Bilam, who said to Him, "I have set up the seven altars and offered up a bull and a ram on each altar." 5 And the Lord put a word in Bilam's mouth and said, "Return to Balak and speak thus."

The Hebrew in verse 3 is vayikar, which looks very similar to vayikra. The words may look similar, but their meanings - and the lessons we are meant to learn from the two words - are very different. Vayikar comes from the root word “to happen;” vayikra from the root word “to call.” At the beginning of parashat Vayikra, God speaks to Moses with the word vayikra. In today’s parashah, God speaks to Bilam with the word vayikar.

Midrash Rabbah and Rashi note that vayikra ("and He called") is an expression of closeness and love; vayikar ("and He happened upon") is an expression that connotes temporality.

Rabbi Abba Wagensberg cites commentator Shem MiShmuel’s explanation that God did not call to Bilam with affection; rather, He simply chanced upon him and happened to speak to him. But the word "vayikar" also has a deeper significance in the story of Bilam. According to the Shem MiShmuel, Bilam's experience communicating with the Divine was just something that happened - just another event in his life. Speaking with God did not change Bilam or move him to grow in any way; it simply happened to take place.’

Yes, of course, Bilam eventually blesses Israel with the famous words that begin our morning tefilot: Mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, mish’k’notecha Yisraeil. But Bilam repeatedly insists that he can only say the words that God puts in his mouth. While he is a not-unwilling participant, he does not take a proactive position.

Existing by happenstance is no way to live, and it is antithetical to a valued Jewish life. We Jews are repeatedly warned against sitting on the sidelines of life and avoiding taking responsibility for ourselves or our community. As Jews, we learn to simultaneously listen for God’s call and to answer it. That lesson is apparent in Torah and in our prayers.

An obvious Torah example of the difference between letting life happen to us and actively participating in life is found in the first word of Sefer Vayikra. The alef at the end of the word is dramatically diminished in size, leading one to imagine that the word is actually vaikar. Why? We learn from midrash that when God dictated the Torah to Moses at Sinai, Moses asked God to have vayikra actually read vayikar. Moses was uncomfortable with God’s choosing him directly, believing that he was not worthy of such intimate attention. But God insisted; Moses was indeed God’s chosen prophet. And so - as frequently happens with most things Jewish - Moses and God compromise: the word will be vayikra, denoting God’s extreme affection for Moses, but the alef will be smaller, denoting Moses’ humility. Humility can be defined as a state of teachability, a place where we are open to learn and grow. God recognized Moses’ humility; therefore God called to him with love and affection. Inversely, God knew that Bilam had no interest in personal and spiritual growth; therefore God refers to Bilam’s divine encounter with vaikar.

In parashat Kedoshim we learn that we must actively involve ourselves in the welfare of our community. Larry Kaufman, an active participant on several URJ blogs and listservs, cleverly created this haiku commentary on Kedoshim:

Don't stand idly by
While your neighbor bleeds. Instead,
Do something to help!

Rabbi Abba Wagensberg also teaches that “the point of Torah is to make a difference and spur us to growth. Surface knowledge that doesn't make a difference in our lives is almost worthless. The true value of Torah is revealed when we allow it to penetrate, and when we use that wisdom to change our lives.”

Our liturgy is replete with the encouragement to both learn God’s will and do it.

May we be worthy in our prayer
And feel your presence everywhere
And may we answer when you call
  • Open my eyes, God. Help me to perceive what I have ignored, to uncover what I have forsaken, to find what I have been searching for. Remind me that I don't have to journey far to discover something new, for miracles surround me blessings and holiness abound. And you are near. Amen. Rabbi Naomi Levy
  • The purpose of prayer is to be brought to His attention, to be listened to, to be understood by Him; not to know Him, but to be known to Him. To pray is to behold life not only as a result of His power, but as a concern of His will, or to strive to make our life a divine concern. For the ultimate aspiration of man is not to be a master, but an object of His knowledge. To live "in the light of His countenance," to become a thought of God—this is the true career of man. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
  • Every time we return the Torah to the ark, we ask God to turn us to God’s presence: Hashiveinu Adonai eilecha v’nashuvah.
If our lives are to mean anything, we have to do our best to be on such terms with God that God calls to us - vayikra - and we answer. We must live a life of intention to learn God’s will ... and then to do it to the best of our ability.

And finally, Rabbi Wagensberg teaches: “When we use Torah to grow, we have the opportunity to elevate ourselves and become God-like. It was God who called to Moses, calling to him with love: "Come here! Come close! Grow toward Me!" May we all merit to hear our calling in life, and may our knowledge penetrate below the surface and make a difference in how we live our lives.”

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